Too Much Groupthink in Public Education

April 9, 2021 Updated: April 12, 2021

Commentary

“I live in a rather special world. I know only one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know.”

So said liberal film critic Pauline Kael after Richard Nixon won the 1972 American presidential election. To her surprise, it wasn’t a close result. Nixon won 49 out of 50 states and took more than 60 percent of the popular vote. Needless to say, the results would have been quite different if the election was up to Kael and her liberal friends.

What Kael implicitly acknowledged in her comment about the 1972 election was that she had surrounded herself by likeminded people. This naturally leads to groupthink, a psychological phenomenon whereby everyone in a group of people begins to think the same way on every issue. The desire for conformity becomes so great that it becomes distinctly uncomfortable to challenge each other’s opinions.

Groupthink is particularly prevalent among working professionals who have received the same university education. We have a natural affinity with people in the same profession, particularly if it sets us apart from the general public. The last thing we want to do is create a rift between us and our colleagues and friends.

This is why the K–12 education system is particularly susceptible to groupthink. As part of their training, all teachers, principals, curriculum consultants, and superintendents attend a faculty of education where they are most often immersed in progressive education philosophy.

This philosophy is generally referred to as child-centred education. It stresses that learning should be as “natural” as possible and that children should direct their own learning. One of the most common sayings in education faculties is that a teacher should be a “guide on the side” and not a “sage on the stage.”

Unsurprisingly, advocates of this approach endorse project-based and inquiry learning. They prefer interdisciplinary projects to subject-specific courses. In addition, progressive educators believe that it is more important for schools to focus on transferable skills such as critical thinking and collaboration than on specific content knowledge. Often this is packaged as equipping students with much-needed “21st-century skills.”

However, there is actually nothing new about this progressive education philosophy. It was espoused by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century and popularized by Columbia University’s Teachers College education professor William Heard Kilpatrick in the early 2oth century. During his long career, Kilpatrick influenced thousands of educators, many of whom became education professors who pushed this progressive philosophy onto their students, who in turn implemented this approach in their classrooms.

Today, we can see the influence of this philosophy throughout North America. School board mission statements boast of being child-centred, superintendents and principals sing the praises of inquiry learning, and education professors encourage future teachers to become even more progressive. It’s the perfect recipe for groupthink.

We see this groupthink in the education establishment’s overwrought response to the draft K–6 curriculum in Alberta. Education professors, curriculum consultants, and many K–12 classroom teachers have slammed the new curriculum as “developmentally inappropriate.” They think the draft curriculum, particularly the social studies section, puts too much focus on content and too little focus on generic skills such as critical thinking.

Not only are opponents of the curriculum writing newspaper op-eds, organizing petitions, and giving media interviews, they have also taken to social media to vent their frustration. Education professors are using platforms such as Twitter to spread the message that this curriculum would set Alberta students back decades and make that province a laughingstock to the rest of the world.

However, while these curriculum opponents are busy congratulating themselves for being on the right side of history, they are ignoring some obvious facts. For example, research is clear that there is a direct causal relationship between background knowledge and reading comprehension. A recent review of the literature published in the latest edition of Reading Psychology found that the systematic and sequential teaching of background knowledge significantly improves reading comprehension for students.

Thus, the fact that the new Alberta curriculum takes a knowledge-rich approach could help all students become better readers. Sadly, the groupthink in education circles means that this important point is likely to be missed in the discussion and debate. It’s unfortunate that dogmatic adherence to a particular ideology could get in the way of much-needed curriculum reform.

Like for Pauline Kael in 1972, the education establishment has become its own echo chamber. Groupthink needs to be challenged. New ideas should be welcomed, not dismissed.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.