This evening I participated in the first of six webinars (that’s a speakerphone, a webcam, a chatroom, and a small group on-site) about Results Now by Mike Schmoker. We read and discussed the first chapter, which was about “the buffer” that keeps school people from ever figuring out what’s going on in other teachers’ classrooms, and parents from knowing what’s going on at schools. On that count he has a point – there is this strange situation where a school gets a new teacher, and just sticks her in a classroom by herself until she either figures out how to teach, or develops miserably bad habits, punctuated now and again by demoralizing trainings, while administrators observe perhaps twice a year. Yes, this is not a system designed to coax excellence out of mediocrity. Excellent teachers have to figure out how to do it on their own, and mediocre teachers may well stay that way in perpetuity. He then cites certain studies to back up this claim. As an example:
A sobering recent study based on 1,500 classroom observations puts a fine point on these trends.<snip>:
- Classrooms in which there was evidence of a clear learning objective: 4 percent
- Classrooms in which high yield strategies were being used: .2 percent
- Classrooms in which there was evidence of higher order thinking: 3 percent
- Classrooms in which students were either writing or using rubrics: 0
- Classrooms in which fewer than one half of the students were paying attention: 85 percent
- Classrooms in which students were using worksheets (a bad sign): 52 percent
- Classrooms in which non-instructional activities were occurring: 35 percent
I refused to be shocked by figures like these. Even accounting for vagueness that makes a mockery of the scientific pretensions of such “research,” I’m sure this says something bad about classrooms today. It probably says something bad about us teachers as well.
Mostly, it shows that teachers, like most humans, use certain survival skills adapted to their environment – if you haven’t got it in you to be an incredibly well prepared drill sergeant rhetorician (and most of don’t), you have to get along as best you can, looking for willingness and opportunities to insert some learning in here and there, or make learning likely, or just keep saying things in the hopes that they will one day soak in. Is this a little cynical? Yes, I would imagine so. Is it the way of a brilliant leader? No, of course not. Should we try to do better? Certainly. But in my mild cynicism, I think Schmoker and many Educational Professionals like him are making two enormous mistakes: expecting zeal in an atmosphere that most rewards mild compliance, and discounting the free will of those becoming educated. I believe this to be the case because most of the practices Schmoker condemns are those which teachers use as survival strategies in the face of antagonism, apathy, and situations where the teacher is trying to teach any way he can, and the students are working just as hard to avoid learning. To get higher order thinking, creativity, initiative, attention, and so on, one of two things must be true: either the students must want to learn, or the teacher must be motivational all day every day for week after month after year.
I don’t at all mean to say that there aren’t teachers who are really good at what they do, and have great zeal for their work – only that schools, as a system, don’t deserve them, and shouldn’t have to rely on them. Sometimes great teaching happens, just as sometimes great statesmen or generals or writers or inventors happen. And that can be tremendously powerful for whoever can see that greatness. But a company that needs high levels of greatness to function is a very difficult thing to maintain – perhaps it can be done, at least for a while, with a moderately small company, fairly high salaries, and, most importantly, an environment brilliant people could be excited to work in. Schools, for the most part, have none of these: great teachers do it for the kids, and endure the rest.
I don’t know how this works as a teacher yet. I know how to teach someone who wants what I’m offering, but I’m not marketer, and no manager. Here’s what I noticed as a student: sometimes, if you want to learn, you have to figure things out for yourself. Sometimes you have to work, even at things that you don’t like. Sometimes it’s necessary to be interested, even in the face of the uninteresting. Sometimes you have to pace about at night, putting your thought in order, or write them out, all messy and diluted, until you finally get at what you were trying to say. Sometimes you just have to do the exercise and trust that you’ll get it in the end. Sometimes you have to put up with a lot – with dull teachers and teachers who assume too much or too little, and talk down to you or over your head. Sometimes it’s all right for a class to consist entirely of someone in a dark room showing slides from an old projector and talking about them, then grading three tests and an essay – all your grade for the entire semester. That class has it’s place too, and perhaps it would be spoiled by the newest most researched best teaching practice. Good reading, writing,ad listening are more essential than anything else in academics – and they cannot be made up for, no matter how much more “engaging” the substitute may be. Good thinking can be encouraged and learned, but not taught – or at least not with any certainty. It is so, so, so much easier and surer to deal with one’s own motivation and listening abilities than with anyone else’s.
That’s no doubt enough blather for tonight, I’ll read more and get back about it.