Coach of Many Colors

Readers of my posting on the flexible classroom (“The Class of a Thousand Spaces”) know that in a room where little is nailed down, much is possible. The other requirements of a successful flexibility are 1) a teacher whose approach to learning varies with the kind of learning to take place, 2) students who are ready to learn, in numbers that make flexibility feasible, 3) school administrators who are educational leaders (rather than, say, Ukrainian commissars or bean counters), and 4) things that work properly.

Teaching is, broadly speaking, of three main kinds: didactic instruction for imparting knowledge, coaching for development of skill, and Socratic teaching for encouraging the achievement of understanding. In the flexible classroom the flexible teacher will manage all three. Regrettably, most teachers’ focus tends to be entirely or mostly on didactic instruction.

It is also the focus of most educational software. Unlike the software, however, a practiced teacher can shift to coaching and Socratic instruction at need. Is there a good math teacher alive who does not insist that students show their work? That is because knowledge of the correct answer is only part of the learning involved. If a teacher sees a problem in the work, he or she can coach in the skill needed or try and establish an understanding in the student by asking particular questions based on the work and the student’s response.

And not just a math teacher. Robert Frost wrote a poem called “The Objection to Being Stepped On,” which opens “At the end of the row/ I stepped on the toe/ Of an unemployed hoe.” I invited my students to read it, at first without accompanying notes. One of them surprised me by saying that “this is a poem I can relate to.”

“Really?” I said. “Why is that?”

“Because it’s about a hoe!”

I suddenly understood, but pretended not to, and asked, “What interests you about a gardening tool? Do you enjoy gardening?”

He was puzzled, so I drew a hoe and explained its use. Though disappointed that the poem was not about a whore, he was already partly invested in it and ended up deciding that the rest of the poem made sense even if he could no longer relate to it. He eventually got the allusion to Isaiah and the wry, dry joke of a hoe as weaponry. I felt that he would not have got so far into it if someone had opened the discussion with a didactic statement (or internet screen) that “this is a poem about a man who hurts himself stepping on a garden tool.”  He would just have gone into parrot mode and learned the knowledge he needed in order to mimic understanding.

One of the reasons I was able to speak to him as much and as often as I did was that the class had fewer than fifteen students in it. Such numbers allow an extent of coaching and Socratic questioning that becomes impossible in a larger class.

This would be true not just in a poetry class but also in a math class. A math teacher in a small class can ask students to show their work, presumably not just to verify that they have actually worked, but also to see how they are proceeding or going astray. The aim should be to discuss the work and advise how it might go better. This, too, is easier in a small class than in a large one. The I. B. math tests require students to show their work and give (or withhold) marks for work done well, poorly, or not at all, regardless of The Answer (though of course the correct answer gains marks too). It is hard to see how software could do the same thing, or how a math teacher with students in three figures could examine each one’s work thoroughly.

Much of what I am reporting on seems to lie behind the success of the Mooresville (N. C.) schools in improving the quality of their students’ work, but that is not what The New York Times focused on. True, the subheadline said “It’s Not Just About the Laptops,” but the tag for the article at the top left of the printed page gives away the true point of view, saying, “Mooresville School District, a Laptop Success Story.” I would say, by contrast, that the success of the Mooresville schools is due to their trying to structure teaching and learning in more flexible and productive ways, and not primarily to their adopting laptops.

I wish them well, but some elements of their plan look flawed. As usual with schools on a budget trying to adopt expensive IT gadgetry, something has to give, and at Mooresville it is class size, which has risen from 18 to 30. When they have to get their students to a level of achievement that embraces skill and understanding as well as knowledge, they are going to find it more difficult than they think if they have abandoned a class size that allows teachers to be coaches and questioners as well as drop-in advice-givers. If, as reported, they divide their attention according to who has lower scores, they are not meeting the needs of the higher-scoring students, who have their questions too.

The following example, though small, is emblematic. Earlier this year a student of mine surprised me by mentioning an author’s use of polysyndeton, not a word I usually associate with 11th-grade criticism. Knowing him, I was sure that he hadn’t just idly copied the note from a source, so I pointed out that the example in question was a complex sentence whose ands did not all link grammatically parallel sentence elements. He understood me and made the needed change in his explanation. His problem is as deserving of attention as the problem of the boy attracted to hoes, and in a small class both problems will be attended to by the thorough teacher.

Mooresville will also have to find ways to deal with what the Times article generously or naïvely calls “growing pains.” I refer to connection and bandwidth problems as well as to the problem of students’ cutting and pasting or otherwise transferring “information” from one tab or window to another without real understanding. These are not “growing pains,” and the solution will not be to let things grow. School storerooms across the country are filled with unused stuff that was first described as having “growing pains.”

And their visitors will have to do something that the Times reporter has not yet done: they will have to see improvement as more than the right “balance between old tricks and new technology.” If studying the geography of a place means no longer having to make salt-and-flour maps, that is a real—but minuscule—advance. Far more important will be exchanging, where possible, the grid for more accommodating classroom models. More important yet will be replacing the monochrome teacher by a coach of many colors, aiming for a class size and classroom flexibility that allow the multifarious coach and questioner and his or her students to thrive in their joint enterprise. It sounds as if Kathryn Higgins, an English teacher referred to in the article, has found some ways to do so. Government officials will also have to start mandating in ways that don’t encourage well-meaning district administrators like Mark Edwards to look at widely publicized but superficial single high-stakes scores rather than exercise the subtlety they would probably like to use when evaluating their students. Reporters will also need to back away in their reporting from the old cliché that all conflicts in education boil down to a contest between The Future and The Old Farts’ Corner.


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