A natural act

From an AEI article by Frederick Hess on the education wars:
At root, teaching and learning are intuitive acts. Kids are naturally curious; they’re natural learners. The human mind is hard-wired to ask questions and seek out knowledge. And adults are predisposed to share knowledge, interests, and skills. When one feels confounded or overwhelmed by the challenges of educational improvement, it’s worth keeping in mind that teaching and learning aren’t the product of some mysterious alchemy—they’re deeply natural acts. Systems, structures, and bureaucratic rules designed to support and promote learning need to be scrutinized with an eye to whether they respect that truth.
We can all do a lot better to steer clear of words that have been stripped of meaning. School reform is filled with such words: “consensus,” “best practices,” “differentiation,” “21st century skills,” “rigor,” “effective teaching,” “accountability,” “empowerment,” and so on. Most of the time, it’s not clear what any of these placeholders really mean. They’re often just a way to skip past complicated questions. The problem is that mushy language leads to fuzzy thinking. When I use these words, I frequently realize that even I don’t know exactly what I’m saying.
I was lucky to have many first-rate teachers. One thing they avoided was buzzwords and empty process. They knew how to keep order (and were not undermined in this by their institutions), they knew their subjects, and they cared about nothing but making the intellectual contact necessary to get their knowledge and skills across. Some did this warmly and personably, others with a cool, demanding style. Some were didactic, others collaborative. They gave and demanded respect. They believed that what they had to teach was valuable and showed that they cared whether I got it.

The bad teachers were checking off boxes, warming benches, picking up paychecks, perpetuating fads, using their desks as a soapbox. If they knew their fields at all, they didn't get much of a charge out of communicating its content.

I honestly don't know what's supposed to be going on in education colleges.  There must be some training going on there that circumvents the thick fog of buzzwords; I'm sure some of my good teachers--the ones from public schools--had made it through without being ruined.  At worst they had some of their time wasted.


David Foster said...

Buzzwords kill thought. It's worst in the education, 'nonprofit', and government sectors, but also getting far too prevalent in business.

It is very depressing to look at the posts on LinkedIn and observe how many people are posturing as business intellectuals and deep thinkers when they obviously have never had a creative or insightful thought in their lives.

raven said...

Tex,how long ago were your teachers trained? There has been a marked generational decline. A look at any general interest popular magazine from 1960 will confirm this.

raven said...

I agree completely with the statement-kids are natural learners. It does not take a classroom either- be patient, answer questions, and ask them also. Every street sign is a chance to learn words and letters. Every trip to the supermarket a grand exploration. All it takes is the willingness to take the time.

I picked this quote up from Jerry Pournelle, he has it as a line on his blog-

"If a foreign government had imposed this system of education on the United States, we would rightfully consider it an act of war."

Glenn T. Seaborg, National Commission on Education, 1983

Texan99 said...

My teachers were trained back in the Paleozoic. They probably were born between 1920 and 1940.

Grim said...

My experience with public education in the current moment is that it is nearly completely nonfunctional. One still meets a good teacher now and then, but it is quite rare.

Tom said...

The young, good teacher today has had to ignore a great deal of what they were taught about teaching and learn a great deal about teaching on their own.

For professional reasons, I recently had to complete a 1-year graduate program in an education department. I've been meaning to write about this since then, but to be honest when I begin outlining what I discovered in that program and my thoughts about it, I get increasingly angrier and angrier and fear I may need to replace my keyboard, or possibly furniture and sheet rock, before I finish writing.

The one-shot summary is: As a beginning for reform of the public school system, states should no longer consider a bachelor's in education to be qualification for a teaching certificate (or anything at all) but should instead require a degree in the field to be taught plus an additional 9-15 hours (I'm still working this out) strictly in child development and in teaching methods (not theory) with a 2-semester practicum.

Tom said...

Also, I believe that teacher education & training has been in large, slow arc of continuous revolution over the last 50 years, maybe longer. I no longer believe having gone through a public school in the US 20+ years ago is relevant experience to understand what is going on in public schools or at the undergraduate level now. We might as well have been educated in another country.

Anonymous said...

Tom, anecdata from a relative who is a teacher. He was penalized (unofficially of course) for having a double major in education and a field by the college's Education Department. That plus my few brushes with students of and administrators of Flat State U's Education Department left me with a less-than-less-than favorable attitude toward that withered branch of higher learning.


Gringo said...

One point about dissatisfaction with Ed Schools is that this dissatisfaction has been there for a long time. In the 90's I took Ed School courses to get certified as a teacher, for a second career. One time I was talking with my aunt, who had taught school for 30+ years. I told her that much of what Ed School taught was nonsense. My aunt's response: "So what else is new?" My parents, who were also trained as teachers, had little good to say about Ed School.

About one half of those who begin the teaching profession leave it within five years. Some- by no means all- of this attrition has to do with the horrible job that Ed Schools do in training teachers. Those who succeed as teachers do so in spite of what they learned in Ed School.

There are two basic problems with Ed School. First, instead of concentrating on what has worked in education- there has been formal class instruction for over 2000 years- Ed School profs are looking for the New Great Theory That Will Explain Everything in Education. As a result , Ed School students are exposed to the latest theory in Education, usually before it has been extensively tested. After the new theory in Education has been extensively tested and then refuted- consider learning styles- it is then abandoned for the Next New Great Theory That Will Explain Everything in Education.

The second problem with Ed School is indoctrination in the latest PC fad. Inclusion, social justice, equity, gender schmender, what have you.

For all the problems with Ed Schools, I am not advocating getting rid of them. There is a need for pedagogy. It is not intuitively obvious how to teach a given subject matter to a given group of students. But the Ed School garden needs to be extensively weeded. Get rid of most except for Methods and Classroom Management.

Texan99 said...

I don't know. My mom taught in public schools, and came up through the educational college system like most of her colleagues. My dad taught in a university, with no pedagogical training at all. Now, it's true that their challenges were completely different. She was supposed to deal with kids from a broken part of town who were barely literate. He was supposed to deal with kids with ambition and superb credentials. One of his students won a Nobel Prize in his field. Some of his students found him impossible to deal with, as he had no idea why they would be in his classes if they didn't want to make physical chemistry their life, and he had zero empathy for, say, the hapless pre-med kid who just needed to get through thermodynamics. The students who did want to make chemistry their life just about worshipped him.

As far as my mother's kids went, well, I don't know why they left her in about the same state of ignorance and illiteracy as they arrived, but in any case her education college degree didn't permit her to overcome the disadvantages.

I have a hard time understanding why educational degrees aren't a complete waste of time. I know of no evidence that teachers gained in skill after they became universal. At a minimum, it's clear enough that they're irrelevant in elite academies, where professors typically haven't attended them, and I sure don't see that they particularly help in schools chock-full of challenged students.

Grim said...

...a bachelor's in education to be qualification for a teaching certificate (or anything at all) but should instead require a degree in the field to be taught...

That's been my constant recommendation for decades. My mother had a Masters of Education, and she never could find any use for any of it. But it was required for her career as a public school teacher, in spite of the fact that she had a professional degree in her subject.

Tom said...

For all the problems with Ed Schools, I am not advocating getting rid of them. There is a need for pedagogy.

I agree that there is a need for pedagogy, which is why I would keep a few classes on that. I do think getting rid of undergraduate ed schools would be an improvement, and my recommendation is intended to effectively end them by denying them students.

I can imagine a role for graduate ed schools in teaching pedagogy towards certification and for research. I need some more information before I really come to conclusions about that, though.

raven said...

Historically, if someone wanted to learn, they found someone who knew the subject matter inside out. Know the subject , and most can teach it. All those young women who taught school in the 1800, in little one room schoolhouses? I don't think any of them ever had a "education" degree, they just had learned well and knew the subjects.

We used to expect that the average kid could be taught to read well in the primary grades. I don't think the education system has much to do with teaching children anymore. I am quite convinced that were the gov to get out of the way, that neighborhoods could build and operate 100-200 student schools and achieve way better results with a fraction of the money ,than we get now.

Tom said...

Gringo makes a good point that the dissatisfaction has been there a long time. When I consider why my experience makes me angry, I have to say I didn't encounter anything that I hadn't already heard rumors of, and a good part of my anger is simply having experienced it first hand.

raven, 6-year-olds didn't seek teachers out, and they won't. Historically, the majority of children never learned how to read or write or do more math than was required for counting money and units of whatever they produced. American education in the 1800s was very limited. The very few who were able to go on to university had gone to private schools, had private tutors, and / or had studied extensively on their own, which meant their families were generally well off enough that they could afford a boy who didn't work in the family business. That's not a system that should be held up as an example.

However, you are right that our education system is increasingly just a method of mass-indoctrination. That is seeping into everything. I don't think government is the problem there, though. Not the main one, anyway, although the Dept. of Ed. and federal influence over state schools needs to be eliminated ASAP. The main problem is education departments.

As for teaching itself, it is an art and there are plenty of techniques that can help you be an effective teacher for a wider range of students and that can help your students learn the material faster and internalize it better. Those techniques can be taught and learned, and while I think undergraduate education degrees are harmful, I do think a couple of classes on practical teaching methods taught by seasoned teachers and taken concurrently with observing good teachers in the schools and doing some student teaching can help a new teacher become a good teacher much more quickly.

We get confused about this because there are so many variables in teaching. If the students are highly motivated, all they need are books and time for learning new information. They don't need a teacher at all until they start doing things like writing essays or solving math problems or so on. But most children are not highly motivated.

There's a lot more to it, but I have just run out of time this morning and need to run.

Texan99 said...

I always think of Bailey White's wonderfully entertaining books, starting with "Momma Makes Up Her Mind," in which she sometimes describes her experiences teaching 5- or 6-year-olds to read. She discovered that they're uniformly fascinated by maritime disaster. She would alter shipwreck books with simplified text taped over the harder paragraphs, but her kids got so into the story that they'd tear up the substitute text to get to the text underneath. It was a matter of harnessing their own natural enthusiasm: once they really wanted the result, they were motivated to learn the technique. It never was beyond the capabilities of most of them, only a lot of tedious work some of them hadn't previously felt like putting in, and why should they? Ditto for a wonderful episode of "The Wire" in which a teacher passes on the techniques of calculating probabilities to students who liked to play craps on the street.

My own best teachers, including (always) my father, had an infectious love of their subjects. The mind-to-mind contact was always the most exciting, and of course the warm attention.

Gringo said...

Historically, if someone wanted to learn, they found someone who knew the subject matter inside out. Know the subject , and most can teach it.

Knowing the subject is a necessary but not sufficient component to successful teaching. How do you teach 8th grade math to students whose most on-task time in the year was the time I gave them a worksheet of second grade level problems? No one complained about being given baby stuff to do. My biggest problem was classroom management.

There is a widely read book, The First Days of School, which makes the point that the first days of school are vital in setting the tone for the rest of the year. The author has a point.

The university where I got certification sent student teachers to their schools about six weeks after the school year had begun. As a result, student teachers were not able to observe how their supervising teachers set the tone at the beginning of the year. It would be better for student teachers if they could observe their supervising teacher from the beginning of the school year.

At the school where I taught 8th grade math, the principal had just been hired after having been an assistant principal there. I will spare the stories, but suffice it to say that she was not a competent administrator. The school district concurred, as several years later it did not renew her contract. The principal didn't care about the non-renewal, as she had just finished her doctorate in Education. She is now a tenured Ed School professor, specializing in training school administrators. A failure as a school administrator is training school administrators. Oh well.

A teacher needs to be a persuader, and persuasion is not something that I easily do. Can't blame it all on Ed School. Just that Ed School didn't help.