Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Easy Targets

Answer quickly, do more Americans die each year from homicide or suicide?

Which city has a higher crime rate, New York, NY or Aurora, IL?

Most of you would say homicide and NYC.  Most of you would be wrong.  Some things just stick in our brains more vividly than others and affect our judgment for the worse.  Often, these vivid cases are not just easier to remember, but perpetuated through our conversations, personal experiences, and the media.  I'm sure all of the news reports on murders and crime shows set in NYC affected your judgment on these questions as well.

Education suffers from the same problem.  The images and memories of those terrible teachers stick out in our brains.  So-called reformers find a vast resource of collective memory to evoke in the public to spur initiatives to disrupt a supposed broken system.  Ignored are the consistent images of caring teachers engaging students in the day-to-day business of learning.  Nothing as inspiring as Mr. Keating or Mr. Escalante, but certainly not the caricature of Ferris Beuler's Econ teacher. 

The "bad, boring, dull" teacher trapped in a "monotonous, dull, rigid" system is quite overrepresented in our collective imagination of what education is.  Because of this over-representation, teachers and public education in general finds itself on the receiving end of quite a bit of unfair and caricatured criticism.

Alfie Kohn recently wrote an article for Education Week titled "Corridor Wit: Talking Back to our Teachers."  Usually I find Kohn quite on target.  His arguments against homework are thoughtful, and while I don't completely agree with him I appreciate the thought that he provokes.  I greatly appreciate his understanding of standardized testing's impact on education.  His recent post humorously quotes some of what he considers "the overused and underthought pronouncements that reflect truly reactionary views of education and children."  Following each quote he proposes the witty response he wishes he'd been able to deliver in retort as a student.

Here is a sampling:

I need all eyes on me, please!


Mrs. __________, I appreciate your honesty in admitting that your periodic requests to look at you are really about what you need. Obviously it isn’t necessary to look at you in order to hear what you’re saying. More important, neither looking nor listening is the same as learning. In fact, real learning is more likely to happen when we students are doing most of the talking. But, hey, if your need for attention is so pressing, I’d be glad to stare at you some more.

Eyes on your own paper! I want to see what you can do, not what your neighbor can do!


In other words, you want to see what happens when I’m deprived of the resources and social support that characterize most well-functioning real-world environments, rather than seeing how much more my “neighbors” and I could accomplish together? Why?

Take everything off your desks except a pencil.


Wait a minute. If you’re giving us a test, but forcing us to put away our books and notes, then you’d mostly be assessing rote recall. Surely you’re more interested in knowing our capacity for thinking than how much stuff we’ve crammed into short-term memory, aren’t you?

I admit, it's funny, but on some level I find it offensive.  Here's why:
 
1) There are times when I do need all eyes on me.  I do bear some responsibility in your learning and with twenty to thirty of you surrounding me in a classroom, eye contact is the best short-term method for me to monitor your understanding.  I know that real learning happens when you start talking, but not if you're just talking about the game last night.  Students need some direction (ever read Lord of the Flies).

2) As a teacher, I get lots of support from my peers.  Then I go into a classroom and conduct lessons on my own.  If I want to buy a computer, I talk to friends and do some research, then I evaluate the options and make my own decision.  Here's another point-- Is the population of Argentina greater or less than 2 million?  Go ahead and make a guess about the population.  Do you believe that your answer would have been significantly higher if my first question said 200 million instead of 2?  Sometimes I do want to know what my students think and know.  I want to minimize the effect of outside factors and distractors.  I want them to learn how to participate in a "well-functioning real-world environment" by learning to think on their own and then bringing their collective knowledge to the table with informed understanding and openness.

3) Is short-term memory a bad thing?  Sure it isn't everything, but it is a cognitive skill that requires practice.  And enough practice will lead to long-term recall.  No, it isn't the only thing that I'm going for in class, but when my students find themselves in a real-world situation, they certainly won't have the textbook and if they can't use the right search words the internet might not help either.  So every so often, yes, take everything off of your desk except for a pencil.

I agree with most of the other criticisms in Mr. Kohn's post.  Commenting to a tardy student "how nice of you to join us" is a simple attempt to shame or guilt a student into better behavior.  But this out of hand criticism takes the hard work of teaching every day and reduces it to a caricature.  To assume that teachers don't reflect on their homework policies, class procedures, and grading policies demeans the individual educator on whom the structure of our public school system is built.  It unfairly demeans the system by oversimplifying the cause of some of it's biggest flaws.

I don't think that Mr. Kohn meant any harm, in fact, I sincerely believe that his work supports the movement toward quality education and away from corporate-driven reform efforts.  But, I do think that teachers have become too easy of a target and caricatured posts like this further pigeonhole the lot of us as unthinking, standardized, slave drivers wedded to the status quo of mediocrity.  The reality of day-to-day life in the public school classroom is far different than this.

1 comment:

  1. Who knew they made the movie Lord of the Flies into a book?

    ReplyDelete