We all want (even) better schools. But anyone close to the challenge of improving schools knows that often part of the problem is not too little inspiration but too much. Attempts to improve bring a flood of well-intentioned ideas.
“We should have a later start to the school day”
“We have to teach 21st century skills”
“We need more creativity in our classrooms”
… And so on. Some, or all, might be valuable. None might be. But more important than the question “would any given idea work?” is “would this idea work better than any other possibility?”
Elizabeth Green recounts one experience from Doug Lemov, a prime mover in US Charter Schools. Lemov took a group of highly motivated teachers to…
one of the crown jewels of the no-excuses world: KIPP Academy in New York City. Created by David Levin and Mike Feinberg, two early Teach For America corps members, KIPP was a perfect model of both the zero-tolerance discipline approach and the sermonizing school-as-pep-talk culture.
Yet when Doug asked the Syracuse teachers about the trip, he found that the visit had not proved instructive. The teachers had seen plenty of things – the arrangement of the reading rugs, the colours of the uniforms. But… they had not seen the things that they needed to learn. “I just remember thinking, ‘Holy shit. That’s what you took away?’ The things they took away were so random, and if you ranked the most important things about a high-performing school from 1 to 100, they had seen number 63, number 84, and number 47. As opposed to numbers 1, 2 and 3.” (Green, Building a Better Teacher, p. 172)
I think teaching is where medicine was several generations ago: our dreariest days are behind us. Our best systematic research efforts are underway. The better districts and systems are using the best evidence, and are thriving on the best international measures of student success. And at the level of the classroom, the mindset of the practitioner is (hopefully) no longer that mere enthusiasm for children is sufficient to be a good or great teacher. These are all welcome improvements over previous eras.
But for profound changes, we need to stop thinking at the level of changing the colours of the carpet when making the thousands of day-to-day decisions that impact our schools. We need to be sure we waste no time implementing changes that actually work, and politely ignore those that have a smaller effect size. We have only so much time.
How many meetings have you been in where number 63 on the Most Important Initiative list wins out over numbers 1, 2, and 3?
Do we have the capacity in our schools to know what are the most important factors to drive improvement? How would we tell the difference between numbers 84 and 1?
And how do you build a culture of insisting that changes are improvements, not just changing the carpets?
Why? It said just about everything I wanted someone to say. That schooling could be understood as more than just folk practice; that good teaching techniques could be scaled up and popularized; that with the creation of a shared vocabulary describing effective practice, we could – probably quickly – make big gains in the quality of our schools. And these ideas – explicit and implicit – all set against the background of the assertion that schooling is important.
The best teachers are made. They are, to use the dichotomy Green attributes to Lemov, strivers.
Continuous improvement is the appropriate model to follow. Slow, steady, thoughtful adjustments.
Data is key. Either quantitative or qualitative. But you need to have a measure of what is working.
An interesting and sustainable model for individual improvement is teachers teaching teachers. With little hierarchy.
The thing that matters is the very specific teaching practices, what Hanushek called the black box of teaching. What happens in the classroom between teachers and students, and students and their peers, is what schooling’s success rests on.
There are a lot of books written about schooling, but this is one of the few that takes a granular view of the thousands of small decisions teachers need to make to improve student outcomes. It is not merely the elucidation of one teacher’s view about her teaching practice, but rather a synthesis of the history of a movement to improve schooling (one that does not stretch back too far, actually). And its conclusions point to a more hopeful future; while the outcomes of schooling rival the other helping professions, we stand at an interesting an exciting point in time, within striking distance of codifying and disseminating the best teaching practices. Green’s book is a very satisfying (if incomplete) survey of what has been done, what needs to be done, and (at least tentatively) how to do it.
Most people who went through a preservice teaching program, generally called Teachers’ College, regarded the experience somewhat skeptically. Most of us wanted something different – less theoretical, more theoretical, more experience in the classroom, different mentor teachers, and the list goes on.
At the heart of this policy is a claim by the education establishment that taking the coursework needed to obtain certification is not only the best, but also the only acceptable means for preparing teachers. This assertion, some claim, is supported by a body of research consisting of 100 to 200 studies. This report reveals in detail the shortcomings found in this research. In fact, the academic research attempting to link teacher certification with student achievement is astonishingly deficient.
To reach this conclusion, we reviewed every published study or paper—along with many unpublished dissertations—cited by prominent national advocates of teacher certification. We found roughly 150 studies, going back 50 years, which explored or purported to explore the relationship between teacher preparation and student achievement.
To our knowledge, there has been no comparable effort by analysts to drill systematically down through these layers of evidence in order to determine what value lies at the core.
The following deficiencies characterize the work advocating teacher certification:
– Research that is seen as helping the case for certification is cited selectively, while research that does not is overlooked.
– The lack of evidence for certification is con- cealed by the practice of padding analyses with multiple references that appear to provide support but, once read, do not.
– Research is cited that is too old to be reliable or retrievable.
– Research that has not been subjected to peer review is given unmerited weight, with particu- lar reliance on unpublished dissertations.
– Instead of using standardized measures of student achievement, advocates design their own assessment measures to prove certification’s value.
– Basic principles of sound statistical analysis, which are taken for granted in other academic disciplines, are violated routinely. Examples include failing to control for such key variables as poverty and prior student achievement; using sample sizes which are too small to allow generalization or reliable statistical inference; and relying on inappropriately aggregated data.
It is a tired axiom that teachers get blamed for things that aren’t always their fault. And while that matter deserves exploration on its own, for today let’s leave it at a judicious reprinting of two worthy commentators.
As you might imagine, my job can be extremely difficult. Beyond the challenges posed by my students, budget cuts and changes to special-education policy have increased my workload drastically even over just the past 18 months. While my class sizes have grown, support staff members have been laid off. Students with increasingly severe disabilities are being pushed into more mainstream classrooms like mine, where they receive less individual attention and struggle to adapt to a curriculum driven by state-designed high-stakes tests.
On top of all that, I’m a bad teacher. That’s not my opinion; it’s how I’m labeled by the city’s Education Department. Last June, my principal at the time rated my teaching “unsatisfactory,” checking off a few boxes on an evaluation sheet that placed my career in limbo. That same year, my school received an “A” rating. I was a bad teacher at a good school. It was pretty humiliating.
Like most teachers, I’m good some days, bad others. The same goes for my students. Last May, my assistant principal at the time observed me teaching in our school’s “self-contained” classroom. A self-contained room is a separate classroom for students with extremely severe learning disabilities. In that room, I taught a writing class for students ages 14 to 17, whose reading levels ranged from third through seventh grades.
When the assistant principal walked in, one of these students, a freshman girl classified with an emotional disturbance, began cursing. When the assistant principal ignored her, she started cursing at me. Then she began lobbing pencils across the room. Was this because I was a bad teacher? I don’t know.
I know that after she began throwing things, I sent her to the dean’s office. I know that a few days later, I received notice that my lesson had been rated unsatisfactory because, among other things, I had sent this student to the dean instead of following our school’s “guided discipline” procedure.
I was confused. Earlier last year, this same assistant principal observed me and instructed me to prioritize improving my “assertive voice” in the classroom. But about a month later, my principal observed me and told me to focus entirely on lesson planning, since she had no concerns about my classroom management. A few weeks earlier, she had written on my behalf for a citywide award for “classroom excellence.” Was I really a bad teacher?
In my three years with the city schools, I’ve seen a teacher with 10 years of experience become convinced, after just a few observations, that he was a terrible teacher. A few months later, he quit teaching altogether. I collaborated with another teacher who sought psychiatric care for insomnia after a particularly intense round of observations. I myself transferred to a new school after being rated “unsatisfactory.”
Behind all of this is the reality that teachers care a great deal about our work. At the school where I work today, my “bad” teaching has mostly been very successful. Even so, I leave work most days replaying lessons in my mind, wishing I’d done something differently. This isn’t because my lessons are bad, but because I want to get better at my job.
In fact, I don’t just want to get better; like most teachers I know, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I have to be. Dozens and dozens of teenagers scrutinize my language, clothing and posture all day long, all week long. If I’m off my game, the students tell me. They comment on my taste in neckties, my facial hair, the quality of my lessons. All of us teachers are evaluated all day long, already. It’s one of the most exhausting aspects of our job.
Teaching was a high-pressure job long before No Child Left Behind and the current debates about teacher evaluation. These debates seem to rest on the assumption that, left to our own devices, we teachers would be happy to coast through the school year, let our skills atrophy and collect our pensions.
The truth is, teachers don’t need elected officials to motivate us. If our students are not learning, they let us know. They put their heads down or they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes, they just stare at us like zombies. Few things are more excruciating for a teacher than leading a class that’s not learning. Good administrators use the evaluation processes to support teachers and help them avoid those painful classroom moments — not to weed out the teachers who don’t produce good test scores or adhere to their pedagogical beliefs.
Worst of all, the more intense the pressure gets, the worse we teach. When I had administrators breathing down my neck, the students became a secondary concern. I simply did whatever my assistant principal asked me to do, even when I thought his ideas were crazy. In all honesty, my teaching probably became close to incoherent. One week, my assistant principal wanted me to focus on arranging the students’ desks to fit with class activities, so I moved the desks around every day, just to show that I was a good soldier. I was scared of losing my job, and my students suffered for it.
That said, given all the support in the world, even the best teacher can’t force his students to learn. Students aren’t simply passive vessels, waiting to absorb information from their teachers and regurgitate it through high-stakes assessments. They make choices about what they will and won’t learn. I know I did. When I was a teenager, I often stayed up way too late, talking with friends, listening to music or playing video games. Did this affect my performance on tests? Undoubtedly. Were my teachers responsible for these choices? No.
LAST week, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that teachers’ individual performance assessments could be made public. I have no opinion on the ruling as a matter of law, but as a harbinger of education policy in the United States, it is a big mistake.
I am a strong proponent of measuring teachers’ effectiveness, and my foundation works with many schools to help make sure that such evaluations improve the overall quality of teaching. But publicly ranking teachers by name will not help them get better at their jobs or improve student learning. On the contrary, it will make it a lot harder to implement teacher evaluation systems that work.
In most public schools today, teachers are simply rated “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory,” and evaluations consist of having the principal observe a class for a few minutes a couple of times each year. Because we are just beginning to understand what makes a teacher effective, the vast majority of teachers are rated “satisfactory.” Few get specific feedback or training to help them improve.
Many districts and states are trying to move toward better personnel systems for evaluation and improvement. Unfortunately, some education advocates in New York, Los Angeles and other cities are claiming that a good personnel system can be based on ranking teachers according to their “value-added rating” — a measurement of their impact on students’ test scores — and publicizing the names and rankings online and in the media. But shaming poorly performing teachers doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback.
Value-added ratings are one important piece of a complete personnel system. But student test scores alone aren’t a sensitive enough measure to gauge effective teaching, nor are they diagnostic enough to identify areas of improvement. Teaching is multifaceted, complex work. A reliable evaluation system must incorporate other measures of effectiveness, like students’ feedback about their teachers and classroom observations by highly trained peer evaluators and principals.
Putting sophisticated personnel systems in place is going to take a serious commitment. Those who believe we can do it on the cheap — by doing things like making individual teachers’ performance reports public — are underestimating the level of resources needed to spur real improvement.
At Microsoft, we created a rigorous personnel system, but we would never have thought about using employee evaluations to embarrass people, much less publish them in a newspaper. A good personnel system encourages employees and managers to work together to set clear, achievable goals. Annual reviews are a diagnostic tool to help employees reflect on their performance, get honest feedback and create a plan for improvement. Many other businesses and public sector employers embrace this approach, and that’s where the focus should be in education: school leaders and teachers working together to get better.
Perhaps the reason I like it so much is that I delivered a similar line of thinking in an interview for a position I didn’t get. I made the same comparisons to musicians and medicine – it wasn’t clear to me at the time what the panel thought, but their actions indicated they didn’t share the theory. I still think the idea is correct – and it was lovely to see it in a more capable set of hands than mine.
Here are the highlights of Gawande’s thinking – as it applies to teaching, especially…
Our Current Conception of Learning a Profession
“The coaching model is different from the traditional conception of pedagogy, where there’s a presumption that, after a certain point, the student no longer needs instruction. You graduate. You’re done. You can go the rest of the way yourself.”
Whereas, in Sports…
“Coaching in pro sports proceeds from a starkly different premise: it considers the teaching model naïve about our human capacity for self-perfection. It holds that, no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own.”
What about in Teaching?
“California researchers in the early nineteen-eighties conducted a five-year study of teacher-skill development in eighty schools, and noticed something interesting. Workshops led teachers to use new skills in the classroom only ten per cent of the time. Even when a practice session with demonstrations and personal feedback was added, fewer than twenty per cent made the change. But when coaching was introduced—when a colleague watched them try the new skills in their own classroom and provided suggestions—adoption rates passed ninety per cent. A spate of small randomized trials confirmed the effect. Coached teachers were more effective, and their students did better on tests.”
In a school board where teachers coach other teachers…
“To find its coaches, the program took applications from any teachers in the system who were willing to cross over to the back of the classroom for a couple of years and teach colleagues instead of students.”
An Example of How Coaching Can Help Teachers
“Novice teachers often struggle with the basic behavioral issues. Hobson told me of one such teacher, whose students included a hugely disruptive boy. Hobson took her to observe the boy in another teacher’s classroom, where he behaved like a prince. Only then did the teacher see that her style was the problem. She let students speak—and shout, and interrupt—without raising their hands, and go to the bathroom without asking. Then she got angry when things got out of control.”
The Coaching of a Veteran teacher, Jennie Critzer
“Élite performers, researchers say, must engage in “deliberate practice”—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches—showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation.
At lunchtime, Critzer and her coaches sat down at a table in the empty school library. Hobson took the lead. “What worked?” he asked.
Critzer said she had been trying to increase the time that students spend on independent practice during classes, and she thought she was doing a good job. She was also trying to “break the plane” more—get out from in front of the whiteboard and walk among the students—and that was working nicely. But she knew the next question, and posed it herself: “So what didn’t go well?” She noticed one girl who “clearly wasn’t getting it.” But at the time she hadn’t been sure what to do.
“How could you help her?” Hobson asked.
She thought for a moment. “I would need to break the concept down for her more,” she said. “I’ll bring her in during the fifth block.”
“What else did you notice?”
“My second class has thirty kids but was more forthcoming. It was actually easier to teach than the first class. This group is less verbal.” Her answer gave the coaches the opening they wanted. They mentioned the trouble students had with their math conversations, and the girl-boy pair who didn’t talk at all. “How could you help them be more verbal?”
Critzer was stumped. Everyone was. The table fell silent. Then Harding had an idea. “How about putting key math words on the board for them to use—like ‘factoring,’ ‘perfect square,’ ‘radical’?” she said. “They could even record the math words they used in their discussion.” Critzer liked the suggestion. It was something to try.”
And How Did Critzer Feel?
‘I asked Critzer if she liked the coaching. “I do,” she said. “It works with my personality. I’m very self-critical. So I grabbed a coach from the beginning.” She had been concerned for a while about how to do a better job engaging her kids. “So many things have to come together. I’d exhausted everything I knew to improve.”
She told me that she had begun to burn out. “I felt really isolated, too,” she said. Coaching had changed that. “My stress level is a lot less now.” That might have been the best news for the students. They kept a great teacher, and saw her get better. “The coaching has definitely changed how satisfying teaching is,” she said.’
“Good coaches know how to break down performance into its critical individual components. In sports, coaches focus on mechanics, conditioning, and strategy, and have ways to break each of those down, in turn. The U.C.L.A. basketball coach John Wooden, at the first squad meeting each season, even had his players practice putting their socks on. He demonstrated just how to do it: he carefully rolled each sock over his toes, up his foot, around the heel, and pulled it up snug, then went back to his toes and smoothed out the material along the sock’s length, making sure there were no wrinkles or creases. He had two purposes in doing this. First, wrinkles cause blisters. Blisters cost games. Second, he wanted his players to learn how crucial seemingly trivial details could be. “Details create success” was the creed of a coach who won ten N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championships.”
This sort of thinking is exactly the kind of thing advocated by Doug Lemov, teaching and learning guru from the US profiled in the New York Times and elsewhere. In the clip below he highlights the “microtechniques” used by the expert teacher. The details matter; the results, impressive.
Having just spent a few weeks in lectures, workshop sessions, and all other manner of professional development, I’m left with a lot of epistemological questions. I imagine the organizers of the events – two separate conferences, one on Vancouver Island and one in London, UK – might be disappointed that I’ve taken their very practical programs and been obsessed with their philosophical implications, but that’s what’s happened. And I think there should be more of the kinds of philosophical tearing-down my own obsessive nature is prone to.
While it’s easy to grouse at the coffee breaks found in any of these events that our days are measured out in teaspoons, the truth is, of course, that any profession of any merit has a sustained effort, though often ridiculed, at ensuring its practitioners are exposed to evolving ideas and – perhaps obviously – other practitioners themselves. And aside from the explicit lessons of these conferences – which were very interesting, and certainly provided helpful inspiration – I was most intrigued by the reactions of my peers, both the positive and the negative, to the speakers. There was the general critique of too much sitting and listening (how else it could be efficiently done, I don’t know, so I don’t share the complaint), but more telling was the adoration of some speakers and the disdain for others. Some speakers, according to my fellow participants, were “amazing,” “so powerful,” “inspirational,” and so on, implying that they had a truth first among unequals. But I think any careful listener would be left with, among others, at least one question: how would we know?
By that I mean, “how would we know” that any particular claim promoted by any speaker or authority is correct? When an educational consultant advances a claim, even a reasonable one, it should be our job, if we are to make it part of our practice beyond mere curious experiment, if we are to endorse it and spread it across the land staff room by staff room, to at least give it a thorough shake in our own minds. For me, that begins with the question of criteria – again, how would we know? For any claim we might make, even one as simple and resonant (and probably-true) as the claim that “boys need good role models,” we’d need to establish: why? We’d need to establish (at least) that A) boys actually model their behaviour on people in the media (a claim I’m not convinced of, given the popularity of violence in film and tv compared with the relative lack of violence in most boys’ lives) and that B) our current role models are lacking in quality (again, if we consider the entire range of men in the media, not conclusive), and that C) we even know who boys decide their role models are. A simple claim like that, one that would have nearly universal agreement in a room of teachers, is hardly certain. And if such a claim isn’t certain, we should be a lot less vigorous when we nod our heads in agreement every time a speaker shows a PowerPoint slide of a disaffected young man, and accept the idea on a solely provisional basis.
It is hardly contestable that much – if not most – of what we have been previously absolutely certain has been modified, deemphasized, or thrown out altogether. Which isn’t to say speakers shouldn’t make any claims, but that both the speakers and (especially) their audiences, should be a little less absolute in their claims – or, at least provide compelling evidence.
To take another claim, let’s turn to neuroscience. I can’t think of a more powerful force in the reformation of pedagogy in the past decade, and its influence shows no sign of wavering. The general idea is this: since our brains are central to cognition (obviously), the best teaching practice will be informed by the science of the brain. And so far as that goes, I wholeheartedly agree. I am a fairly repetitive advocate of something of a medical model of understanding schools. And it would be preposterous to have doctor say, “I’m not interested in learning about the biology of the human body. It’s not helpful to my practice.”
Yet, the claims of neuroscience are so very immature, when we ask “how would we know (the truth of any claim)?” our answer is, “right now, it would be hard to know much at all.” The complexity of the brain, and its plasticity (the tendency of the physical structures of the brain to change, often by the object of our fascination itself, our consciousness), mean that we’re unlikely to see usable advice from neuroscience for some time. Thoughts in brains might not be as reducible to biological processes as kidneys are – a fact that psychiatrists confront all too often. (And in fact, acknowledging a dynamic and complicated, non-reductionistic practice, perhaps teachers are more akin to these latter kinds of practitioners.)
Think about some of the other claims in our field – how many would stand up to the simple question, “how would we know?” I heard very little of that kind of inquiry at these conferences, a possible explanation for the fairly constant cycle in education: a theory or practice emerges, many followers sign on enthusiastically, those who do not are labeled as backwards, until an even newer theory or practice comes along with equal (read: little) reason for certainty to replace the old one, whereupon we all laugh at how silly we were at subscribing to the old theory or practice, yet subscribing to the new one with even greater vigor and certainty. Until an even newer theory or practice comes along…
So, if the relative merits of the individual speakers were not weighed on the basis of their evidence, what criteria did the audience use? My dour conclusion: the popularity of any given presenter was related directly, and disproportionately, to his or her dynamism and sense of humor. Some of them were exceptionally funny; indeed, one got the laughs and rapt attention usually reserved to the best stand-up comics. Some speakers were loved, and therefore spoke the gospel truth; others were perceived as “boring,” so their words were doubted.
Nearly all professions have some sort of performance review. I am told that, in some industries, they can come very frequently: sometimes at the conclusion of each project. Online survey applications like SurveyMonkey allow frequent (and sometimes meaningful) feedback from our superiors and our clients alike. And in an enlightened world, those critiques are understood with a reasonable outlook: while there might be room for improvement, feedback shouldn’t be a noose to hang you.
In teaching, though, there is remarkably little oversight. In most public boards, once you’ve cleared the probation period, you can more or less be guaranteed a job. You are subject to periodic teaching appraisals, but if you get less than satisfactory the union will grieve it. You can imagine how few teachers receive less than satisfactory appraisals.
Teachers can be quite defensive about their practice. Even the act of stepping into another teacher’s classroom can be perceived as an affront – “who are you to snoop?” Why are we like this – why so defensive?
I think this can be explained with a few things in mind. First, teachers receive less affirmation from adult peers than any profession I can think of – you could go a year or two without anyone saying “Good job.” So when people come snooping by, our first reaction can be out of fear. And second, because the craft is so damn mysterious. As a nurse, you are expected to follow protocol; as a doctor, even more so. Most professions are quite mechanical, if I can be forgiven for the term. If I walk into an emergency room complaining of chest pains, the staff will do the same thing no matter which western hospital I’m in. Can the same be said of teaching? And if not, if teaching is less mechanical and standardized than some would have it, what should I be doing at any given moment?
“Bill Gates, who in recent years has turned his attention and considerable fortune to improving American education, is investing $335 million through his foundation to overhaul the personnel departments of several big school systems. A big chunk of that money is financing research by dozens of social scientists and thousands of teachers to develop a better system for evaluating classroom instruction. The effort will have enormous consequences for the movement to hold schools and educators more accountable for student achievement.”
I suggest something bold: teachers and all school administrators should be evaluated once per year by those above them and below (by whatever means, technological or conventional, we can agree on). In addition to the usual power relationships, teachers should be evaluated by students, and principals by teachers. Not maybe with the intention to fire, but possibly – and even if not, the exercise provides a tremendous amount of insight into our practice. My school has every student complete a course evaluation in every single section of the senior school – more than 150 in total – in December so teachers can improve their practice. Student-generated data isn’t everything, but it is a key component of how we understand the successes and failures of our methods. (It should be noted that I teach in a private school – we are all on one-year contracts. While it is not for everyone, I am certain such an arrangement improves the quality of teaching.)
When we compare teaching with other public goods, however, it does strike me how teachers might not get a fair shake. I have never been able to provide meaningful feedback to my doctor (who, as most doctors in Canada, runs a partly-entrepreneurial practice: if you don’t like it, find another doctor), or a nurse in a hospital, or really any other public provider. (There are exception, I suppose, for certain kinds of civil servants, those especially close to elected officials hoping to return to office). And while we might gripe about nurses or doctors, we wouldn’t dream of instituting a meaningful, 360-degree evaluation scheme for them.
Scrutiny for all. At worst, we suffer a little more job anxiety. At best, we improve a whole range of performances. Sure, criticism stings: but even in a world where we received frequent and honest criticism, we wouldn’t all get fired. But we might, if we can get over ourselves, improve.
You can’t be in the business of education very long before it hits you: many teachers, good teachers, even bright teachers, are often remarkably silly about what it means to teach. When I say silly I mean that they hold beliefs that are, on the surface and deeper than that, either nonsense or wholly unexamined. And silly, too, because they are so very often good teachers despite their holding these notions.
Recently I found myself in a discussion with some very kind and earnest teachers when, in my experience, the oldest of these chestnuts came up – the old idea of the importance of ‘critical thinking.’ It came up because we were asked what we thought was the purpose of schooling. Some said to teach character, an idea that I quite like (believing that we lack much of it), but wonder about the idea of middle-aged white people imposing their character on the young. Some said it was to produce democratic citizens, which again I like, but agree with the educational conservatives when they wonder how a school can ever achieve such a complicated aim. But nearly everyone agreed that critical thinking should be the central – if not the only! – aim of schools. (Not one person in a group of 25 said that to impart knowledge was important.)
I immediately thought of E.D. Hirsch, an educational writer and thinker much-maligned in progressive circles, who argued two points on the topic: one, teaching ‘critical thinking’ in isolation is impossibly hollow (imagine trying to teach someone how to think, critically or otherwise, if not about something); and two, that while we all want students to be savvy readers and thinkers, we also want them to know things, to be wise and knowledgeable about the world around them.
And perhaps what bothered me most was the sense of universal agreement around the room – a gaggle of smiling, self-congratulatory faces pleased with their consensus, and exuding an if-only-the-world-thought-as-we-do confidence. But returning to my first point, most teachers are not ‘critical thinkers’ themselves. They adopt ideas without evaluating their merit, and in such a wild fervor that they soon find themselves in possession of a thousand ‘certainties’ about teaching and learning, most of them at odds with one another.
Some of these ideas are indeed just silly. Most non-teachers will have stumbled on the following musing, attributed to (and I hope for his sake, falsely) William Glasser:
“We Learn . . .
10% of what we read
20% of what we hear
30% of what we see
50% of what we see and hear
70% of what we discuss
80% of what we experience
95% of what we teach others.”
This is cute, albeit mythical, and it appeals to our general idea that students should take on rich educational experiences. All good so far as it goes. But I have seen this presented as fact – on more occasions than I care to mention. (Once, in that dead time waiting for a professional development session to begin, a teacher proudly showed me a version of this taped to the front of a binder; she was troubled when the instructor began with the same quotation, but with slightly different numbers – she made a note to update her chart for future reference, and no doubt felt the session was valuable because she was able to update her research on human cognition.)
And any teacher who ‘thinks critically’ about this fact, who might ask skeptical questions about something so obviously silly, gets shouted down, or at least subject to a good eye roll. And the list of unexamined, smiling half-truths could go on: multiple intelligences, different learning styles, and others, ideas not by necessity wrong, but lacking so much their automatic inclusion as sacrosanct is troubling.
If teachers (including me, though I fared better than most having come to the educational game later than some) had learned more about (proper, not educational) psychology, cognition, and philosophy, let alone logic, we could more skeptically and therefore more ably interrogate nonsense ideas that, if we didn’t thankfully ignore them, would corrupt our daily practice. Knowledge, of these and other areas, would allow us to think more critically than a lot of hot air about putting the cart before the horse – and doing so with the additional irritation of politely sanctimonious airs.
In the constellation of teachers there are many kinds, but among the divisions are those teachers who enjoy it and those who might prefer to be doing something else. In the latter, the tradition is to grumble and seek out a realtor’s license. In the former, you often hear satisfied teachers go on and on about how teaching is ‘a calling.’
While I am a satisfied teacher, and I’m fond of saying that teaching is a job that most days doesn’t feel like a job at all, I have never seen it as a calling. I didn’t know from a young age that teaching was where I would end up, and I probably reflected some of the societal disdain for teachers common among the young – especially during the New Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s. But now having spent some years doing it, I am rankled at the idea of teaching-as-calling. To me, teaching is a job – one that I want to do well, that I work hard at, that I meditate on and that I think has social value. But it is a job, not a calling.
People will say I miss the subtlety here. They will say that what is really meant is that teaching is a kind of service, a stewardship, or some such. And I still bristle. Teaching is a career, a profession, one of great importance that ought to be done first and foremost by professionals.
I fear that when we turn teaching into the Lord’s work, or use the words of missionaries and charities, we demean teaching. Great teachers and principals will laugh and say, ‘you don’t do it for the money!’ But what kind of system education can we expect when we have the mentality of 19th century social reformers? When we describe it as a calling, we absolve the practitioner of a weighty responsibility to do it as well as possible. When it is a calling, we rely on the kindness of charity-types to ‘do their best,’ whatever that might be. When it is a profession, we can insist on a greater quality – education is important enough to be kept away from the (possibly-untalented) do-gooder.
(And anyway, those who protest the salaries as motivation can prove me wrong by taking a pay cut. A salary that is about twice the national average shouldn’t be sneered at.)
I wonder how other essential professions would fare with the same attitude. Imagine medicine – a profession with a more obvious sense of caring than teaching, owing to the distress of the ill – relying on the kindness of its practitioners. Without a comfortable salary, strict protocols, and a sense of detached professionalism, our medicine would resemble that of a previous age. However we sentimentalize that era, more people would die of illness.
We can build the best system of education, I think, when we view teaching as a profession, not unlike medicine or law. It goes without saying that teaching is a human action, practiced best as humanely as possible. But humane shouldn’t mean amateur. And our language often belies our deeper belief, that educating is a kind of selfless endeavor, done for the betterment of the world.
Good teachers should be praised and paid well; bad teachers should be let free of the job. Being sentimental doesn’t help students learn.
When I went to teacher’s college, one of the assignments involved developing a metaphor for our teaching practice. We were to develop a comparison between teaching and something else, and in doing so, we were to refine our own ideas on the profession and our ‘role as teacher.’ It was these affective activities that seemed to define the year.
The examples around the room were all suitably reflective of general ideas on education. One of my colleagues said that teaching is like being a gardener, for teachers prepare the soil, tend to the plants with water and nourishment, and protect them from anything that will mar their development. Another said that teaching was like being an electrician, because electricians run conduit and wires, but that the electricity, being out of their strict control and possessing its own life, is like our students’ imaginations. A guest of the class, a grad student from the curriculum department, said that to her, it was both butterflies and bricks, since teachers need to be a mix of foundation and whimsy, of structure and flexibility. She had prepared an Escher-esque poster to illustrate her point with the bricks of a wall flying away.
I wasn’t the best student. I tended to see the year as a bit of a waste – my cohort of 32 had 28 master’s degrees and 10 Ph.D.s. Some of my colleagues had just finished a term teaching university students as sessional instructors and were looking for more steady employment after missing out on tenure-track university jobs. I saw ‘reflections’ like this as largely beside the point – and I still do. I don’t think they helped me be a better teacher because while they did ask us to ponder some interesting questions, there were no answers more correct than others; the speculation involved generally didn’t move past the level of good dinner discussion. As Doug Lemov points out, it didn’t help me know what to do when the students entered the room on my first day of class.
But students like I was, and am, still desire graduation so I completed the task. In doing so I decided to go once more to the well of my contrarian’s disposition, I hope still as deep and abiding as it once was, and write something decidedly less idealistic. I wrote that teachers are like salesmen (pardon the unreconstructed singular gender), because teachers, like salesmen, need to inspire sometimes reluctant customers, to get their attention, and metaphorically, grab them by the lapels and close the deal. Sometimes we use humor, sometimes ferocity, and, like a good salesman, it takes a wise teacher to know the time and place for each. The best salesmen don’t let personality get in the way of a sale. As teachers, we need to be able to play the crowd, to silence the heckler as we hawk our goods – knowledge – and make our customers feel like better people for having bought in. It is a good salesman that makes you feel happier for having spent your money; teachers can do likewise with a teenager’s more prized possession – time.
And I think the metaphor holds. In the David Mamet movie Glengarry Glenross, based on Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer-prize winning play, Alec Baldwin, a dynamic if abusive real estate salesman, confronts a group of under-performing salesmen. His powerful speech is as darkly comic as it comes, and while the language is spicy, we teachers would do well to heed at least some of his advice: always be closing.