Mary Poplin says the tree of learning is dying from root rot, and the way to give it new life is to let teachers teach what children want to learn.
She says two things are choking the life out of American schools: "an excess of administrators and the teaching methods they demand."
Get rid of most school administrators, and give teachers the chance to teach a new way; that will make education worthy of its name, said Poplin, an associate professor and director of teacher education at Claremont Graduate School and a frequent contributor to professional journals.
Her proposal: "We have to allow teachers to create their own programs rather than following a script that someone else gives them," and "we have to attach what the teachers want to teach to what the students care about: their own language, their own problems, whatever they care about. And we have to teach more the way that children actually learn, which is from the whole to the parts instead of from the parts to the whole."
So, instead of sentences about Mary or John chasing Spot, instead of word problems about the number of beans in a jar, instead of essays about Lindbergh's flight to Paris in 1927 and how cold George Washington's troops' feet got at Valley Forge in 1778, Poplin would have students writing notes to each other and analyzing them, writing letters to friends or public figures about situations that concern them, solving word problems about spending their allowance or the statistical chances for their football team to have a winning season or a class officer to win reelection.
"There is a big difference between learning grammar and spelling from a canned sentence like 'The cat chased the dog' and learning it from a sentence you want to write to your girlfriend, or a sentence about something that excites you," Poplin said.
Folly to Teach From the Specific
She feels it's folly to teach from the specific to the general, which is the way almost all curricula are designed today.
That is not the natural way to learn, Poplin contends. Using writing as an example, she said, "We find in our studies that there is absolutely no reason to teach grammar, spelling, capitalization before the students are writing at least five sentences of their own, even if they are all punctuated as a single sentence. Until then there is no reason in the child's head to learn to punctuate . . . every day kids have to fix grammar in sentences that they can't even read."
Fifteen years ago, when she was a 20-year-old second-grade teacher in her hometown of Wichita Falls, Tex., Mary Simpson Poplin quit to become a special education teacher "because there was more freedom there."
She kept seeking freedom to develop her teaching style and skills as a special education curriculum director in Texas, an educational consultant in North Dakota, a director of two associations for learning-disabled children in Texas, a college instructor in Kentucky, Texas and Kansas and a lobbyist for learning-disabled children in Texas before coming to Claremont.
"Administrators take schools and divide them into little squares," Poplin said. "And each of the administrators only sees that little piece for which he or she is responsible, and then loads that little piece onto teachers, and all those pieces overload the teachers."
The trouble with this excess administrative baggage, Poplin said, is that it prevents both teachers and students from "thinking for themselves."
She believes that teachers become mechanical "rabbits," leading student "dogs" around a closed, prescribed track.
Poplin said the solution to the problem is as self-evident as it is difficult to achieve: permit teachers to teach the way they want, permit students to learn the way they want.
The problem is spiraling out of control, Poplin said, observing that "it's self-perpetuating . . . administrators get really hung up on test scores, and then create managerial positions to teach the teachers how to get the kids' test scores up. But they are really scripting the teachers, not teaching them. They literally give the teachers a script of how to teach."
She observed that, "Nobody ever deals with what children are thinking or feeling. What administrators really want kids to do is respond with the 'right' answer, which is generally the one in the teachers' guide . . . You're not supposed to think for yourself."
Not everyone buys Poplin's educational philosophy in its entirety. To find meaningful opposition requires no more than a stroll from her office across a courtyard to visit Paul Albrecht, Claremont Graduate School's executive vice president and executive dean, and incidentally, Poplin's boss.
Respect and Admiration
After emphasizing his great respect and admiration for Poplin, and in large measure crediting her with doubling the size of the graduate school's teacher-education program since last year, Albrecht called her educational philosophy "an exciting one to which teachers resonate," but he expressed serious reservations about it.