Some Schooling on Education
(or: Some Educating about School)
Sunday’s New York Times ran two articles (in different sections of the paper) that led me to reflect on my 42 years as a teacher and teacher-educator. I’ve written about education and school before but I believe it’s one of those subjects that you can’t discuss too much. The Sunday Review’s last page featured an essay entitled, “Those Who Can Do, Can’t Teach,” turning an old cliché on its head (“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”). Written by Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, the article posits that those who “do,” those who are “experts” in their field, are very often not very good teachers. In Grant’s words, many eminent professors, “knew too much about their subject, and had mastered it long ago” and, therefore, couldn’t identify with the ignorance of the novices in their classes. I’m guessing there are more than a few people reading this who sat through classes in college that were taught by “renowned” professors who were, at best, “boring,” and, at worst, impossibly boring! While they may have won Nobel’s or Pulitzer's or other notable prizes/awards, they simply stand before their audience essentially showing off how smart they are and presenting what they know. This reveals one of the great misconceptions about educating people --- the notion that “teaching is telling.”
One of the great problems we have in education --- and it most often starts in upper elementary grades and continues on through graduate/professional school --- is that what a teacher “does” is stand before a group of students and talk/tell. This is why most non-teachers believe they know what “teaching” is, and why so many believe there is “nothing to it.” This is a medieval model of “teaching,” of course, when European “professors” were the most literate people in the society and had possession of the few texts there were (most often in Greek or Latin) and stood before their “classes” explaining (telling) what was in the books. In a pre-Gutenberg world, that makes sense. Nonetheless, even after the invention of the printing press, mass production of books, and, now, the digitized print world, “teaching” has too often remained medieval! And that’s why there is still a widespread belief that someone who is “successful” in the “real world” can glide into a university or school and be an “outstanding” teacher/professor. Not so.
Think about any real/true educational experience you’ve had in your life: be it learning to ride a bicycle, solving a difficult problem, or putting together your latest IKEA purchase. There wasn’t anyone standing there telling you how to do it. Genuine learning requires active engagement, so a teacher may have to “lecture” to provide novice learners with information they will need to use to then ride the bike, solve the problem, or put the IKEA item together. Deborah Meier, one of the great thinkers about education since the second half of the last century, often wondered why it was that students were only “active learners” in their early elementary years and then again when they were in PhD or Med School programs! In between, most of us were subjected to good old fashion medieval boredom! The misconception that “those who can, do” and “those who can’t, teach” perpetuates the denigration of the profession of teaching --- and it is simply incorrect thinking! Good teachers are those who engage their students in active, thoughtful education that develops critical (and deep) thinking about serious problems and issues.
Toward the end of Sunday’s Business section was the weekly piece by Rob Walker (The Workologist) --- essentially an advice column (“for workplace conundrums”) for those in the business world. This week’s piece was entitled Is Having Friends at the Office a Job Necessity? and the email writer (a “socially anxious” individual) noted that, despite working in a “small department,” (s)he did not feel “a connection with any of my three direct colleagues.” I found this interesting because teaching, as a career, is a decidedly isolating and isolated profession --- to the detriment of practitioners, students, and their community. Because of school structure and history, teachers most often work by themselves --- with little critical/collegial observation (which could help!). Sure, there are “faculty” and “departmental” meetings but those are often hours of administrivia that you never get back. Middle schools introduced the notion of “teams” and that creates some common planning, as well information sharing about students --- but in many instances the time together is brief and it is often usurped by some “crisis.”
I bring all this up because I don’t think the average non-teaching civilian considers what a teacher’s day/week/month/year is like --- often falling into the easy clichéd criticism about how much “time off” teachers have (a subject I’ll discuss---and dispute---some other time). My best times teaching were in settings (at Blind Brook High School, at Brown University, at the Parker School, at the Urban Assembly School of Design and Construction) where I was able to work closely with my colleagues (and not just people in “my department”) and, in fact, was friends with those colleagues. I do not think I can emphasize enough how much it improves a teacher’s practice, as well as his/her morale, to work with committed colleagues you trust, believe in, and enjoy (as people, beyond teaching). It is an aspect of the profession that is too often given short shrift --- once again, to the detriment of our teachers, students, and schools.
While we are distracted on a daily basis by the current circus in Washington, D.C., “school” is already starting around the country. If you have children, or grandchildren, (or nieces/nephews, friends/neighbors) who are attending school --- at any level between K and Graduate/Professional School --- I hope you might consider exactly what it is their teachers are doing. Test scores do not (necessarily) reflect great teaching. Administrator’s “observations” often miss the mark, as many administrators (not all) don’t know good/great teaching, even when it’s right in front of them (a “quiet” class isn’t necessarily a “good” class where anyone is actually learning anything!). One thing you might consider is simply asking the kids what they’re doing in school, which teachers are the ones they feel they’re “learning” from (and why), as well as what they’d like to be learning about (something schools do a terrible job with).
Schools should be active, exciting places where students are engaged learners and teachers are enthusiastic “coaches,” guiding those students through the maze that is the curriculum (more on that another time, too). As citizens in a democracy that feels more and more threatened as each day goes by, we need to remember that public schools were created for the sole purpose of ensuring we have an educated electorate. Our daily observations illustrate how poorly we have done in reaching that goal --- which only reinforces why it is so important for each of us to take an active, engaged role in making sure teachers and students are given optimal opportunities to achieve and succeed.