Presto Change-o

A former colleague of mine recently had to endure a teachers’ meeting that featured a staple of bad “training,” the Motivational Speaker. These people blow through town like airborne smells, leaving trace elements behind. (Every now and then an exception proves the rule: I once had the pleasure of hearing Diane Ravitch address a conference I was attending. Unfortunately, she was offering pungency not perfume that day, and left too many noses wrinkled and out of joint. Pity.)

Why do American educators go for these people? I think the taste goes back to the days of the Chautauqua meeting or tent meeting at which one could have one’s psychic engine revved for an hour or so by a famed tent meeting speaker. Yet these meetings must have become popular in answer to a need already felt. I am not sure what the need was or is, but Tocqueville said he found Americans restless in the midst of their prosperity because they were always thinking of “the good things they have not got.” Maybe the Motivational Speaker by his emollient words quells for a while that rooted unease. The phenomenon of such speakers at teachers’ training meetings is not to be found in India, Finland, China, or Hong Kong. I think that in addition to having a peculiarly American genesis, such speakers will prove to be harbingers of a peculiarly American “solution” (what a word!) to the difficulty of education.

At my colleague’s meeting the Speaker’s topic was the need to be open to change. Now, a principle of life as a teacher is that when someone says in a kind voice, “Be open to change,” you can bet another, less kind, voice will follow in due course saying, “Assume the position.” But there is more than that, though that should be more than enough.

Some time ago I wrote about the appeal of junk education, and I think that appeal is growing stronger. People running many school districts are going to be faced with four problems: 1) uncertain funding or under-funding, 2) conversion of schooling to a business model that includes executive compensation packages for its “Chief Executives,” 3) competition between public and charter schools, and 4) the need to yield low-grade “learning” as a “product”–a yield that can be corroborated by multiple-choice tests standing proxy for real learning that encompasses knowledge, skill, and understanding. Junk education would then take its place in schools where software and programs and apps (Oh, my!) have replaced the “perpetual discretion” shown by traditional teachers. Eventually all this stuff will be in The Cloud and not even need a high-tech management and troubleshooting team in situ.

If, perish the thought, I am right in this line of thinking, today’s teachers will need to be open to a change of teaching to a kind of oversight role in the “delivery” of this kind of “instruction.” That being the case, if you should find yourself called to a meeting where you are invited to  “be open to change,” look out for that second voice behind.



The Enchantments of Schmendrick

We must regret the recent passing of Dr. Vito Perrone, who in North Dakota and at Harvard rejected the view of teaching and learning as industrial processes. There are fewer like him left, though one hopes the incipient fiasco in No Child Left Behind education will change that. In particular, he rejected the exaltation of standardized testing, the Aeaea of contemporary education’s daft and flighty odyssey.

Those on this odyssey are daft because they steer away from what many educators already know about teaching and learning, including many things of proven value: otherwise how could the decreasing number of schools that still offer solid education do what they are doing? And they steer towards “solutions” (what a word!) offered by sorry wizards[1] with incantations borrowed from industrial systems and business jargon.

If these “solutions” were the only or the best possible ones, then charter schools led by “CEO”s would be sweeping the field. Unfortunately, as Diane Ravitch has pointed out, the evidence shows that charter schools generally do no better than public schools except when doped with funding from private foundations. Also unfortunately, these new schools of dubious value are muscling in on the terrain long claimed by Catholic education, which has for years taught children in poor urban neighborhoods effectively and comparatively cheaply.

Even the Times’s writer of the obituary for Dr. Perrone falls under the wizards’ enchantment, for he has been beguiled into describing teaching as a “process” and speaks of it as something that might be “streamlined” by standardized testing, at least in the view of those who have adopted the tests. But except at the lowest grunt level of basic organization, teaching is not a process because understanding doesn’t proceed, it occurs. We have real teachers with Professor Barzun’s “perpetual discretion” and, by contrast, we have data entry clerks with their procedures manuals.

More sadly, he refers to Dr. Perrone as “the conscience of the profession in the modern era.” While I have no doubt that Dr. Perrone was a voice of sanity and right-mindedness in our profession, I also have no doubt that it has many, many consciences and has had for years. The sad thing is that these consciences—these sound thinkers, too—are going unheard.

[1] They remind me partly of Circe for what they do to teachers, but also of Schmendrick the Magician from Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn with his ineffective or dangerously bungled spells. Unlike them, Schmendrick has at least a glimmer of real magic and finally learns how to use it.