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Customer Review

53 of 66 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The baby and the bathwater - 3.5 stars, November 12, 2012
This review is from: One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student's Assessment of School (Paperback)
Nikhil Goyal wants to scrap the entire educational system as we know it and rebuild it from scratch. Enough with boring old textbooks taught in stuffy old classrooms by windy old teachers. The world should constitute the classroom and students should be free to learn without constraints in their own way and time. Information is readily available online, so there's no need to carry around 10 pound textbooks. Teachers are not the ultimate experts in their fields, and with electronic communication readily available, students have direct access to the experts. Teachers should step aside into a guiding/facilitating role. "Innovative disruption" can turn the practice of education on its head.

Ah, to be seventeen and know more than your elders! I remember those days. I too wanted to change everything in the world that those near-sighted, misguided or just plain stupid adults had screwed up. It's funny though how much smarter my elders got once I graduated and began facing the real world. And, remarkably, the older I get - and the deeper into the real world - the smarter they continue to get.

I suppose I should back up a bit. It's not exactly that I think Goyal is wrong. I am a 42-year-old mother of two young daughters and I'm quite progressive for an old woman. My older daughter is just starting out in a progressive school (her sister will join her in two years) that practices much of what Goyal preaches. The school utilizes very hands-on, project-based, student-centered, collaborative learning methods. Play and exploration are heavily emphasized. The students themselves have a powerful voice in even basic matters of curriculum, and they are encouraged to use that voice to develop a healthy, vibrant, democratic community of learners. So you see, Goyal and I have much to agree on.

But in the exuberance of youth, I believe that Goyal goes too far in his efforts to sweep away education as it exists. There are many reasons why formal education has evolved the way it has, and not all of those reasons have to do with churning out students as work products for an industrial age. There is a place for formal schooling, and whether kids like it or not, the basics - even the boring stuff - needs to be learned.

Goyal is fond of quoting John Dewey, but even Dewey didn't envision education as quite the free-for-all that Goyal does (a common misperception, by the way). Dewey defines knowledge as the collection of all past experience. It's great to let kids explore and experiment, develop their own problems and work out their own solutions. But at some point, students need to learn existing knowledge - it would take too long for every kid to rediscover, say, all the laws of physics the way they were originally discovered over the course of thousands of years.

Knowledge can be transmitted through books or through explanation by experts, or at least knowledgeable people. Textbooks, while not always the best learning vehicles, are systematically organized in ways to present the fundamentals of what is known about a particular subject matter so that students have the grounding to pursue further study from there. In the case of knowledgeable people, first of all, the top experts are not always available, being as they tend to be busy actually doing the things that experts do. That's why we have teachers. Also, lectures are the most efficient vehicles for the transmission of information to large numbers of people. I don't know about you, but if I'm taking a knowledge based course such as physics or chemistry, I would be annoyed if the teacher or professor divided the class into groups to do project-based presentations. I'm paying for access to the teacher's knowledge and expertise, not the opportunity to learn from people who don't know any more than I do. Finally, while the internet is indeed a great source of information, it is also a great source of misinformation. Students need careful guidance and training to learn how to sift out the credible information from the vast mines of information available. For all these reasons, students needs to be prepared to learn how to learn from a variety of sources, including boring old textbooks, lectures and repetitive exercises.

Goyal makes a number of sweeping statements and generalizations. He claims he "hates" school. He's never learned anything useful in school. School has been non-stop boredom, which has "crushed" his enthusiasm for learning. Furthermore, university level schools of education are largely at fault for this state of affairs because most of what they teach aspiring teachers is "crap".

The surprising thing is that Goyal attended high school in the affluent town of Syosset, New York (and moving there was, according to him, his idea - Goyal apparently had a much stronger voice in his family than I ever had in mine). I find it rather hard to believe that not one teacher in affluent Syosset uses any student-centered, project-based, experiential learning methods. And I find it hard to believe that a young man who wrote his own book has been "crushed" educationally. I think he doth protest - or at least exaggerate - too much.

I also found the book to be a bit thin and shallow, if broad. Goyal leaps from topic to topic and does not delve too deeply into any one of them. Also, much of his text is quotes from like-minded people and some pithy sayings and clichés. It would have been nice to see some more in depth analysis of what Goyal's reforms would mean and how they would play out.

With all of that said, there is much to agree with in Goyal's work. We need smaller class sizes. Teachers need the opportunity to get to know their students as individuals and the freedom to teach in individualized ways. We need to end, or at least greatly reduce, standardized testing and other "competitive" forms of learning in favor of collaborative, project-based and cross-disciplinary learning. Teachers should certainly never be evaluated on the basis of their students' test scores. Every child deserves the kind of education that Sasha and Malia Obama are getting at Sidwell Friends School.

But all of that can happen within the traditional public school system while retaining elements of that system which are effective. We don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we just have to shift the paradigm from education being about producing productive workers to education being about producing responsible citizens of a truly democratic nation. From such a view, a certain amount of conformity and uniformity of information and presentation is necessary. As fellow citizens, we need to have a common understanding of the core goals of our government and society, we need to hold certain ideals in common and we need to learn to respect each other rand learn to work together to accomplish those goals and ideals. There is still plenty of room within that framework for developing and promoting individuality and innovation.

As a final note, which I hope will be taken as gently chiding and perhaps even humorous, I really must suggest that Goyal have his work thoroughly copy edited. In addition to some grammatical and usage issues, Goyal often amusingly selects words that don't mean quite what he might think they do. My favorite was when he described young children getting "skirmish" during standardized testing. Perhaps standardized testing will come down to a skirmish some day (if not an outright war), but for now I believe "skittish" will do.

Please note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Tracked by 2 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 19 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 23, 2013 8:26:27 AM PST
Ray Gulick says:
This review is typical of the kind of dismissive, protect-the-status-quo approach that has brought American education to its current low state. The reviewer may think it's an honest review, but it's clearly meant to be dismissive, with only a polite nod toward some of Nikhil's more conventional observations.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 23, 2013 8:41:51 AM PST
Dienne says:
I'd like to point out that you have a misspelling in the title of your review of Nikhil's. I don't normally pick on things like that, but it's kind of indicative of what I'm talking about. There are reasons for paying attention to boring things like grammar and spelling. There are reasons besides "The Man" why schools are the way they are.

As I said in my review, which you, BTW, are awfully quick to dismiss, I am not at all in favor of the "status quo" as one lump thing. Nikhil is quite right that standardized testing has got to go. He's also right that we need to consider more innovative and student-centered approaches to education. I'm not lying about the fact that my daughter attends a progressive school which implements much of what Nikhil advocates.

All I'm saying, which I think I've already said quite well, is that Nikhil wants to throw the baby out with the bathwater. His approach to education would work well for affluent kids like himself who have parents who can drive them around wherever they need to go and supervise their educational goals and progress. But most kids have parents who work full time and can't provide the kind of attention Nikhil's ideas would require. Yes, we should try to provide some of those experiences to all kids, regardless of affluence, but the idea that every kid can design his or her education from the ground up is wishful thinking at best. Whether they like it or not, there are certain core bodies of knowledge that students need to study and there needs to be at least some uniformity in curriculum so that we have some basis on which to build a common culture and shared understanding of communal life.

Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting. I'll refrain from giving you an unhelpful vote on your review.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 23, 2013 8:47:30 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 23, 2013 9:16:30 AM PST
Ray Gulick says:
Actually, you DO normally pick on things like that. It's part of your dismissive approach, and many are swayed by it. But some of us can look past that and find the real meaning and nuggets of truth.

If you were to read the book more carefully, without dismissive predilection, you would find that "throwing the baby out with the bath water" (and what a tired phrase that is), is not what Nikhil advocates. He very much advocates saving the baby.

In fact, "baby/bathwater" is code for "don't take this book seriously." So the title of your review does the damage whether or not anyone bothers to read the entire review. And taking this book seriously would be a very good step toward real educational reform.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 23, 2013 9:02:35 AM PST
Dienne says:
How would you know what I "normally" do? And what would you know of my "dismissive approach"? Have you read all 356 of my reviews? Have you followed all my comments around here and elsewhere on the web? Should I be frightened? Or should you perhaps just admit that you don't know me and you don't know what I "normally" do.

If, as you claim, Nikhil does advocate "saving the baby", could you elaborate on how exactly he plans to do that? I read the book quite carefully, and basically his book is a tear-down-the-walls type of polemic against everything about education as it currently stands. If there's something he's advocating saving, I'd be interested to hear about it.

Here's the thing, I was asked by Nikhil to do a review of his book. I responded that I was willing, but that he should take a look at my other reviews because I review honestly, even if that means negatively (or just not completely positively). Nikhil gamely accepted the bargain and I read and reviewed the book in good faith. My reaction was more positive than negative, which is why it gets a 3.5 star rating. I'm sorry if you disagree, but it is not a five or even quite a four star book. You obviously do disagree, which is why you wrote your own review, which is certainly your right. I could just as easily question your integrity by claiming that you are just a yes-man fan-boy, but I assume instead that you gave your rating and your review in good faith. I would appreciate if you would assume the same of me, as it's usually not good form to start by questioning someone's integrity.

In any case, it's been lovely, but good day.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 23, 2013 9:09:35 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 23, 2013 9:24:38 AM PST
Ray Gulick says:
Don't have to read all 356 reviews: 5-6 provide a clear picture. And yes, I am dismissive of your overly verbose review which completely misses important points, primarily because it seems to have more influence than it deserves.

I will leave the paranoid, ad-hominem attacks unaddressed (but not unacknowledged), and just say this: your review misses the point (many points, actually), and lends support to the inertia that prevents real education reform.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 18, 2013 12:50:32 AM PDT
Mark Aveyard says:
My my Ray Gulick, you have a serious reading comprehension problem, as well as significant emotional control issues. You are the sort of person who should not have an influence over children in any way. Dienne's review was balanced and thoughtful. When you remove your transmission from your tailpipe, Ray, you can join the adults again.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 18, 2013 6:16:11 AM PDT
Ray Gulick says:
Mark Aveyard, perhaps you could read the book and come back and add some insightful critique of it, rather than an ad hominem attack? Perhaps even start your own thread putting forth any ideas that might result from a careful reading?
To the single point you made about Dienne's review: Lots of words don't equal "thoughtful." And far from balanced, it was a dismissive hatchet job.

Posted on Apr 2, 2013 12:42:50 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 2, 2013 12:43:36 AM PDT
L. Milton says:
I agree with a lot of this, but disagree with much, as well. Yes, our elders were right about some things, but they were wrong about even more. As a current "elder" (and former teacher), I shudder to think about all the things I have been and am wrong about!

You make some assumptions about the author, including your skepticism that schools have crushed his enthusiasm for learning, simply because he was able to write a book about what's wrong with education in the U.S.. There are lots of folks who absolutely hate(d) school, but who are intellectually inclined, regardless. This is a common occurrence. I recommend checking out Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture

Beyond that, is the author actually saying there should be no textbooks and no lectures, as you imply? Or is he suggesting that kids who don't learn best in those ways should be free to choose other methods?

There will always be kids who need more guidance than others, and there are kids who enjoy the current paradigm and shouldn't be forced to abandon it. But I don't think there is a reasonable way to defend the idea that we can ever create "a common understanding of the core goals of our government and society" (it's never been done, and never will be done) or "produce responsible citizens of a truly democratic nation" (another impossibility, as there will always be large numbers of people uninterested in subjective notions of responsibility and politics; also as we live in a Republic because "true democracy" means fewer rights for minorities of every kind).

Not only are these goals impossible, but in order to pursue them, you have to return to the failed notion of treating everyone as if they have the same interests in life. You have to abandon the idea of an individualized educational experience. That doesn't mean a teacher can't help resolve conflicts or frequently inspire kids, but once we decide that the schools are going to teach kids which ideals are to be held and which goals we should all work toward, then we immediately, as we have in the past, decrease our ability to effectively teach kids how to read, write, and do math in the ways which work best for them.

Like I said, we should make available the parts of the current paradigm that work for the kids with personalities which work well with that paradigm. And we should be ready to give extra guidance and support to the kids without that support at home. But the attempt to force kids, through "uniformity," to study thoroughly subjective and arbitrary concepts like "common ideals" and what makes "responsible citizens" is a big part why schools fail so many kids today. The teachers who inspire kids to think about things like that aren't working with a lesson plan, and they probably wouldn't be as inspiring if they were.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 2, 2013 3:51:24 AM PDT
Dienne says:
That Goyal's enthusiasm for learning has not been "crushed" is self-evident. His enthusiasm for school, yes, but he has clearly learned to make the separation between school and learning and still clearly enjoys the latter.

As far as teaching democracy, it may not be fully possible, but we need to try. From an early age children need to be engaged in discussions of what it means to be part of a community or society, what the rights, privileges and responsibilities thereof are, how the community/society goes about making collective decisions, how can each member have a voice in those decisions, what to do about people who disagree with the decision, etc. In a democratic republic, being "uninterested in subjective notions of responsibility and politics" is irresponsible and it is what allows for what we're currently seeing - the takeover of democracy by an oligarchical few. Obviously we can't force everyone to be interested, but we should not present interest/disinterest as two equally valid choices.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 2, 2013 3:59:01 AM PDT
Dienne says:
BTW, when I talk about teaching democracy, I'm not talking theoretically. I'm talking about allowing children the opportunity to experience and work within a democratic classroom - as far as reasonably possible, allowing the class the opportunity to collectively make and carry out decisions that affect them and to learn from the experience itself.
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