Education viewed as Form and Content

Education has two basic components: Content and Form. All the rest is tinsel and trivia. Indeed, it often seems that irrelevant debates keep us from focusing on the obvious formula for success: teach important stuff; teach it well.

A poem, a movie, a book, anything creative, you can analyze in terms of its content and its form. What is said; and how it is said. 

I recently had the thought that education can be analyzed the same way. We can examine WHAT is taught; and HOW it is taught. Doesn’t that cover everything?

Our educational doldrums are quickly understood when we note that our Education Establishment has an almost perfect track record dismissing content, while simultaneously making sure that whatever little remains is poorly taught. In summary: less content further diminished by bad form. 

Then we instantly see a very simple truth. Do you wish to improve public schools? It’s easy. You simply reintroduce content. And you reintroduce serious teaching methods. It’s elementary, my dear Watson. Attend to form and content, and all will be healed.  

All of this needs saying because so much of the education debate spins and gyrates around big confusing issues that are not central. We have a forest fire but people insist on discussing the lousy weather. That’s not a luxury we have at this time. We must concentrate on putting out the fire. 


First, let’s consider content. More than 100 years ago John Dewey scorned what he called “mere learning.” Ever since that time, elite educators have found one pretext after another for removing content from the schools. The kids don’t need this content; our kids can’t handle that content.  

For years, Relevance was the favorite sophistry: content was dismissed because it wasn’t about a child’s own life. Then came Multiculturalism and content was dismissed because it was about a child’s life. When those excuses got tiresome, the educators turned to Self-Esteem, using the argument that academic demands made some children feel bad about themselves, and that must be avoided at all costs. Point, is, our educators are equal-opportunity sophists. When it comes to deleting content, there’s always a clever gimmick at hand. 

The elder statesman with regard to content is E. D. Hirsch. He’s written a book called "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know." Anybody who’s serious (for example, Bill Gates) about improving the schools could say: “Mr. Hirsch, could you please prepare a basic curriculum for us. We’ll call it the American Curriculum and it will be a starting point for all school systems. You’ve been writing about these things for so many years, I’m sure you can put something together from files on your computer.”  

(Hirsch, by the way, provided us with an anecdote that tells you everything you can stand to know about the assault on content in this country’s schools. He was explaining his ideas at a school in California when one of the administrators questioned him about what a child should learn in the first grade. “I think they should know the names of the oceans,” he said. A perfect answer, I would think. But this silly educator objected: “I can’t imagine why our children would need to know that.” And there you have the whole dumb diorama. No matter what little scrap of information you might think a child should know, the people in charge of the schools would say, genuinely puzzled, “Why would a child need to know that?” And finally you’re reduced to saying, “Well, surely it’s all right to teach them their names...Isn’t it??”) 


Now let’s turn to Form or Structure. How do you arrange the parts and pieces of a sales pitch, a presentation, a symphony, a fireworks display, or a course? 

Clearly, there must be optimal ways to present information to an audience. I call this the ergonomic dimension. That’s the Greek word for efficiency. 

When the subject is instructional methods, the elder statesman there is Siegfried Engelmann, one of our great educators. He has made the brilliant point that if kids are not learning it’s not their fault and it’s probably not the teacher’s fault. It is the school’s fault or the system’s fault, because the school has adopted bad methods. 

Typically, public schools embrace an array of foolish methods, such as Constructivism, Cooperative Learning, Discovery Method, etc. What they all have in common is they don’t work as promised. Engelmann points out the obvious: if kids aren’t learning, keep firing administrators until you find people with enough sense to use methods that do work. Meanwhile, don’t abuse the kids and don’t send notes to the parents abusing them. The real problem is that the school has not chosen well-designed instructional materials. 


QED: If we combine what Hirsch has been teaching for 40 years and what Engelmann has been teaching for 40 years, presto, there is our answer: proper Content married to proper Form.  

Not to mention, I trust any sentence from these two guys before I’d believe any book coming out of Teachers College. The Education Establishment seems to be staffed by hacks recycling the same old bad ideas. It’s not reasonable to expect that they would now say anything useful. So let’s do what Hirsch and Engelmann suggest.  

By the way, if you put the content back in, and you organize it in an intelligent way, what will you end up with? Would it be something exotic, something from the remote future? No, it will be exactly what all good schools through the ages have done, and what the real-world schools do now. I’m thinking about driving school, bartender school, flying school, cooking school, any school that is actually trying to teach a body of information to its students. Which is precisely the part that our public schools seem determined to ignore.

The Education Establishment used to brag about doing a bad job with this bizarre claim: “We don’t teach history. We teach children.” That was the problem. The common name for this approach is dumbing-down.