Archive for June 18, 2018

The Story of MACOS: How getting curriculum development wrong cost the nation, and how we should do it better

Man: A Course of Study (MACOS) is one of the most ambitious US curriculum efforts I’ve ever heard about. The goal was to teach anthropology to 10 year olds. The effort was led by world-renowned educational psychologist Jerome Bruner, and included many developers, anthropologists, and educational psychologists (including Howard Gardner). It won awards from the American Education Research Association and from other education professional organization for its innovation and connection to research. At its height, MACOS was in thousands of schools, including whole school districts.

Today, MACOS isn’t taught anywhere. Funding for MACOS was debated in Congress in 1975, and the controversy led eventually to the de-funding of science education nationally.

Peter Dow’s 1991 book Schoolhouse Politics: Lessons from the Sputnik Era is a terrific book which should be required reading for everyone involved in computing education in K-12. Dow was the project manager for MACOS, and he’s candid in describing what they got wrong. It’s worthwhile understanding what happened so that we might avoid it in computing education. I just finished reading it, and here are some of the parts that I found particularly insightful.

First, Dow doesn’t dismiss the critics of MACOS. Rather, he recognizes that the tension is between learning objectives. What do we want for our children? What kind of society do we want to build?

I quickly learned that decisions about educational reform are driven far more by political considerations, such as the prevailing public mood, than they are by a systematic effort to improve instruction. Just as Soviet science supremacy had spawned a decade of curriculum reform led by some of our most creative research scientists during the late 1950s and 1960s, so now a new wave of political conservatism and religious fundamentalism in the early 1970s began to call into question the intrusion of university academics into the schools…Exposure to this debate caused me to recast the account to give more attention to educational politics. No discussion of school reform, it seems, can be separated from our vision of the society that the schools serve.

MACOS was based in the best of educational psychology at the time. Students engaged in inquiry with first-hand accounts, e.g., videos of Eskimos. The big mistake the developers made was they gave almost no thought to how it was going to get disseminated. Dow points out that MACOS was academic researchers intruding into K-12, without really understanding K-12. They didn’t plan for teacher professional development, and worse, didn’t build any mechanism for teachers to tell them how the materials should be changed to work in real classrooms. They were openly dismissive of the publishers who might get the materials into the world.

On teachers: There was ambivalence about teachers at ESI. On the one hand the Social Studies Program viewed its work as a panacea for teachers, a liberation from the drudgery of textbook materials and didactic lessons. On the other, professional educators were seen as dull-witted people who conversed in an incomprehensible “middle language” and were responsible for the uninspired state of American education.

On publishers: These two experienced and widely respected publishing executives listened politely while Bruner described our lofty education aspirations with characteristic eloquence, but the discussion soon turned to practical matters such as the procedures of state adoption committees, “tumbling test” requirements, per-pupil expenditures, readability formulas, and other restrictions that govern the basal textbook market. Spaulding and Kaplan tried valiantly to instruct us about the realities of the educational publishing world, but we dismissed their remarks as the musings of men who had been corrupted by commercialism. Did they not understand that our mission was to change education, not submit to the strictures that had made much of instruction so meaningless? Could not men so powerful in the publishing world commit some of their resources to support curriculum innovation? Had they no appreciation of the intellectual poverty of most social studies classrooms? I remember leaving that room depressed by the monumental conservatism of our visitors and more determined than ever to prove that there were ways to reach the schools with good materials. Our arrogance and naivete were not so easily cured.

By 1971, Dow realizes that the controversies around MACOS could easily have been avoided. They had made choices in their materials that highlighted the challenges of Eskimo life graphically, but the gory details weren’t really necessary to the learning objectives. They simply hadn’t thought enough about their users, which included the teachers, administrators, parents, and state education departments.

My favorite scene in the book is with Margaret Mead who tries to help Dow defend MACOS in Congress, but she’s frustrated by their arrogance and naivete.

Mead’s exasperation grew. “What do you tell the children that for?…I have been teaching anthropology for forty years,” she remarked, “and I have never had a controversy like this over what I have written.”

But Mead’s anger quickly returned. “No, no, you can’t tell the senators that! Don’t preach to them! You and I may believe that sort of thing, but that’s not what you say to these men. The trouble with you Cambridge intellectuals is that you have no political sense!”

Dow describes over two chapters the controversies around MACOS and the aftermath impacts on science education funding at NSF. But he also points out the problems with MACOS as a curriculum. Some of these are likely problems we’re facing in CS for All efforts.

For example, he talks about why MACOS was removed from Oregon schools, using the work of Lynda Falkenstein. (Read the below with an awareness of the Google-Gallup and EdWeek polls showing that administrators and principals are not supportive of CS in schools.)

She concluded that innovations that lacked the commitment of administrators able to provide long-term support and continuing teacher training beyond the initial implementation phase were bound to faster regardless of their quality. Even more than controversy, she found, the greatest barrier to successful innovation was the lack of continuity of support from the internal structure of the school system itself.

I highly recommend Schoolhouse Politics. It has me thinking about what it really takes to get any education reform to work and to scale. The book is light on evaluation evidence that MACOS worked. For example, I’m concerned that MACOS was so demanding that it may have been too much for underprepared students or teachers. I am totally convinced that it was innovative and brilliant. One of the best curriculum design efforts I’ve ever read about, in terms of building on theory and innovative design. I am also totally convinced that it wasn’t ready to scale — and the cost of that mistake was enormous. We need to avoid making those mistakes again.

June 18, 2018 at 7:00 am 6 comments


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