In an old posting about a high-school teacher who “taught” the American Revolution by letting her class have a water balloon fight, I discussed some of the ways futile or badly informed instruction undercuts education by taking time away from what works and giving it to fooling and clowning. Another teacher, whom I was trying to persuade to adopt the methods of “shared inquiry” and Socratic instruction by using the Junior Great Books. Her first and only question before rejecting the plan was, “Do they have an answer key?”–an answer key for Socratic questioning! That sort of futile instruction takes a toll somewhere. At my school it was paid in 9th grade, when the fooling stopped, though not Ms. Waterballoon’s class. In many schools it is paid by “educated” young people who have trouble counting, reading, and reasoning.
One could argue that teachers of large classes need “short cuts,” but there are three problems with the argument. One is that class size in our school was capped at fifteen students—exceptionally, eighteen. Something besides class size resulted in Ms. Waterballoon and her anti-Socratic colleague’s “teaching” as they pleased. Another, dealt with in many of my prior postings, is that direct exchanges with students in the form of coaching and Socratic instruction are essential to the development of skill and understanding, and that these kinds of instruction take place in an intellectual terrain where there are no short cuts. The third, which comes up in current criticism of education schools, is that teachers like Ms. Waterballoon have not been prepared by their education to know what they have to teach, or to teach it.
That said, competent teachers, among whom I number myself, can use small classes to great advantage. I am fortunate enough to teach a relatively low number of students in relatively small classes, and so I can do things with students that I would not have been able to do at my first school, where my “student load” was exactly twice as high as it is now. In connection with a paper that most of my students are now working on, I have been able to assign a “planning document” and subjected it to line-by-line criticism (not proofreading), followed by individual meetings with each student. One of my conferees, a bright and articulate boy who hopes to find himself in Cambridge next year, had a close and intense discussion with me about his plan.
Lest I sound like someone who “only” teaches “bright” kids, I should mention that at the same school where Ms. Waterballoon taught, I had a number of students on the other side of the scale from my aspirant to Cambridge. One of them, a diligent young person of unremarkable talent, needed her meetings with me in order to learn how to produce a unified paragraph. It took months, but she ended secure in her paragraphs, if not in her longer compositions. Only coaching can meet individual needs, and coaching can take place only in congenial circumstances.
It is a pity that some teachers will react to those circumstances the way Ms. Waterballoon did. Once she came to school and told her students that thieves had broken into her car and stolen all the work she was planning to grade! I pictured the thieves casing her car for its rich store of used writing paper, smashing the windows in a busy car park at great risk to themselves, stealing the trove, and rushing it to the recycling center to realize their profit.
Surely there should be in-service and administrative remedies for this kind of dereliction, or for other abdications like using class time to catch up on email, and surely these remedies can work in an educational atmosphere that does not resemble the atmosphere surrounding Stalin’s Central Committee.