Me Think Critically

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.

Abc: Always Be Closing

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.

Building a Better Teacher

How can teachers teach better?  Though the question is simple, the answer is elusive. Elizabeth Green tackles the topic in her superbly written, thoroughly researched, and thoughtful article in the New York Times Magazine from earlier this year.

Green’s piece reads as a who’s who of educational powerbrokers, prominent theorists, and rabble-rousers, touching on many of the common educational debates but weighing in on the central question: how do we build the best teachers?

Is teaching, like the guitar, something that can be learned through careful study and practice, or is it innate? Is quality teaching something that can be bought with better incentives? Should teacher education stress subject knowledge of teachers, or pedagogical savvy? (And another question raised by Green – but not fully dealt with – involves the most basic of questions in the debate: what criteria should we use in establishing which teachers are better than others?)

Doug Lemov serves as one of the central characters in the story. An educational consultant, founder of charter schools, former teacher and principal, he describes an experience common to many educational administrators:

As (Lemov) went from school to school… he was getting the sinking feeling that there was something deeper he wasn’t reaching. On that particular day, he made a depressing visit to a school in Syracuse, N.Y., that was like so many he’d seen before: “a dispiriting exercise in good people failing,” as he described it to me recently. Sometimes Lemov could diagnose problems as soon as he walked in the door. But not here. Student test scores had dipped so low that administrators worried the state might close down the school. But the teachers seemed to care about their students. They sat down with them on the floor to read and picked activities that should have engaged them. The classes were small. The school had rigorous academic standards and state-of-the-art curriculums and used a software program to analyze test results for each student, pinpointing which skills she still needed to work on.But when it came to actual teaching, the daily task of getting students to learn, the school floundered. Students disobeyed teachers’ instructions, and class discussions veered away from the lesson plans. In one class Lemov observed, the teacher spent several minutes debating a student about why he didn’t have a pencil. Another divided her students into two groups to practice multiplication together, only to watch them turn to the more interesting work of chatting. A single quiet student soldiered on with the problems. As Lemov drove from Syracuse back to his home in Albany, he tried to figure out what he could do to help. He knew how to advise schools to adopt a better curriculum or raise standards or develop better communication channels between teachers and principals. But he realized that he had no clue how to advise schools about their main event: how to teach.

He set out to discover why some teachers’ students succeeded and others’ did not – at least, not in the same measure. His observations were collected in an underground book called Lemov’s Taxonomy, only recently available for purchase, Teach Like a Champion – a book that, like Strunk’s Elements of Style, seeks to put into words something ethereal, mystical, but unmistakable when you see it. For Strunk, it was composition; for Lemov, it is teaching.

Lemov argues that by collecting mountains of data – some quantitative from standardized tests, some qualitative from classroom visits and videotaped lessons from ‘star’ teachers – we can determine a list of the best kinds of teaching methods. Most center around ‘getting and holding the floor.’ A skill that, argues Lemov and others, is nearly entirely absent from the curricula of teaching faculties – but one so central to successful teaching it will resonate with anyone who has ever stood in front of a class.

The article is, like many that have appeared in the NYT over the past few years and beyond, highly critical of teacher education – and the often pointless exercise that seems to be so many of our schools and classes. Many practicing teachers will feel slighted by it and probably more than a little angry. But there is little denying that it raises some commonsense questions – the dismay should not be in the asking, but in realizing we often lack consistent and cogent answers.