Lies teachers tell?

Tim Frederick (via Bud and Nancy) are discussing the "lies" teachers tell their students, one of which seems to be saying "this is an important book." They make some good points, which I'll come back to, but first I want to look at some of the assumptions being made.

According to Tim, this is called a lie because: "How did we become so arrogant as to think we had the right to say which books were important to read and which aren't? "

I'm not sure we should consider arrogance as a form of lying, and I'm not sure that it's rights that are the issue. Shouldn't it be responsibility? That is, teachers have the responsibility (and are accountable to parents and society) for selecting those books that will best enable students to learn. Actually, depending on the grade level and subject, school administrators often do the choosing of books for the school's curricula, books that must meet a state's criteria, as determined by state departments of education.

Tim adds:

What disturbs me most is that when we say this, we take a little power away from students AND hurt their critical thinking. Shouldn't they decide what's important and why? That can be empowering, as well as exercise the critical thinking muscle of evaluating. They would have to be able to justify their reasons for thinking a book is important and we can share how other people define "important". Students can further evaluate others' criteria for "importance". How many perfectly good lessons surrounding this are thrown away when we decide what's important?

Part of this argument is a value judgment of "empowering" students, of appealing to egalitarian values. In the classroom, however, such an appeal should be secondary to principles of learning. No research on learning is cited in these claims, nor is any evidence given to support that "empowering" students will help them learn better. To be fair, Bud just wrote a few paragraphs, not an academic essay. However, with such strong claims, I'd like to see a little evidence.

Another assumption without evidence is that saying "This is an important book" somehow "hurt[s] their crtical thinking." Actually, this assumption is a shift from the perspective of teachers wanting students to read "good" books to a position on the value of "critical thinking," as if these positions were exclusive. Of course, I can imagine teachers who pontificate without inviting students into the discussion, but that's not at issue here.

There is no getting away from the teacher's responsibility. Consider Bud's last sentence, "How many perfectly good lessons surrounding this are thrown away when we decide what's important?" Who decides what are "perfectly good lessons"? If we carry this perspective to its conclusion, then we should have the children evaluating the criteria for "perfectly good lessons" and the criteria for good teaching. In fact, we should listen to the commplace saying that one learns best by teaching, and we should just have the children do the teaching, too. Then what would the teachers do?

Now looking at the positives of Bud's argument, It does make sense that students need to learn and evaluate "how other people define 'important'" and also develop critical thinking. The issue is how to do this. Perhaps we can draw from ACT-R learning theory. Anderson and Schunn (2000) write,

There are no magical properties conveyed upon a knowledge structure just because it was self-generated. If all things were equal it would be preferable to have children learn by generating the knowledge (due to the redundant encoding). However, because of difficulties of generation and dangers of misgeneration, things are not always equal and it can be preferable to tell the knowledge.


Thus, ACT-R's theory of procedural learning claims that procedural skills are acquired by making references to past problem solutions while actively trying to solve new problems. Thus, it is both a theory of learning by doing and a theory of learning by example.

Simply providing the learner with examples is not sufficient to guarantee learning in the ACT-R theory. The sufficiency of the production rules acquired depends on the understanding of the example.

Anderson and Schunn add, "For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor." That is, learners must practice a lot, whether critical thinking or other skills. The problem is one can practice the wrong skills, in which case "practice makes imperfect." In other words, learners need feedback and at times explicit guidance to make their practice effective. Of course, they can get that when they choose their own books. And now we're back where we started: How does the teacher choosing a book hurt students?


Anderson, John R., & Schunn, Christian D. (2000). The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets. In R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in instructional psychology (Vol. 5). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.