Pragmatic Education: My Personal Journey to a Common-Sense Approach to Learning

After 36 years as an educator, visits to 500 of the best public and private schools in the nation, a Ph.D. in education from Stanford University, and taking part in the development of seven schools, I would like to share my philosophy of education, which in 1988 I termed “pragmatic education.”

This is a clarion call to use common sense, rather than fads and “pink standard” research, to guide every day decisions about what works for kids.

This philosophy began to emerge in 1972 when I took my first class as an undergraduate music major at Stanford University.  One day, the teaching assistant played a tune on the piano and asked us to write it down.  This was my first exposure to music dictation and I was singularly inept.

I tried three methods to improve my modest skills:  take more dictation from the teaching assistant who would return our papers a week or two later after I had forgotten what I wrote down; listen to tapes and then check my answers against the answers in the back of the guidebook; and work with a computer the size of a small bedroom programmed for ear training exercises.

Without fanfare or extensive research, the clear winner was the computer program. It gave me instant, non-threatening, often humorous feedback and I could practice over and over again. I went from the worst student in the class to the best in three months because of my computer instructor.

Coaching field hockey and basketball for three years honed my philosophy further.  I learned that if my players did drills all of the time, they would never have any sense of the game.  Yet, if they scrimmaged all the time, they would never master the fundamentals.  Mastery of any skill, whether shooting a free throw or multiplying fractions, takes REPETITIVE PRACTICE.  And becoming a complete player or student requires a BALANCED APPROACH.

I also learned that some important skills need to be taught directly, not discovered through trial and error, as is the education fad du jour.  Yes, I could have thrown 36 field hockey sticks on a field and asked students to discover their own unique style of wielding one. But there is a precise way to hold a hockey stick to allow maximum mobility. So I taught them how to grip a field hockey stick, just as I taught them how to come off the opposite foot to make a lay-up.

The John Cooper School which I founded in 1988 was an early stage “blended learning” school.  We combined Computer Curriculum Corporation courseware with Exeter Academy style Socratic discussions around Harkness tables, Neuhaus Education Center direct phonetic instruction for reading, and interdisciplinary projects so students could apply what they were learning.  It worked, and now the school – 25 years later – has over 1,000 students.

Fast forward to 2014.  Blended learning – now the hottest thing in education – is a pragmatic approach to education. It has the potential to transform public education by enabling students to experience the most efficient and effective approaches for learning various skills and knowledge. It can blend high quality digital content, discussions with teachers, and collaborative projects, for starters – much like our approach at The John Cooper School in 1988.

Let’s not mangle or waste this opportunity by making blended learning a passing fad. Instead, let us press forward to develop blended learning approaches that make learning more engaging, empowering, and effective for kids.  After all, that is the “winning goal” of what we hope to accomplish as common sense educators.