Sunday, June 1, 2014

It's The Celebrities That We Need To Doubt


William Kilpatrick wanted to be famous, so he made himself famous. And he didn't just want to be academic famous, he wanted to be famous, period.
Already in his mid-forties, he sought--as he noted in his diary--to achieve "power and influnece" and to be remembered as an "original thinker," not merely an "acceptable teacher." (Schneider, 81)
Fortunately, Kilpatrick had a plan. As detailed by Schneider in the third chapter of From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse, it involved selling himself to the country's teachers.
He set his sights not on gaining status among fellow academics, but rather on building his reputations among several hundred thousand K-12 teachers. Kilpatrick's strategy for raising his profile among teachers was, in his words, "to think of a small + popular book" that would "appeal constructively + so sell better." (81)
And that's basically what he did, though it turned out to be a wildly popular article ("The Project Method"), not a book, and, rather than selling it he ended up giving it away.

Kilpatrick tied his reputation to the notion that school should be structured around a projects (definition: "wholehearted purposeful act"). Teaching needs to be first and foremost concerned with the child's interests. Kids need to be engaged in their work in order to learn anything. School shouldn't be a preparation for life, it should be life itself.

Schneider maps how the idea caught on with teachers. Kilpatrick's appointment at Teachers College earned him the prestige that got his foot in the door. The world was ready for this idea -- it's not like teachers hadn't done projects before-- but Kilpatrick turned up the volume and expanded the meaning of "project" for wider application. Kilpatrick's idea was then transformed by teachers so that it could function as an "add-on" to what they were already doing, making the idea even more appealing. (In short, prestige + transportability + ease of application = profit.)

The California Mission Project

These days, William Kilpatrick (1871-1965) is dead. He's also very not famous. But his idea? You might say it's thriving, but that would very much depend on what you mean by "thriving." Kilpatrick wanted to restructure school around projects, making projects the central concept of schooling. Instead, projects are just part of the teacher toolkit, another activity that we might do with kids depending on the situation. The idea that projects should serve as the basis of schooling is seeing a recent revival through "project-based learning" but you'd struggle to draw a direct line of influence from today's advocates to Kilpatrick's ideas.

Schneider urges us to see today's widespread use of projects as a heritage of Kilpatrick's career. I'm capable of skepticism on this point. After all, part of Kilpatrick's success in spreading the notion of projects was that use of projects in education was already on the rise. The home project was an important part of rural vocational education. There was a journal devoted to the wider application of projects prior to Kilpatrick's article. I don't doubt that, in the short term, Kilpatrick made the idea more popular, but when the dust settled was the world much different than it would have been without the Great Man himself?

There's no way to know. So here's what we do know: Kilpatrick wanted to be famous and he made himself famous. His tool was the project, and it proved highly effective. His ideas were widely discussed, and eventually transformed and widely used by teachers. Some teachers used these transformed ideas well, but most didn't.

There's a lesson in this story about ideas in education and what it takes for them to spread. There's a lesson here about the path that a wildly popular idea will tend to take, and the sort of mutations it will accumulate along the way. But there's also a lesson here about fame and influence: Famous people become famous because they want to be famous, and we need to judge their ideas with the skepticism that sort of person deserves.

Raymond Johnson and I are reading Jack Schneider's new book, "From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education." Keep your eyes out for Raymond's response to this post. Previously: Chapter One and Chapter Two.

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