I Am a Doctrinaire Extremist; S/he Is a Thoughtful Moderate

I recently had an email exchange with an educational thinker and leader who has spent several decades in the field.

After some back and forth, he dismissed my “tenacious belief in the centrality of memorization and retrieval” as ultimately missing the point of learning.

This summary struck me for a number of reasons:

First: it’s true (as far as it goes). I certainly do think that, under some circumstances, memorization can be helpful. And — supported by piles o’ research — I think that retrieval practice helps students form, consolidate, and transfer long-term memories.

Second: this summary implies that I’m in favor ONLY of memorization and retrieval practice. It suggests that I — like Dickens’s Gradgrind — want my students to know facts, facts, facts. (No doubt, someone is aching to use the verb “regurgitate” to capture my purported obsession with facts.)

Third: it further implies that I genuinely don’t care about the meaning behind the facts, my students’ interest in them, or the future usefullness or flexibility of them.

I am, simply put, a doctrinaire extremist.

Crowds surround a burning mansion at night

Because I see myself quite differently — heck, I recently wrote a book with the name “Goldilocks” in the title — I was taken aback by this rhetorical move.

I’ve been thinking about my new Gradgrind Status since receiving this email, and have arrived at a few tentative conclusions about the nature of educational debates.

We’re Mostly Moderates (?)

As implied above, I see myself as seeking out a reasonable middle ground in many educational debates

For instance, as I’ve written repeatedly, I think that working memory limitations suggest that novices will benefit from “high-structure” pedagogies more than from more “low-structure” pedagogies. (See this recent blog post for the difficulties in summarizing this  “high-vs-low” debate simply, fairly, and accurately.)

At the same time, as I’ve also emphasized, I think students’ increasing expertise should promote them from high- to low-structure pedagogies.

That is: the more my students know, the more they should be challenged with open-ended, creative, quest-like assignments that will help them consolidate, connect, and extend their knowledge. (If you know Adam Boxer’s book Teaching Secondary Science, you know he makes the same argument.)

Given these three paragraphs — so earnest in their moderation —  you can see why I’m puzzled (and amused) to see myself reduced to a pitchfork carrier.

At the same — and here I’m guessing — I suspect almost everyone in an educational debate believes they’ve struck up the most reasonable position: probably one in the middle of some continuum.

For instance: my interlocutor explicitly champions a stem-to-stern overhaul of the US educational system.

From his perspective, the system we currently have is so disastrously out of synch with the needs of human flourishing and the genuine truths behind human cognitive and emotional functioning that its wholesale replacement is the only logical option.

That is: although “stem-to-stern overhaul” might sound radical, it is — in fact — an entirely moderate and sensible position given the extremity of the crisis we face.

Just as I think I’m a sensible moderate, he (I suspect) thinks his position is sensible and moderate-given-the-dreadful-circumstances.

We’re all moderates here.

We Are Moderates, but Extremes Exist

When someone accuses me of being a “high-structure extremist,” I have an easy rejoinder at hand: “oh, come on; NO ONE believes any such thing.”

As in: NO ONE follows the Gradgrind method and stuffs students with (facts)3.

In an early draft of that Goldilocks book I was just talking about, I made that very argument. I found a study that contrasts two teaching methods.

Method A: to understand what functions bones serve, students test chicken-bone strength by using vinegar to remove calcium from them.

Method B: students copy down the names of 206 bones from the chalkboard.

I argued — in this early draft — that “no one in the history of the planet has asked students to copy down the names of 206 bones. That’s an absurd straw man.”

A colleague who read this draft took me aside one day and assured me that — sure enough — some schools do exactly that. She, in fact, had taught at such a school.

Now, I’m probably right that no cognitive science research supports this method. But I do have to admit that some people distort cognitive science research to champion this method.

My approach is moderate, but extreme versions of my moderation do exist. In other words: my interlocutor is wrong about me (I think), but not entirely wrong about the world of education.

The Double Flip

This insight, in turn, invites two more aha! moments.

When I worry about the dangers of “low-structure” pedagogy, I might be tempted to highlight examples where teachers throw students overboard into a stormy ocean of cognitive stuff — and ask them to swim to shore. (“In your groups, figure out how to cure rabies …”)

Folks who champion low-structure pedagogies have a handy rejoineder: “NO ONE could misunderstand us to be in favor of such nonsense. That’s an absurd straw man extreme; I’m a sensible moderate.”

And — here’s the first aha! — I suspect low-structure advocates are entirely sincere in this claim. They see this approach as a moderate one, and I’m yoking them to an extreme version of it.

That rhetorical move is as unfair as is my interlocutor’s attempt to make me into Gradgrind.

And yet — here’s the second aha! — those extreme examples do exist; just as extreme versions of direct instruction do.

This tangle of circumstances leads to (at least) two prohibitions:

Low-structure proponents should not say: “those extreme versions of our pedagogy don’t exist!”

Why not? Because they do.

And I should not say: “because those extremes exist, your pedagogy is obviously unsound!”

Why not? Because those extremes are — almost certainly — misunderstandings of their plausibly moderate position.

Honestly, all this moderation is making me a little dizzy.

The Gradgrind Perch

From my new Gradgrindian vantange point, I see two conclusions:

One: although I see myself as a reasonable moderate, others easily perceive me as an extremist — because extreme versions of my way of thinking do exist,


Two: although I occasionally see other approaches as extreme, it’s possible/likely that their most thoughtful advocated champion a moderate version of them.

At this point, I’ve maxed out on the even-handed moderation that I can muster. To recover my equilibrium, I’m going to write the names of 206 bones on a chalkboard…

category: L&B Blog

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