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

June 18, 2018 at 7:00 am 6 comments

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.

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Are you talking to me? Interaction between teachers and researchers around evidence, truth, theory, and decision-making It Matters a Lot Who Teaches Introductory Courses if We Want Students to Continue

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  June 18, 2018 at 8:25 am

    To oversimplify (but not miss much) 1. MACOS was arguably the best purposely designed curriculum for elementary school children ever done, especially with regard to science-and-humanities, 2. MACOS wound up being a test for citizens of the US, especially parents, the educational establishments, and politicians, 3. it was deployment planning test on the strategies and tactics of the MACOS designers.

    The grades I’d give are 1. A++ 2. F- 3.C+/B-.

    MACOS was essentially already gone in the mid-70s when Adele and I started to look at and learn from it. But we rounded up all the physical materials, and found two MACOS teachers who taught it to our research group at Parc in the summer of 1975. We were astounded by how good it was in every way we could think of (it is hard to overpraise the attempt and the achievement). We had already been very influenced by Jerome Bruner’s writings, and this boosted our admiration to the skies.

    Just to mention one additional gift of MACOS is that it not only showed a lot about how to teach *real science* to 5th and 6th graders, but the science that it was so successful at was the much more challenging area of “the softer sciences” of psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc. It is often hard even for adults to do “real science” in the areas that don’t have good quantitative models, but Bruner and his research group showed how to do it.

    Years later in the late 80s and early 90s our research group at Apple did a many year project with the Open School of LA, in no small part because the principal and one of the teachers had both been MACOS teachers, and the school was based around Bruner’s ideas. In this school we had a chance to see both MACOS being experienced by children, but also to see other curricula on other subjects that was influenced by MACOS principles. And we got to create and adapt two new curricula for that school, also using these ideas.

    I very much like the idea of finding out what children can learn and how, and then inventing the best curriculum for them that fits into the best that they can do. I like the idea of *making* the adults involved learn what is needed to help the children at this level. In other words: “Children First!” should be the rallying cry.

    It’s worth noting that this is just what Montessori did with her teachers — they were deeply trained and very deeply vetted, in the end by Montessori herself, before they were allowed anywhere near the children in a Montessori school.

    I also like the idea of having a clear standard of what children can learn and how, and to make the best curriculum that can be invented for this, that can also be used as a standard and threshold and test against the processes set up to reach the high standard. Again, this is “Children First!” and “Adults, Please Learn!”.

    Once this is accomplished — it can be thought of as good science-engineering principles of knowledge — then the rather different and more difficult considerations of practice can be taken up.

    For example, the general levels of important knowledge in important subjects in the 20th and 21st century is much higher than most adults have achieved, including especially most teachers (and administrators) and parents. For example, 5th graders after MACOS will understand much more about human beings, anthropology, their own and other cultures, etc than most of their parents or teachers.

    The parents and teachers have to be worked with in a variety of ways to see that it is a good thing for them and the country that their children wind up with more knowledge and perspective (even wisdom) than they have.

    I think this is a tough sell. So the practical plan has to somehow keep sight of what the children can do, while not scaring the parents and teachers into killing it.

    (Many of my deep complaints about “Code For All” etc is that it quite avoided even trying to find out what “computer science” really can mean to elementary school children, and instead catered to the abysmally low level of knowledge about computing carried by too many of the standards makers.)

    The larger debates here are between people with two very different sets of goals (more than just two also!). One group is basically very concerned with participation, and the other is very concerned with “the real thing”. A great society could make both of these work — they are not incompatible, but the combination requires very large resources, especially given the low state to which public education has been allowed to slide already.

    In practice in recent years, the concern with “the real thing” has pretty much been ignored, to the extent that it is really quite impossible to find in standards and frameworks for most subjects, especially math, science, computing, even history, and literature. And

    I’d like to also mention “real thinking” as a “real subject”. The skills here have to do partly with organization, but especially with being able to deal with human biases, including one’s own. Not learning how to think well shows up in a lot of different areas — one of the most recent is an extensive survey that shows that the amount of inflexibility of political and other opinions is *higher* as one has *more* education, and is the highest these days in those with college degrees! This is a disaster, and a complete failure of American education.

    Of course, the simpler test of American education — which the country flunked terribly — was not who voted for whom but that 80 million plus — more than one third of all voters — chose *not* to vote in the last presidential election.

    • 2. alanone1  |  June 19, 2018 at 5:25 am

      One of a bunch of things I should also have mentioned: the teacher training as part of the MACOS process was both extensive and “large” (at least 10,000 teachers were trained). Both Peter Dow, and especially Howard Gardner were a large part of designing and implementing this process. This was generally quite successful.

      One of the reasons why was in the design of the curriculum and materials themselves. Jerome Bruner (Jerry) did not want to tell the children “the official knowledge” they were supposed to pick up — one of the reasons is that he wanted deeper understanding, and especially to “go beyond the information given” particularly to go beyond “sentences in English” for the roots of the knowledge. So the curriculum itself and the materials supplied evidence, especially in the form of many short movies, and “experience”, in the form of games, discussions, etc.

      The goal of the MACOS designers was to especially make the evidence so compelling — even sometimes shocking — so that the children would be forced to think about what was going on. Some of this approach was drawn from the wonderfully designed and created materials — especially movies — from the “Physical Sciences Study Committee” that pioneered a “thinking curriculum” for physical sciences in high school starting in the mid 50s. Some of the very same people were colleagues of Jerry in doing MACOS.

      As in a Montessori school — and Jerry used many ideas from here also — the teachers’ job was to help the children get involved and then let them run with their own interests. In Montessori schools, the kids do most of the work; the work in the school is all the prep beforehand, and to get the adults to guide rather than control.

      There is much more to be said here. One of the main things to ponder about all this is what it actually takes to get into deep thinking in any developed area — just how much work really has to be done by the learners that the teachers can’t do for them. To get them to use their energies to do that work is the key for deep education. For teachers to be useful and not barriers, they have to learn how to help the students get into doing the work.

      It’s worth noting that high levels of subject knowledge on the part of the teacher are not always an indicator of whether they can do their job. A really good facilitator and the energy of a child can accomplish much if the facilitator knows that there are thresholds of achievement that need to be reached, and can help find out what these are. After this, having lots of domain knowledge, especially of the meta parts of the knowledge, is a plus.

      But nothing can crush most kids more than a teacher who really knows the subject who consistently overteaches. Not only do the kids not get much of a chance, they often wind up thinking they can’t do it — both of these are crimes against what education is supposed to be about — and needs to be!

      • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  June 19, 2018 at 6:05 am

        Dow is more critical of the teacher professional development efforts in MACOS, though perhaps that’s just him being careful and humble about his own work.

        One of the ideas that they developed was a parallel curriculum to be offered to teachers in parallel to them teaching MACOS. The idea was to engage teachers with the science and educational psychology behind MACOS, in synchrony with them teaching MACOS. We are trying a similar idea with our parallel teacher and student ebooks, where the teacher ebook includes pedagogical content knowledge and computing education research findings that connect to each chapter.

        But as Dow points out, that’s a hard seminar to run. It’s hard for teachers to take while teaching MACOS. He doesn’t talk about where the seminar got picked up and taught by others.

        It’s interesting to wonder how the story of MACOS might be different if it played out today with today’s technologies. Would the challenges be publishers be the same when one can distribute through the Internet? Dow talks a good bit about the teachers self-organizing into communities to promote MACOS and counter the negative press. How much more effectively could those teachers have organized and supported a teacher-focused community if they had today’s Internet?

        • 4. alanone1  |  June 19, 2018 at 7:40 am

          Hi Mark

          I don’t think that modern technologies would have saved MACOS from the fundamentalists and others who saw a chance to advance their own power and prejudices. It is very hard to imagine that it wouldn’t be much worse today.

          I also think that the remedy that would make a big difference with the teachers needs to go back to college and pre-service training. From the standpoint of college, I’m not aware of any US college or university that requires even one semester of anthropology as part of the required courses (let alone several years about “human civilization” from a scientific/arts perspective).

          There are a few parallels here with the problem of doing a good job bootstrapping CS in K-8 (and computing in some ways is a lot easier than learning several real sciences that involve “bio-behavior”).

          Having to wait until the prospective teacher gets to teachers college to learn various sciences to enough depth to really help children is putting a big strain on the system, and as has been happening for at least as long as I’ve been alive, the children (and then society) are the big losers.

          Just to put a point on it: the constant refrain of “well, it’s at least a start” on X, Y, and Z has not gotten any of X, Y, or Z above threshold enough to matter in the larger issues of a society beyond job prep. There just are thresholds that have to be reached in order for quite a few important subjects to make a difference.

  • 5. The Story of MACOS – Notes  |  June 19, 2018 at 6:47 am

    […] The Story of MACOS: How getting curriculum development wrong cost the nation, and how we should do i…: […]

  • 6. Elin  |  June 20, 2018 at 2:29 pm

    I remember being a 6th grader in the class that didn’t get MACOS, being so jealous of the other two classes studying the caribou hunts. They all talked about the MACOS stuff constantly in the playground.


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