Splendor in the Class

Some teaching is good even if it makes lousy TV. Movies and TV programs about classrooms tend to cloud this perception when they show an Oscar-winning actress reading Wordsworth to her classmates, looking and sounding like an Oscar-winning actress reading Wordsworth to her classmates. I love a good reading of the Immortality Ode as much as the next guy, but I don’t mind that Mrs. Knickerbocker (Yes. She taught me English in 10th grade) was not Natalie Wood, or that I am not Robin Williams.

And teachers must sometimes take what they can get in bad TV when judging how their students have done. This is especially true when judging understanding, that most fugitive kind of learning. Robert Frost reported the difficulty among his students in Amherst College, saying, “I have lived with some boys a whole year over some of the poets and I have not felt sure whether they have come near what it was all about. One remark sometimes told me.” He added that this kind of understanding “will have to be estimated by chance remarks, not by question and answer.” While a teacher can frequently get more than this glimpse, teaching is better off dealing with these glimpses as and where it can than by ignoring them in favor only of responses that manifest themselves in “behavior.”

Hence the thinness, the insufficiency of “behavioral objectives” and “rubrics”* for determining some kinds of understanding, however apt they may be for determining others. Sometimes we must say with Frost that “one remark was their mark for the year; had to be—it was all I got that told me what I wanted to know. And that is enough, if it was the right remark.”

I had a telling remark one time from a 9th-grade Syrian student who discovered in class that he had a liking for Thomas Hardy. That in itself was wonderful, but when I asked him why he liked Hardy, he said, “His pessimism is attractive,” which was astounding. I guess that comment was not in any catalogue of “appreciative behaviors” ordinarily available to 9th-grade teachers. Even though Because he was below above behaviorist radar, he was well liked and even admired by his classmates. When he recited “Ah, Are You Digging on my Grave?” they listened. Their stillness and silence were a kind of understanding, and it, too, should be a part of what a teacher evaluates.

Sometimes we are distracted from the important job of looking for learning by attending to virtuoso “teaching,” beguiled from the sight of what is learned. Mr. Martin Skelton, a consultant on education, showed my colleagues and me a video of a class he had observed. It opened with the teacher calling on students to show recently learned tumbling moves, and they ran out like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show under his capable direction. Afterwards many of us commented on the coherence of the lesson, the enthusiasm of the students, and the engagement of the teacher.

Mr. Skelton’s question was, “Did you notice that no learning took place?” No, none of us had noticed that, but it was true, as we could see when we viewed the video a second time. No original instruction took place, nor was any student held accountable for muffed moves. If it had been part of a Christmas program, it might have had a purpose in entertainment, but as a lesson it was pointless. One teacher, feeling chagrin at the failure of perception, rationalized by saying that the teacher was “consolidating,” but we all got Mr. Skelton’s point.

The aim of the ensuing discussions was to consider how we might “look for learning” in the classroom to help decide whether our classroom teaching was working. The good teacher must have a good eye and a sturdily modest ego. It is often diffi­cult to know if the kids are learning, for sometimes we hide a dreary shower in razzle-dazzle or the “wonderfulness of me.” Nor does it help to be tied up in notions of crude visibility of learning when assessing it, though some learning is of course remarkably visible. Think of Archimedes springing out of his bath (Behavioral objective: Behavior indicates appreciation of conception: 5/5: Springs out of bath and shouts, “Eureka!”), but remember the “chance remarks,” the passing glimmer on the face, or the misstatement fruitfully rephrased.

* This word, like so many others, is (mis)used in the Ed Biz. It originally refers to the red ochre (rubrike) words printed in an order of Catholic worship, which guide the worshippers in what to say or do. Its descendent definitions in standard English therefore have to do with established rules, customs, or practice. Its nonstandard descendent in the Ed Biz refers to guides of numerical grading that assign points according to demonstrated attainment in tasks, tests, or projects. What are we to call these guides if not “rubrics”? How about the term used in the International Bacca­laureate Organization? It is mark schemes. Rather British, but we could do with a little hands-across-the-seamanship.

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