As someone who grew up studying under the American, British and (the absurdly simplistic) Malaysian New Curriculum systems, as well as a mom to kids with special needs, I found this book endlessly fascinating in how it interrogates mainstream educational thought and offers solutions to the continuing problem of falling student standards. With primarily an American focus — understandably given Kimberly Nix Berens’ background in this country’s educational system — it turns a critical eye on the history of schooling in America and why it hasn’t uniformly improved the lives of its students since perhaps the initial Golden Age when mandatory K-12 freed kids from limiting and often dangerous labor practices.
It’s widely known that America is falling behind the rest of the world’s leading countries/regions in educational standards while, perhaps less well known, still spending far more than our counterparts. Dr Berens convincingly lays out why this is happening, while also suggesting what to do about it. Granted, what to do about it happens to be a plug for her own institutions/models of learning, but this shallow vein of capitalization is ultimately superseded by the fact that she’s putting her money where her mouth is and has the science to back it up.
For Dr Berens is a behavioral scientist, and she strongly believes that the greatest problem with the American system of education is its dogmatic refusal to look at results in favor of a philosophy-affirming feel-good fuzziness that ultimately fails both students and teachers. She’s critical of the quickness with which children are labeled Learning Disabled, as well as of the idea that students fail to learn because of inherent deficiencies in themselves instead of in the system.
As a former corporate trainer who strongly believes that if a willing learner is unable to understand something I’m teaching, the onus is on me to communicate effectively; and as a mom who is often frustrated at the way certain educators I know think autism is some sort of socio-educational curse instead of an opportunity to explore different methods of teaching; and as a lifelong learner with firsthand experience of wildly different methods of teaching, who also strongly believes in the ability of behavioral science to help people sort themselves out for the better, I found Dr Berens’ analysis compelling and reasonable, even if I thought her description of standard American education used far worse examples than I’ve ever seen myself…
And then I googled whether America teaches phonics and I am absolutely astounded, no, horrified by the results. This article from 2019 explains the horrors of the three-cueing system prevalent in American education since the 1980s. I cannot believe this country thought (and still thinks in far too many places!) that teaching kids to read by having them guess words based on accompanying pictures or “sentence context” is a sound basis for developing competent readers! The actual fuck happened to looking words up in a dictionary?! And how on earth can you expect kids to competently read, much less enjoy reading, or to connect words on the page with the context of words as they’re spoken in the real world around them, when they don’t understand the basics of what sounds the alphabetic letters can make?! Encouraging kids to guess a/o skip unknown words instead of examining them closely and looking for immediate, correct answers is how we encourage a nation of deeply uncritical, overconfident thinkers (who may or may not be more susceptible to conspiracy theories where they’re expected to “connect the dots” and “educate themselves” instead of just interrogating the facts on the page like a logical human being. Ahem.)
Fortunately, Dr Berens offers scientific solutions based on rate and celerity to help kids master the basics of both reading and math. Unfortunately, most parents don’t have time to do that kind of thing at home. Fortunately, she has affiliated learning institutions world-wide! I definitely looked up the closest one to me and am strongly considering enrolling at least some of my kids come summer; definitely when the pandemic’s over! I love my twins’ teachers but the Asian-parent-who-grew-up-on-a-rigorous-British-education in me really doesn’t think they expect enough of my kids sometimes, and it’s my own fault, too, for not holding the little demons to a stricter standard. Parenting, in or out of a pandemic, is exhausting and I’m not as spry as I used to be, so I’m extremely grateful for all the help I can get.
One (very minor) thing I disagree with Dr Berens on, however, is the Socratic method, which she disparages. While I do agree that children don’t innately know the fundamentals of reading, I also believe that applying the Socratic method to basic facts is a nonsense. People don’t Socratically know names, places and dates either, but they do have an understanding of scientific/philosophical concepts via lived experience, even if they can’t necessarily name them or measure them. I agree with Dr Berens that it’s a waste of time trying to coax intelligence out of kids instead of laying out information for them to process first, but I do think that leading learners to their a-ha! moments is an extremely effective, if definitely not universally applicable, teaching tool.
Anyway, this was an extremely eye-opening book and I need to go lie down and think about what I can do for my kids to help make up for the unnecessary hurdles in their education. I’m just flummoxed still by the idea that a solid mastery of actually reading words could be waved aside in favor of context. This is why kids fail in school. Literacy is so fundamental to learning, to studying, to exams, to absorption and display of academic knowledge: to not ensure our children’s mastery in it is like expecting them to build their entire academic future on a basis of quicksand. It is absolutely bananas that the American system of education has used this as its own firmament for so long, and honestly a testament to the American people that our results aren’t even worse than they currently are.
Blind Spots: Why Students Fail And The Science That Can Save Them by Kimberly Nix Berens was published October 27th 2020 by The Collective Book Studio and is available from all good booksellers, including
Want it now? For the Kindle version, click here.