Why I Like Robert Pondiscio’s Book (and Why “Main Idea” Is Duke, Not King)

how the other half learnsAfter reading many reviews and summaries of Robert Pondiscio’s outstanding book, How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice, I worried that I already knew too much of the gist and wouldn’t have much left to enjoy or think about. The worry was unfounded. I read it this weekend in several sittings, unable to stop for long. I was drawn into the descriptions, the characters, the daily life of Bronx 1 classrooms, the pedagogical and curricular details, and Pondiscio’s subtle, surprising observations along the way. That very experience–of enjoying the content of the book–points to what I see as its main blind spot. In the book itself, the “Main Idea” is not king–so I am wary of pedagogical approaches that insist that yes, it is.

Granted, I am writing from a high school and college perspective, as I usually do. Elementary school and high school differ profoundly; when people do not acknowledge this, they often end up talking past each other. Some of the greatest misunderstandings in education discussion come from failures to specify what we are talking about. Pondiscio’s book comes to life, and to meaning, through its specificity. He is talking about elementary school–and not elementary school in general, but elementary school for very poor kids whose parents are determined to give them a foothold. Elementary school is where students should be learning certain basics–and the “main idea” is surely one of them.

The refrain “Main Idea is king” rings throughout the book. It’s what the teachers tell the students over and over, and exemplify in their classrooms, at Bronx 1 Elementary School, which Pondiscio visited for a year. Bronx 1 belongs to the Success Academy, a network of charter schools, founded by Eva Moskowitz, that has won both fame for its test score success and rebuke for perceived creaming and overhype. Pondiscio argues that the Success Academy schools don’t cream students; they cream parents. Is this fair? It depends on how you look at it. But for now, back to the Main Idea.

Revering the main idea will help you, up to a point, with reading comprehension. (For instance, if there is a main idea in a text, and if you can identify it, you can then figure out how the different parts of the text support it.) Such regal treatment will also help you with ELA standardized tests, which almost always include questions about the main idea. It will not help you with the kind of discussion that you find at private high schools and in college. In many texts (Pondiscio’s book included), the main idea is only the foundation, if even that; the really interesting stuff is to be found in the subordinate clauses, the observations, the connections, the hesitations, the contradictions. This is especially true with poetry and fiction, but it applies to nonfiction as well.

The main idea of How the Other Half Learns might run as follows: “While controversial in its approaches to admissions, instruction, and discipline, and perhaps impossible to scale, the Success Academy charter schools bring their students to academic success–in terms of test scores, college admissions, and more–and therefore deserve recognition and support.” I don’t need to read a whole book to get that point–but the book did much more than argue it. I was drawn into the description of specific lessons, walkthroughs, leaders’ and teachers’ meetings, hallway activity, Pondiscio’s meetings with families, and characters so vivid that I saw and heard them in my mind.

The Success Academy’s emphasis on the main idea–and other concepts important to the standardized tests–goes hand in hand, I think, with its avoidance of “teacher talk.” For if students are supposed to be doing most of the work, and teachers are to limit their talking, then students must have specific, recognizable tasks to perform.

Third-grade teacher Steven Madan has the children continually involved in tasks, continually (in Pondiscio’s words) “engaged and on their toes.” From p. 46:

“The best learning we get in the classroom comes from other scholars, because we learn from each other,” Madan tells his students, a notion that Success drills into teachers during the network’s summer Teacher School, or T School. The feedback new staffers hear most often is “too much teacher talk.” The standard remedy is to “put the lift on the scholars”: Don’t do the work for the kids. Don’t be afraid to let them struggle. That’s how they learn.

I have heard this many times before, in public schools: that if the teacher talks, she is “doing the work” for the kids. This does not have to be so. Students should have opportunities to work out some problems and puzzles on their own. But listening to the teacher is a demanding challenge in its own right: you must focus closely, figuring out what makes sense to you and what does not, formulating questions, and finding words for disagreements, hesitations, or extensions.

Yes, I am thinking in terms of high school and college, but elementary school students can do this too, and if they can’t, they should begin learning it gradually. This does not mean that teachers should talk all the time, talk needlessly, or strain their students’ attention beyond what they can handle. But “teacher talk” should not be deplored; not only does it have an important place in lessons, but students unused to it will have great difficulty later, not only in lectures, but also in seminars, where they also need to sustain their listening and deal with complex ideas.

I will come back to the “Main Idea” shortly–but want to comment on the “Math Lesson” chapter, if too briefly. Pondiscio states that the teacher’s (Kerri Lynch’s) math lesson, “with its push to get students, not teachers, to do the thinking, and its almost complete lack of direct instruction, bears the hallmark of Success Academy’s approach and a focus–nearly an obsession–of its teacher training” (p. 142). The actual lesson is lively and productive; students figure out, among other things, that 7/8 is greater than 3/4, and arrive at a clear explanation. But what happens with a student who understands, right off the bat, that this is so, and can explain why? What challenge is left? One way to challenge such a student–and others as well–is for the teacher to present an extended solution to a problem, ask the students to pay close attention to it, and then question them to see whether they understand it, can explain it, and can take it in new directions.

For instance, in a geometry class, you might ask students how they would bisect a segment, without using any numerical measurements. They may use the length of the segment itself and the lengths and angles on a right-triangle ruler. But they may not actually measure the lengths and angles.

If they can’t figure it out, give them a helping start: Create an isosceles triangle with the segment as the base. From there they can probably figure out that all they need to do is drop a line from the vertex opposite the base down to the base, at a perpendicular to the base. If they can’t, there are ways to offer hints without giving the solution away. When they finally get it, have a student explain it from start to finish; if he or she gets stuck, others may help out.

Once they have explained it, ask: So, how do you trisect a segment, using the same tools? Let them puzzle over it for homework, part of homework, or extra credit; welcome them to work on it together if they wish. The next day, see who has figured it out; if someone has, ask for a presentation, and ask questions along the way about the steps. If no one has figured it out, give a helping start again, and see whether they can take it from there.

This example still has the students doing the majority of the work–but it is possible for the teacher to present something without turning the lesson into a sequence of procedures or robbing the students of insight. To the contrary: they must learn how to make sense of what they see on the board–not only make sense of it, but take it farther.

Or take poetry. So many poems have been ruined by lessons that insisted on a main idea or relied entirely on student discovery. What do you do with Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening“? On the surface, the poem is about taking a few minutes of quiet–but in each stanza, the quiet is subtly disturbed. Even the title, “Stopping by Woods…” suggests a temporary stopping, not a permanent one. You do not have to summarize all of this in a single statement; you can instead look at and listen to the different pulls in the poem.

I have no way of knowing, but I suspect that the Success Academy high school’s initial difficulties had to do with the elementary and middle schools’ extreme focus on reading strategies and their stance against “teacher talk.” (Pondiscio states bluntly, when describing the high school’s beginnings, that it was “a disaster.”) Students’ difficulties with seminar may have stemmed, in part, from not knowing how to listen to others at length or how to explore a text or topic on its own terms. This might not have been a matter of classroom discipline alone. It might have had to do with intellectual practices.

This does not mean that teachers should abandon group work or paired discussion (I include both in my lessons). But there is a case for teaching something directly to the students. First, they may not know it; second, it can give them some ideas of how to think about the topic; and third, it can open up discussion at a higher level than would otherwise be possible. The main idea comes up in such instruction and discussion, but it is rarely the goal.  Rather, teacher and students focus on the text’s motion, details, digressions, and uncertainties. The students come to see more than they saw before. The main idea still matters, but it does not merit a crown. Let it be duke.

Pondiscio’s book demonstrates this unwittingly. It is a bracing pleasure; it raises memories, ideas, questions. It holds much more than a main idea. What’s more, it comes from an author with experience, insight, and a gift for writing. It could not have been achieved through turn-and-talk alone.

Note: Robert Pondiscio is a good acquaintance/friend (whom I have not seen in person for some time). I have been reading and enjoying his writing for years–and contributed many guest posts to the Core Knowledge Blog when he was its editor and lead author. 

Also, after posting this piece I realized I should refer to him, after first mention, by his last name rather than his first–since this is a review, not an informal comment–so I made the change.

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2 Comments

  1. Debbie Meyer

     /  January 5, 2020

    My son went from K-4 in progressive public school. He learned tremendous content but skills were a weak by product. He learned how to think. He’s dyslexic and didn’t learn how to read or write. 5-8, he went to a specialized dyslexia school with direct instruction. He learned skills but content was a weak by-product. Now he is at a public early college liberal arts high school that is seminar style for humanities classes. He is applying the skills from both now, and doing well.

    Reply
  1. How the Other Half Learns: Not a “So What” Experience | Take Away the Takeaway

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