Friday, March 19, 2010

Throwing Diana Senechal "Under the Bus" #NEA #AFT #edtech #edchat


Today teachers across the United States were treated to a new issue of American Educator which seems to have some rather scathing looks at "21st Century" skills, student-centered learning, differentiated instruction, technology integration, active learning, & other school reform movements. Of particular note is an article titled "The Most Daring Education Reform of All" by Diana Senechal.

Senechal clearly has a bias for "traditional" models of curriculum & instruction and it is clear from her article that while she may possess some knowledge of the newer movements in education she obviously has little understanding of them. I am embarrassed that a union I belong to has included this article in their publications. It is regressive, presents no substantial ideas that move our profession along a path of improvement, and relies on many unsubstantiated claims and false statements as a foundation for her arguments. What follows are my notes:

"They partake in an American tradition without heeding history or tradition; they glorify the new because it is new, while disparaging the old because it is old."

-I don't think any reformer ever disparages the old for being old, it is always something about the old that they find fault with. This statement is unsubstantiated, misleading, & false.

"this leads to situations where teachers must use technology in class, whether or not it serves the lesson well." ¶3

-No, it often leads to this but this statement is a broad generalization. What it leads to is teachers reacting to the existence of the technology and the effect technologies have on aspects of the classroom including but not limited to curriculum, student behavior, cognition, and pedagogy.

"They forget that content is not simply dry matter; it has shape and meaning; it is the result of centuries of critical thought and the basis for future critical thought." ¶7

-The content she speaks of here that is "the result of centuries of critical thought" is also the result of centuries of bias. This content (and the pedagogy that has developed around it) highly favors and supports the concrete sequential learner and reinforces cultural and socioeconomic structures of white Western society. This system has largely oppressed everyone else and has often in our past been a deliberate tool of oppression.

"To neglect to teach our intellectual and cultural traditions is to limit the kind of thinking that students will be able to do throughout their lives." ¶7

-Adversely, to emphasize them is to reinforce the biases infused into these traditions. Also, who is she referring to by "our?" It is my understanding that different nonwestern cultures have intellectual and cultural traditions that can differ substantially. Does she include those traditions when she uses the word "our?"

"If teachers must ceaselessly change their curriculum to match what is happening in society (or, more narrowly, the workplace), neither they nor their students will have the opportunity to step back and reflect." ¶11

-I fail to see any truth in this argument. I have the ability to reflect on my own life as I live it, why can't a teacher reflect on their curriculum as they modify it. Curriculum is not static, it is dynamic and ought to be consistently modified. If a major game-changing discovery is made in the field of science should we ignore it or alter our curriculum according to the new findings? Adopting the relationship with curriculum this author advocates results in equating curriculum with textbooks. The result of which is everyone ends up learning curriculum written for Texas placating to Texas ideals and political sensibilities.

"For students to engage in inquiry, they must have a strong foundation of knowledge." ¶17
-My 2 & 4 year old daughters are very inquisitive, it is how they learn. They engage in inquiry every day (almost all day). It is through this inquiry that they gain knowledge and understanding.

"But true engagement is not entertainment; it is involvement, which my be invisible at times." ¶19
-Isn't this what 21st Century pedagogy is all about? What is she criticizing here?

"Or they reach a point where they cannot take their peers any more and beak into fights." ¶20
-Let me get this straight, active learning leads students into conflict with each other while traditional classrooms don't? This statement is so far from being rational it is almost laughable. Traditional "sit and get" classrooms limit the teacher's ability to build relationships with students which leads to worse classroom behavior. In a learner-centered classroom classroom management is far easier because there is built into the instruction community building as an integral component. Statements like this are almost laughable and do not deserve serious consideration and should by no means have ever appeared in a respectable teacher journal.

"Deeper engagement is sacrificed for a more trivial kind, and quiet, independent thought has little place."

-Again, where is she getting this view of learner-centered classrooms? This seems more true of "traditional" classrooms than "21st century" ones.

I stopped reading here, couldn't take any more of it......


Michael Walker said...

I did read all of it, and the last few paragraphs are the ones I have the most trouble with. Whether or not you question the motives behind the corporations that have endorsed P21, her arguments here assume that 21st Century skills and core content knowledge are diametrically opposed to each other. That it's an either or proposition.
I believe that the point of P21 is for students to use the tools for collaboration and communication around them to demonstrate knowledge, analysis and application and construct new meaning. Based on her flawed logic, students today should be using slate tablets. I'll post more later.

Mrs. Tenkely said...

Well crafted responses Carl. I wonder, has she ever actually been in a classroom with students? Clearly the traditional model fit her way of learning to a T but does she understand that she is the minority? It doesn't look like she has a clear understanding of what she is arguing against. To have a thoughtful discussion about something, one must understand both sides of the coin. She doesn't strike me as someone who has any idea what the other side of the coin looks like.

albatross said...

I read the entire article, and it doesn't seem she is opposing 21st century skills to core content. She is saying that the skills take on meaning in the context of deep and focused study. At least that was one of the points that came through to me loud and clear. As a teacher I couldn't agree more.

I don't think she's calling for a return to slate tablets or anything close. She is saying that traditional approaches have much to offer us, not that we should return to the past.

Carl Anderson said...


If that were all she said I would have been fine with it. However, read the quotes I pulled from the article. She clearly is biased toward maintaining a status-quo style of learning environment. None of her claims from the article that speak out against 21st Century Skills (or other reforms) are based in actual experience, they are based on unsubstantiated claims and what quite frankly look like made-up stories. Her prescription of what kids need to learn is clearly rooted in a monolithic view of cognition, one that favors concrete-sequential white western people. Consequently, this history and tradition is why the majority of teachers also fit this profile and why she is likely to get a fairly large number of union members agreeing with her assessment. Why aren't more people angry about this?

Jill Conner said...

Diana's article brings up a very interesting discussion - something that I've been experiencing in a far different way as a teacher of writing at the New School: basically the incredible lack of any essay writing skills that high school students graduate with, as well as the incredible lack of being able to research (like knowing where to begin an idea) and the inability to organize an essay's main argument at the end of an introduction. I went to a private high school and was unaware of what was taught and not taught in public schools, but the lack of skills that I have seen students have - or should I say the "drop off" - is astounding and very very sad. Most of them do not even know how to write legibly by hand, and I understand that cursive was recently pulled from public school curricula. As a teacher of college freshmen and a freelance art critic who publishes consistently, more definitely has to be done at the high school level and I think a return back to those times when children were taken to libraries in the 5th or 6th grades, encouraged to find a subject to research for an hour and then hand-write a one-page essay is necessary. Additional research and writing projects need to be woven into the subsequent grades so that by the time they graduate, they will know how to write. At this point, I'm wondering how exactly they went about filling out their college applications, and who wrote the statement of purpose?

Ludwik Kowalski said...

Let me react to this statement: "-My 2 & 4 year old daughters are very inquisitive, it is how they learn. They engage in inquiry every day (almost all day). It is through this inquiry that they gain knowledge and understanding."

How can one disagree with the value of inquisitive learning? But it is usually very slow. Traditional methods of guided instruction were developed to teach more in less time. What is needed is a mixture of two approaches. How much of each? It depends on the discipline.

Ludwik Kowalski
whose new book–”Tyranny to Freedom: Diary of a Former Stalinist” is now available at

www [dot] amazon [dot] com

Comments will be appreciated, either at the above website or in private. Thank you in advance.

Carl Anderson said...


I can't argue with your call to teach students better research skills. My mantra is, "research, create, publish, reflect, repeat." Also, the quality of education, the curriculum, and the diversity of pedagogy is diverse among public schools. Many public schools do a great job of teaching students these skills and others do not. On this point I think we can all agree and it is a point of Senechal's I also agree with. However, what she calls for is an abandonment of non-instructionalist methods and a clear separation of technology from the rest of the curriculum as it's own subject. Seems to me in the information age technology integration into research skills is a must. To teach academic research today and not include the technology skills necessary to do so would be downright negligent on the part of the educator and the school. As for cursive, that is another debate entirely. There are lots of dead or dying forms of communication that are not taught in schools. One has to weigh the value.


I agree that a blended approach is what is needed. I am not calling for a purely constructivist approach for all students. It does seem as though Senechal is calling for a more instructionalist approach though. Only once does she mention the use of projects and only in the last paragraph of her article. Nowhere else does anything resembling a blended approach appear. Also, while traditional methods were developed to speed the process it has been well documented that such approaches are not nearly as good for student understanding as constructivist approaches. The teacher has to weigh what they want students to know and what they want them to understand.

Gary Stager said...

I've only skimmed the article thus far, but the P21 movement IS a corporate lobbying effort devoid of powerful ideas. The banalities contained in their documents and those that parrot P21 do great injustice to the efforts many of us have made over the decades to make the world a better place for children.

The edtech world's obsession with information access is as dated an idea as the ones Senechal advocates.

All of that said, her views on education are distasteful and wrong-headed - hardly a first for the AFT :-)

albatross said...

One of the most important points I take from her article is the idea of a "union of opposing principles": that for students to collaborate, they need also to work alone so that they have something to bring to each other, and for students to engage in active learning, they need also to be still and think.

This is neither a glorification of traditional instruction nor a dismissal of concepts like critical thinking. She's saying: if we're going to encourage critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and so forth, let's do it well.

I teach in a district where we are not supposed to correct students beyond making vague suggestions. Kids are supposed to "peer-edit" each other's work when they can't write in the first place. Yes, ultimately students should find their voice, but they need to be able to form a coherent sentence or idea, or their voice will be garbled! And they need many examples of excellent writing to guide and inspire them.

Anonymous said...

Came to this one late. For your information, I just posted a similar set of complaints this morning, to which Senechal actually responded.