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.


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