In Ontario, the answer appears to be yes. Parents of kids who can’t pass the Grade 10 literacy test are taking the government to court to force it to let the kids graduate anyway. Plenty of people in the education establishment are on their side. “There is no fallback for students who, through no fault of their own, are not successful on that one aspect of literacy,” says John Myers, an instructor with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. OISE, as it’s known, is the place that teaches teachers. It is the gold standard for colleges of education, and its influence extends across Canada.
What future teachers learn there might surprise you. It certainly surprised John Lambersky. Mr. Lambersky, 24, is halfway through OISE’s teacher-training course. A blazingly articulate young man with a masters degree in history, he is passionate about education and clearly very smart. Smart, however, is a no-no word at OISE, because it is elitist and out-of-date. “The progressive orthodoxy runs rampant here,” he says. “You’re not allowed to say that, unfortunately, not every kid is as bright as the next one. “
The hottest thing in education theory is something called “multiple intelligence,” which holds that every kid is smart in his or her own way if only you can find out what it is. Developed by a Harvard psychologist named Howard Gardner, the theory of multiple intelligences has taken its place alongside such concepts as critical-thinking skills and higher-order thinking as a cornerstone of enlightened education. It’s not hard to see why. In an egalitarian age, it is anti-elitist. And by redefining intelligence, it seems to topple the cruel tyranny of IQ. “It appeals to the benign belief that all our children must be good at something,” says Mr.
Lambersky. By the logic of multiple intelligences, the ability to read and write is just one kind of intelligence, no better and no worse than any other kind. “We’re taught that expressing yourself in ways other than reading and writing is equal to expressing yourself through the written word,” he says. “It’s a simple-minded postmodernism that says interpretive dance or role-playing are equivalent skills. ” It follows that standard literacy tests, like the one the kids are supposed to pass before they can graduate from high school, discriminate against the differently intelligenced, and are therefore of dubious legitimacy. We’ve got rid of tests,” says Mr. Lambersky. “Instead, we give kids ‘authentic performance tasks.
‘ We don’t give them essays to write. Instead we get them to make a poster. That lets them avoid having to write anything, and it supposedly captures the essence of some sort of authentic learning. ” So as not to turn off the kids, nothing should be too demanding or too hard. “The idea that a student has a responsibility to work to the best of her or his ability is totally absent. ” But that’s what much of school is like these days – a content-free zone where kids are encouraged to express themselves through journaling and play-acting.
In one school where Mr. Lambersky spent some time (a school, by the way, with an excellent reputation), he observed a series of classes on immigration at the turn of the last century. Instead of imparting some facts and historic context about the topic, the teacher got the class of 13-year-olds to act it out. “They were told to imagine what it was like. Of course they didn’t learn anything about the genuine immigrant experience, because they had invented most of the facts. They got extra marks for putting on Punjabi accents. ” OISE’s strange theories inspired Mr. Lambersky to do some critical thinking of his own.
He quickly found that the whole edifice of progressive education has been scathingly critiqued by leading scholars such as E. D. Hirsch (The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them ). But Mr. Hirsch is a non-person at OISE. Not surprisingly, Mr. Lambersky’s not too popular himself. “I’m incredibly left-wing politically,” he says. “But if you question these things you’re branded as a neoconservative. ” The most pernicious aspect of the multiple-intelligence theory is that it achieves the opposite of what it sets out to do: It discriminates against underprivileged kids.
Most middle-class kids will manage to pick up the knowledge they need, even if the schools don’t teach them. But poor kids may not have that chance. “The system actually reinforces existing social divisions,” he says. As for self-esteem, he thinks the best way to build it is through genuine accomplishment. “Imagine the self-esteem you’d give disadvantaged kids if they knew they could express themselves well with the written word. In my experience, the most empowering feeling is when they come to know something legitimately. “