Too simple to fail: More time for teaching

A Maryland professor comes to a conclusion after researching education for three decades

December 12, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

The last time the world heard from R. Barker Bausell, he had emerged from his research chambers at the University of Maryland's Center for Integrative Medicine with an upsetting conclusion: Acupuncture, herbal remedies, megavitamin therapy and other unconventional treatments work no better than a placebo. "They can go on forever" conducting studies, said Mr. Bausell, who had devoted five years to researching the effectiveness of alternative medicine. "They'll eventually find some positive results by chance alone."

In 2007, Oxford University Press published Barker Bausell's "Snake Oil Science," a hard look at more than 300 studies that had been used to support alternative therapies and the multibillion-dollar industry it has become. Mr. Bausell, a biostatistician and senior research methodologist at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, concluded that a placebo effect accounted for most of the positive results reported by the zealous believers of alternative medicine.

Now Mr. Bausell has emerged with a book about his true intellectual passion — how we teach, how kids learn, and what would give us better results. His conclusions: Children need more focused instructional time and fewer distractions; teachers must be liberated from the inefficient classroom model, and classrooms must become fully computerized learning labs with instructional software customized for each child.

The school day and the school year could be longer, too, he says. From birth until age 18, American children spend only about 16 percent of all their potential instructional time in school, and a lot of that time is wasted every day in crowded classrooms across the country. If we want smarter kids, Mr. Bausell says, there's only one reform necessary, and it's reflected in the title of his book, "Too Simple To Fail."

"The only way to increase school learning," he writes, "is to increase the amount of relevant instructional time we provide our children."

Mr. Bausell is a gaunt, soft-spoken man whose deep-set eyes suggest someone who spends most of his waking hours reading and pondering. Born into a family of teachers in Virginia and originally trained as an educational researcher, Mr. Barker has been thinking about how we teach children for years. He's looked particularly hard at studies of tutoring compared to conventional classroom instruction, and his ideas about what would improve achievement for all children have simmered, he says, "like a low-grade irritant" in the back of his mind for three decades.

He's convinced that the traditional classroom is obsolete. What's needed is a new model — more tutors, more teaching labs, more "relevant instruction time."

The other day, when I interviewed Mr. Bausell on my radio program, he pointed to a November story in Education Week about a second-grade teacher in Baltimore County who had integrated dance into a science lesson. "Small groups of pupils in this class at Fort Garrison Elementary School brainstormed to come up with dance movements to convey elements of photosynthesis, including water, sunlight, carbon dioxide and chlorophyll," the story reported. "They leaned, they reached, they flowed. … The idea of integrating the arts, including dance, into the broader curriculum is not new, but it appears to be gaining a stronger foothold in public schools…"

Mr. Bausell's response to this innovation?

"Ridiculous" — and not supported by research as effective, much like alternative medicine.

Once Mr. Bausell said that, in the context of his explanation of "relevant instruction time," the response from listeners of the program was strong and pointed. Defenders of the dance — and arts integration in education generally — called and wrote e-mails.

"I could imagine the professor having a very hard time teaching photosynthesis via dance," C. Ryan Patterson wrote. "But if a professional artist/instructor conducted such a creative lesson when [Mr. Bausell was] young, he might today be a more imaginative and creative adult."

Given what he has to say in the 214 footnoted pages of a book I have only briefly summarized here, there's a tendency to dismiss Barker Bausell as an old fogy with regressive ideas and uninformed opinions. But his conclusions are based on years of research, his own and that of others. His vision of the learning lab — with students touching computer screens as they follow computerized lessons, each of them learning at his or her own pace, and with tutors providing individualized instruction as necessary — suggests a more efficient model for learning, particularly for children already behind the curve, and real urgency about the future.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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