An Interview with Barker Bausell: Too Simple To Fail?

Michael F. Shaughnessy,

1) First of all, you seem to believe that you have all of the answers to correct education’s wrongs- Am I off on this or can you correct me? (I have not as yet read your book, but am looking forward to it)

My original impetus for writing the book was a theory of school learning which gradually formed based upon my own and others research and festered in the back of my mind like a low grade irritant over the years. Originally it was a reaction to J.M. Stephens’ The Process of Schooling and was comprised of three factors: time on task, student ability, and motivation. Being influenced by William of Occum, I gradually reduced it a single factor (the first) since motivation doesn’t cause learning directly but is a description of the amount of time a student devotes to learning, the attention he or she pays to instruction and so forth.

Student ability is also a black box of sorts that is highly correlated to the amount of preschool and extra school instruction students receive from their home learning environments. I see this framework (the only way schools can improve their learning output is to increase the amount of relevant instruction provided) as a potentially useful guide to evaluating reform initiatives, research proposals, and so forth. I devote one chapter to policy implications for how relevant instruction can be increased in schools as they currently exist and another to suggesting an alternative to what I consider the woefully obsolete classroom model of instruction. Words or books or theories can’t “correct education’s wrongs,” only action can do that. It does worry me, however, that so many educational reformers, teachers, administrators, and academicians don’t seem to have a clear understanding of the etiology of learning.

2)      Okay, let’s focus on the “current classroom model for delivering instruction “. What in your mind is wrong with it? ( I can say ” plenty ” but let’s hear YOUR thoughts )

My choice for a title of the book was The Obsolete Classroom but the publisher changed that. Without going into excruciating detail, and using my framework regarding the importance of relevant instruction time, the classroom model of one teacher standing in front of 35 students delivering the same instruction to everyone is a nightmare of inefficiency. Especially since one portion of the class may already know the material, another doesn’t have the necessary prior instruction in prerequisites, and yet another isn’t paying attention.

True, good teachers attempt to individualize their instruction, but this is an almost impossible task without technological support. I also discuss time wasting activities such as asking questions which to the class as a whole while everyone waits for the answer, which may or may not be correct and largely worthless group activities.

3)      You say “the tests used to evaluate instruction are woefully obsolete” Suppose I say in counter that ” the tests used to evaluate LEARNING are woefully obsolete”. Are we on the same page?

Exactly, but as I see it the only way to evaluate instruction is to evaluate learning resulting from instruction and our current tests are not constituted for that. I have a chapter devoted to that as well.

4) Let’s have a real good talk about education, and learning and instruction—are there some skills that need to be taught, some stuff that has to be memorized, some facts that need to be integrated into one’s prior knowledge, and some specifics that have to be OVER learned?

I didn’t know anyone used the term overlearning anymore. I refer to education as a three legged stool: instruction (which, broadly defined, is the only cause of learning), testing (which is used to infer learning since we can’t observe directly what goes on in the brain), and the curriculum (which is what should be learned). Of the three, I think that the curriculum is on the most solid footing, but we have many topics which undoubtedly obsolete (and were always unnecessary) and many topics which aren’t included which should be. I am less confident about my ability to discuss the curriculum than the other two legs, but believe that we should include ongoing evaluations of what is and is not essential and formally involve many different stakeholders in a basically empirical process of constantly examining the curriculum. I agree with all of your points but am not clear what you mean by integrating some facts into “one’s prior knowledge.”

5)      Let’s agree that one to one instruction is the most effective teaching model ever developed. So, what is your reaction to these on line classes, where the teacher never even sees the pupil?

I just completed 35 years at the University of Maryland, a lot of it teaching statistics and research design. If current trends continue at my institution, everything is going to be online soon except the teaching of some specific physical skills. My expertise and interest is more at the elementary school level, however, and I suppose there are situations in which online instruction can be effective but it is difficult to imagine how it could be maximally effective for most children without adult supervision of some sort. I am strongly in favor of highly structured, interactive digital instruction as laid out in my brief chapter entitled “The Theoretical Importance of Tutoring and the Learning Laboratory.

6)      Let’s get your take on the “achievement gap”. You talk about “unequal access to education-rich home learning environments”. Is this the responsibility of the mother, the father, Head Start or “society” in general to provide this?

Whose responsibility is probably a political or philosophical question. The bottom line is that it the achievement gap can’t be eliminated unless someone provides lower SES children with as much prior and extra-school instruction as their more fortunate counterparts.

Your first question was do I think I have the answers to all of education’s wrongs and this is an arena in which I feel especially impotent. I think I know theoretically how to address these “wrongs” or inequities, but practically I most assuredly don’t have the answer.

7)      I have to take you to task on “a century old intelligence model ” since Alan Kaufman, Cecil Reynolds, Robert Sternberg, Gale Roid, and many others have really brought I.Q. testing into the 21st century. Are you still criticizing David Wechsler?

I am not a big fan of the intelligence construct. To me it is an unneeded black box crutch to explain why some children do better than others, learn faster than others, and so forth. In my opinion, it is a crutch that should not be used by schools or racists (masquerading as conservative pundits to explain the failings of some children, schools, or ethnic groups.

To me, the real variable that we understand is the amount of instructional time which also influences intelligence test scores. My primary interest in the “century old intelligence model” is the influence it has had on achievement tests, SATs, GREs, and so forth.

8)      Let’s talk about measuring an attribute that is ” impossible to define or quantify with precision” – and by that I mean motivation- should we be defining it and does it make a difference, and does it not evolve from your ” education-rich home environment?

As mentioned earlier, motivation reduces to time on task and engagement but, like intelligence, we all know what we mean when we discuss it. (Naming things has that effect upon us.) In my opinion, what I think you mean by motivation is a construct that is heavily, heavily influenced by family values and learning success (which are both influenced by instructional time).

9)      How would say a 5th grade math teacher stimulate the tutoring paradigm in every classroom with technology?

I don’t think he or she could in a vacuum. I provide a scenario for how digital tutoring (based upon instructional objectives) can simulate tutoring in the chapter mentioned earlier and I firmly believe that some iteration of this model will eventually be implemented. When and whether it is done effectively, I have no idea.

10)      Many, many teachers continually say the same thing over and over again, and that is that there are WAY too many children with specific health, medical, emotional and other learning needs being included in the regular education classroom- is this a factor or not?

My parents were both elementary school teachers and I grew up listening to them recount the previous days experience, so I’m quite aware of this argument and have no reason to doubt their experiences. This is part and parcel of why the classroom model is such a failure in so many settings and why, I think, we need to rethink how instruction is to be administered to our children in the 21st century (I hope).

11) Let’s talk class size and homogeneity and heterogeneity- are these two sides to the same coin or just useless variables?

I did class size studies a lifetime ago and firmly believe (along with Gene Glass and the investigators of the Tennessee class size study) that it affects learning. Homogeneity and heterogeneity are different constructs as far as I can determine, but my vision of how instruction should be delivered makes all three somewhat moot.

12)  I am not a geneticist, but I do know about Trisomy 21 and Fragile X and a few other genetic anomalies that impact learning- can we totally neglect Down’s syndrome, Hunter’s Syndrome and the like?

Of course not. My proposals are not aimed at the lower 5% or 10% of whatever distribution is involved in learning or attending to instruction. I have no expertise in this area and no one, even me, would argue that genetics plays no role in learning or that there aren’t such things as organic learning disabilities.

13)  Go to almost any educational web site and it appears that autism is increasing- how should the schools be addressing this issue?

Again, my area of expertise – such as it is – exists outside of special education, organic conditions, and so forth.

14)  What is your take on a longer school day or longer school year?

Definitely in favor of a longer school year and a longer school day if implemented properly. If the additional instruction that occurs during this added time is not relevant, however, it is a waste.

15)  I think it was William Glasser who also provided some simple remedies–teach less, but make sure it is mastered- Good or Bad Idea?

I ascribe to the “make sure it is mastered” part and agree with Glasser as well as with Bloom, Carroll, and their students. But I believe we need to provide more instruction as well.

16)  What have I neglected to ask?

You’ve been very thorough and I appreciate your interest.

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