Teaching, Learning, and the Educational-Industrial Complex

Teachers have their defining moments too, and one such came to me this week—a week unusually rich in professional development opportunities (i.e., I had to go to two workshops). During the week I had been reflecting on the lessons presented in Monday’s workshop on how to teach in order to build students’ ‘skills’. The presenter’s argument, which echoes a view that underpins the Paideia Proposal of forty years ago, is that an over-emphasis on teaching knowledge is wasteful and fruitless. The timeless insights are the timeliest of all, and I found myself wishing that the presenter had recognized a couple of other Paideia insights too.

Of course it is important for a good teacher to encourage the self-regulated learning that our presenter advocated—or it should be. Of course all good teachers should encourage the development of skills that are universal, essential, persistent, and unchanging in nature: time management, listening, note taking, concentration, and group work or team work. But it is also important for the teacher to act directly as a mentor or coach, adapting instruction to the needs of particular students in particular subjects. There is no universal, essential, persistent and unchanging way to tell Student X productively that his essay is a bit heavy on its feet, or Student Y that hers is too flippant. Nor can this advice be imparted by software, or the faults it remedies be detected by software. It is a matter of what Professor Barzun called “perpetual discretion,” a virtue with no proxy value.

And it is vitally important to do something else that our presenter almost entirely overlooked. At one point in his presentation he said that students must “use reflection to find out … the gaps in their understanding,” like telling them to lift themselves up on a teeter-totter. Another way to put it would be, echoing a former Cabinet secretary, to encourage them to learn the things they don’t know they don’t know.

For both these deficiencies only one agent can supply what is needed, and that is a real live teacher. The reason is that only a real live teacher can provide what Amherst College calls “close colloquy” and what Scott Newstok calls “close learning”. Many people, including our presenter, are convinced that cognitive and affective “skills” belong to two “domains,” when cognition and affect are actually—to use this word in an old-fashioned sense—a condominium of intellect in which the things we know must be “proved upon our pulses.” Real live teachers are at home in this condominium.

Leading students to fill in the gaps in their understanding by subjecting them to Socratic questioning; setting up live possibilities for feelings to engage intellect; giving skilled advice—all these powers are available to the real live teacher, and are not generally available to machines or electronic networks.

During the week’s second professional development opportunity I got to see three real live teachers discuss (with video clips) how they do these things in “flipped classrooms”. Their thesis was that, handled right, “flipping” allows teachers to cut away from live delivery of didactic instruction in order to make more room for coaching (skill) and questioning (understanding). Two of them showed how they handle this job at a school on Hong Kong Island that is famous for the quality of the education its students receive. The third showed her (and her assistants’) work in a very large class at a primary school on the Chinese mainland. The audience was deeply impressed.

We were not nearly so impressed by the speech of a locally well-known professor of education. I became suspicious before he even started when I saw the first slide in his PowerPoint show: one of those “evolution drawings” showing an evolutionary parade of an amphibian, a knuckle-dragging ape, a cave man, and a modern man. This one continued the parade with a man reading a book, a man using a computer, and five or six red dots in a network on a stylized map superimposed on a jet plane.

The speech delivered on the weak promise of the “evolution drawing”. His mission was to show that flipping was nothing but a stalking horse for online education, and proprietary online education at that. His model was an actual profit-making online “university” that he said would deliver an education as good as the best in the US for a sixth of the price—a kind of Amherst On Line, if you will. I will not hold my breath waiting for Amherst to be left high and dry.

For the problem, as readers of these postings will know, is that that “vision” is rubbish. And, hallelujah, one of the other presenters said so. During her remarks on flipping she politely but directly and firmly rebuked the professor and explained why real live teachers are needed and electronics for profit will not work. The defining moment I spoke of earlier was this one: when I saw on stage the clash of two opposing visions of where education may go—one of them powerful and effective, and the other corrupt and ineffective.

More teachers must do as our colleague did, and identify bad teaching and bad educational leadership for the threats they are. Who knows that the larger public and reporters on education won’t start listening? The alternative will be an electronic landscape of miserable Mudvilles where education has struck out.

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