Abraham Lincoln

This is so tough. Family issues, work, pregnancy, gangs, drugs. How can school begin to compete? Especially if the essentialist impulse assumes the students will sit like machines having their heads filled with knowledge, however irrelevant or tedious.

Schools are at a huge competitive disadvantage, competing to provide these children with a future. Treating their interests, desires, and common sense with disdain is hardy a winning strategy. What they need (and we need) is to redefine the curriculum for relevance and stimulation. This is not to say the ‘fundamentals’ get left out. Rather, the fundamentals need to be taught in a context that holds the attention of the students.

A school principal, retired after 30 years, told my wife today that one of the very few things that Abraham Lincoln would recognize in our society today is the structure and philosophy of the school curriculum. This is sad at many levels. We have learned so much and the body of knowledge has changed so much since then. We have changed the relationship between society and the individual since then. We are attempting to educate a much large portion of our society now. Most importantly, the competition for the attention of the students is so much more fierce and sophisticated.

The world has changed. The successful curriculum will respect the needs of the learners.

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Axiology v. Epistemology

I agree that axiology is a crucial element of education. I was inclined to argue that morals, values, character and ethics are more significantly needed in secondary schools. But, it occurred to me, if it isn’t taught in elementary school, many high school students will be beyond its reach by the time they encounter it. So, yes, it is an essential part of what teachers teach.

Having said that, for me epistemology is primary. With apologies to Yeats who said, “Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of the fire” (“Famous Quotes”, 1998-2010), I think filling the pail is bulk of what teachers do. To do that, to fill the children with knowledge, they need to know “the way learners come to know the ideas they learn” (Kauchak & Eggen, 2005, page 208). Once they have a clear vision of that, teachers can work on “lighting the fire” of inspiration.

References

Famous quotes by William Butler Yeats . (1998-2010). Retrieved January 26, 2010, from http://www.famous-quotes.com/author.php?aid=7889
Kauchak, P. & Eggen, P. (2005). Introduction to teaching: Becoming a professional (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Caring

 Is caring more important at some educational levels (e.g., elementary versus secondary) than others? Why or why not?

Caring is important at all educational levels. People of whatever age benefit from connection, support and compassion. Young students need caring even more. They are still developing physiologically and neurologically until well into high school and usually beyond. They are also developing emotionally at the same time and benefit strongly from a safe, supportive, even loving environment. Learning is about strengths, weaknesses, success and failure. It is also very much about resilience. Resilience is fueled by unconditional love and support. Caring is the foundation of healthy learning.

Different ages (and different children of the same age) will need different kinds of support and caring. But each child will benefit from being ‘seen’ and being cared for. In many cases, sending a message that the outcomes at school matter to the teacher might be the only positive messages about school success the student receives. It might be the only message of the student receives that they matter. Fortunately, this is not usually the case, but it is difficult to imagine that anyone wouldn’t benefit from knowing one more person cares about them.

Of course, children of different ages will respond differently and will need to be cared for differently (as will each individual regardless of age). Elementary students are more likely to be open to overt affection and caring. Moving into adolescence, there will a tendency to posture an independence, a growing up. But the need will remain and the caring will be received and honored so long as it doesn’t compete with the student’s need to individuate. I have less recent experience with and knowledge of high school behavior but from what I can remember peer group becomes the dominant factor. I’d imagine that the caring needs to be reshaped into a subject driven relationship. This is to say that teachers care for high school students by caring for their work and, by extension, caring for them as creative individuals.

Caring is essential for teachers and for all of us. It’s a cold rock we live on. Caring is all we really have.

Demographic Hiring

What are the pros and cons of making hiring decisions based on demographic needs (e.g., the shortage of males in elementary school, females in social studies)?

This is a tricky question.

As a society, we are correctly uncomfortable making decisions which place more importance on a demographic fact over the personal qualities embodied in an individual. I agree with Chief Justice Roberts that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” (Cato Institute, 2009) but I would change “race” to “impersonal demographics”. If we study the individual, we will have access to all the demographic information as well. Demographic information should not be lost or ignored but it should be placed in the context of a unique human being.

So, for example, I would not be in favor of establishing arbitrary ratios of teachers to students by demographic. However, it’s easy to see how teachers who share demographics can be more effective, all things being equal. There are cultural behaviors, beliefs and communication styles that can be more easily understood and integrated by a person of similar culture. There are experiences, impulses and characteristics that may well be best understood by a person of the same gender. For each category of demographics there are synergies. In each demographic, there is a corresponding possible benefit.

Likewise, merely providing solid role models in familiar demographic packages could be a more powerful example than one of dissimilar demographics.

There’s also no question that a mix of things is always educational. We learn more from our differences, from new things and in a comfortable environment. So demographic diversity amongst teachers is powerfully good.

So, the pros are that teachers of similar demographics can possibly reach students more effectively and provide more powerful role models. The cons are that it’s the person, not the demographic, that teaches. To be blind to the person behind the demographic is to potentially reduce the quality of the education and harm the cultural fabric by perpetuating discrimination.

In conclusion, a teacher’s (or student’s) demographic information is important and useful. But it needs to be consider integrally with the whole picture of that person; their strengths, weaknesses, experiences, skills, character and passions. Giving the children the teacher who will be most effective with them is the goal. Demographics is part, but only part, of that.

Reference

Cato Institute . (2009). The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race Is to stop discriminating on the Basis of Race. Retrieved January 28, 2010 from http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2009/04/22/ricci-v-destafano/

Increasing Complexity

Are the complexities of teaching likely to become greater or less in the future? Why?

It seems to me that the complexities of being a teacher will only increase. Our society is becoming more complex. It’s demands are greater. If the resources for schools continue to decrease, that creates a huge challenge of doing more with less. But when the resources increase again, there will be a great demand for change and improvement. The pressure for results will continue to increase but in a political system pressures to perform are usually accompanied by a host of factors which make improving outcomes harder. Technology will continue to evolve but that merely creates a steeper learning curve for the teacher and a disruption in existing teaching methods. Knowledge will continue to expand exponentially, driving change in both curriculum content and science-based teaching methods.

In my lifetime, not only will technology evolve but new technologies will emerge that will change our world in untold ways. Technologies that exist now will increase in power and impact. Cell phones alone have the power to change everything. Already I can make and practice flash cards on my phone. I can set the program to drill me with smart algorithms which adapt to what I’ve learned. I can be paged, texted or called. I can hear audio and watch audio-video. I can do calculations. I can even create documents, slide presentations, and spreadsheets. I can access the internet and it can access me. Each and every one of these attributes has major opportunities for school and learning.

I’m not sure if this is a saving grace or a tragedy but one other thing I am also confident of with regard to technology is that the actual uptake of the high tech possibilities will be ferociously slower than common sense would suggest. Yes, the technology speeds ahead but the world adapts to those changes at a very slow pace. We have already passed the famous fictional dates of 1984 and 2001 and in each case found ourselves significantly below the overall technology achievements imagined by the authors. That is the normal state of things. What could be done in the classroom and what is being done are very different. It seems like SmartBoards are the cutting edge at the moment and they are both not that high tech and wildly less effective than a proper use of that technology would allow.

So, yes, the world will keep getting more complex and teaching will keep getting more complex. But teaching at least will only move forward at a pace that the average human brain can tolerate. Sometimes I wonder if that’s true of the world as a whole…

Learning While Doing

One thing I’ve found is that when I am doing stations, the first one is the least effective. By the fourth one, I have it wired; what to say, how to explain it. This makes it hard on the students in the first station, of course. If I were the teacher I could stack the first station with the kids who need the least help. Or, God forbid, rehearse it (but where would i find the test subjects). Or just accept that as the way things go.

I do recognize what an advantage long time teachers have, having seen and done pretty much everything multiple times. The challenge there seems to be not getting jaded or burning out.

Personal Challenges

Based on your experience and background, what challenges do you foresee in entering the education profession?

One thing I have learned won’t be an issue is stress from the hectic nature of school. I was standing knee deep in chaos a couple of weeks ago and realized that I had just about gotten to the comfortable operating level of noise and activity that I am so familiar with from trading. I’m not sure that’s a good thing in general, but it does give me great comfort knowing that I won’t break down like Ahnold in Kindergarten Cop. 🙂

Back to the question, there is no particular challenge I see as a problem. I do see a number of areas where I will need to feel my way and be very careful, reflective and flexible as I go.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am still working on discipline. I like an orderly classroom and tend to believe a credible threat goes a long way to preventing its use. But I also believe and have seen the power of positive reinforcement. I’d like to mostly work with carrots but have a (metaphorical) stick handy somewhere, I think.

I do well in class with “boy problem energy.” “Johnny kicked me” is pretty easy for me. But I’ve had several “girl problem energy” situations (“Sally hates me”) which defied all of my normal tools. It’s almost hard for me to describe because it is so alien to me, but I know I will need the extra tools of listening and honoring such a conversation while at the same time not indulging it. And I’ll get better with practice. 

I need to have more numbers between zero and ten. I tend to be more zero or ten as in “This is good”, “This is bad”. I’ll need that both for evaluating my students and, particularly, in discussing those students with their parents. I also tend to have more judgement about those analyses than is productive, meaning I need to have more room for little Johnny to be exuberant or easily distracted or slow to read or whatever. I think an ideal teacher honors where each child is in the class in terms of progress. I tend to have that essentialist impulse to want every child to be where I want them to be.

It’ll be interesting to see how I do in the school social setting. I’ve very pleased with my relationships at my daughter’s school but I’m ‘just a parent’ so the rules and expectations are different. However, I intend to be friendly and cooperative with other teachers and administrators and remember my place as ‘newbie.’

I think that’s about it. My main goal in becoming a teacher is to work with children to prepare them and help them as best I can within the grade level slice I’m given. If I remember that’s what it’s all about, the rest will fall into place, I think.

When Will We Use This? – Part Two

Of course his answer to that might be “Ok, but I’m not interested in earth science”. A further complication is the length and intensity of the course may be a lot if it’s purpose is just to expose students to the subject.

The philosophical progressive, liberal arts premise is that everything is connected to everything else and to be truly knowledgeable and therefore wise a broad body of knowledge is essential. What I don’t know is whether I believe such breadth of knowledge is a luxury or a necessity. (That’s the debate from my other post about making all education about ‘profession’). I also don’t know if a progressive education requires a solid essentialist foundation.

On the one hand, it’s easy to say “Our schools are failing to teach many children to read and write. Let’s put all our resources into that so that they have a basic chance to survive.” That’s certainly a ‘science’ of teaching argument. You have to know inorganic chemistry to learn organic chemistry, or whatever.

On the other hand, the ‘art’ of teaching might argue that the most important thing is for a child to find a spark that lights his or her imagination. Once the imagination is lit, they’ll learn what they need including all the essentials. If the imagination isn’t lit, every day is just like pushing the kids across a carpet face down like a vacuum cleaner.

And that’s the scary part of that second argument. The essentialist instinct has a strong tendency to suck all the fun out of learning. It doesn’t have to of course, but the whole ‘drilling and testing standards’ thing has a mechanical air to it that lends itself to forgetting the flesh and blood. If firing the imagination is key, the harder the system tries to force core learning, the fewer children will retain their inborn love of learning.

I don’t know whether firing Childrens’ imaginations is essential to learning but I have a strong sense that it is a very positive effect on kids of any resource level. I can’t imagine anybody making this argument in a political forum but maybe somebody should be advocating brining the joy and wonder back to education.

You said you aren’t that excited about earth science yourself. Maybe the best way to help that kid is to find something in the subject that does excite you and share it with him. I’d be curious if it helps.

Budget Cuts, Part 2

There are so many contradictory ideas in how we run our schools. The idea that they can make kindergarten a half day must be based on a belief that kindergarten is like it was 40 years ago: just play and art and getting used to the school environment. That’s not a bad idea to have kindergarten be that way but somewhere since I was a kid the powers that be changed the rules. Today, kindergarten is like first grade used to be. The standards include significant achievements in math and reading/writing. Kindergarten today is a critical foundation for the rest of elementary school. But there’s no way those skill get taught in half a day, certainly not unless the kindergarten schedule gets very, very academic. So suddenly, even kids who have a chance to be prepared for first grade aren’t.

I was talking to a friend this morning. He’s very much the ‘pillar of the community’ type, yet he brought up the idea that all this may well drive significantly more people to homeschool. Private school is tough because, as you mention, this all comes at a time when private financial resources are tight too. What’s particularly sad about that is the area where the school system is failing children most systematically is in low SES areas. It seems to me that families in such situations have the least options. In many cases neither homeschooling or private school are options. They’re stuck with what public school provide.

I believe government generally does a pretty mediocre job at what it does. I’m ok with that. It’s usually better than the alternatives and it’s the nature of big, political organizations. But this situation, if it plays out as threatened, seems like one that’ll be much worse than mediocre. That’s bad enough on the face of it but when I consider that this is kids lives we’re discussing, like you, it makes me very angry and sad.

Computers

If we follow the essentialist instinct to its extreme, there may be substantially less need for teachers. Let’s say the powers that be can define a set of standards for required knowledge and make those standards concrete (i.e. no “well rounded individuals” verbiage and even concepts like ‘problem solving’ are expressed in operational terms). If that is the case and if adhering to those standards is deemed sufficient, than much of what is today done by teachers can be drilled by well designed computer programs. Spelling, vocabulary, math and other objective subjects could be easily computerized. Writing, lab science and some parts of foreign language would be more difficult. But there is a big chunk of day to day teaching that -could- be automated, if society was so inclined.

There are even some areas where computerized training is superior to (or anyway a useful addition to) real world training. Training soldiers, police, first responders and medical personnel on simulators makes a lot of sense due to the costly nature of real world mistakes. However, training grown professionals serves a very different societal function than primary or secondary school. On the other hand, I’ve written elsewhere here about the possible need for more drastic approaches towards changing a system that seems to be failing in major areas in major ways. Perhaps this possibility of widespread computerized intervention will be a good catalyst for change and result in superior integration of humanist and essentialist goals.