In the last few days, I
- got to read the comments on my previous post about QA in education;
- reviewed the work of a bunch of graduate students in a quantitative methods course, in response to the assignment “for your final project, find a problem for/context in which one or another of the models we’ve encountered in the course seems to be illuminating, and exercise it”;
- read this again (ht Linda Perlstein)
- read the final papers by a batch of our graduate student instructors for our practicum course in teaching skills;
- happened upon this extremely interesting radio program;
- had lunch with one of my favorite alums, just back from her first semester in Teach For America in a tough school in the south;
- and was pointed at this delightful Ken Robinson lecture, by another favorite alum.
I am also starting to spiff up a studio course in policy design that I haven’t offered in several years (it’s a lot like an architecture studio, but about making non-physical environments). Here are some reflections from a couple of days thinking a lot about teaching.
First, the instinctive, desperate, desire to believe that a problem has one solution–that advocacy of a reform or practice improvement must be hostile to other possible approaches–is a really big problem. If home environment, parents, and peers matter a lot for learning (of course they do!), trying to hire and train better teachers can’t make a difference, right? Wrong. We can do lots of useful mutually complementary things to improve student learning at all levels, and being paralyzed with doubt because we might be pushing the third most efficacious of these rather than the first is just silly. It may be that I have to prove my idea is not only the best, but the only good, idea to win an argument, but winning an argument in a blog post or comments or over cocktails is not at all the same thing as creating value in the classroom, or anywhere else.
Here are some ideas I find persuasive. First, let’s look hard at the differences between what we do to students in school and the environment they go into in a workplace, like the contrast between treating collaboration as cheating and as an essential for success. Should school be just like an office or a factory? Like a really successful workplace, say, Pixar or the MIT Media Lab? Of course not. But one of the goals of education is an effective workforce, so there’s a lot to learn here. And let’s remember, what we do in firms and agencies is what we think will create the most value, often with a tough profitability ‘test’ applied by a market (or voters) we can’t order around.
For example, I don’t know any grownup workplace where pay and promotions are awarded on the basis of sit-down tests except a few government agencies, and none whatever where management does this by choice. Nor any successful one where people do well to the extent that they parrot what the boss already knows. In fact, all my best bosses have been careful to hire people who know stuff they don’t know. One of the destructive recent trends in education is the degree to which cheaply testable content has driven stuff like the arts and creative thinking and physical education out of the school day. A lot of this content has no workplace value, and we teach it out of habit and convenience.
My favorite examples of this junk are spelling and pencil-and-paper algorithm arithmetic. These are absolutely critical for a clerk in an office of fifty years ago, but being good at them is unrelated to any real mental ability (what, for example, would a spelling bee in Chinese be?) and worthless in the world we live in now. I say this, by the way, aware that I am the best speller that I ever met (and a pretty good typist). But these are idiot-savant abilities, genetic oddities like being able to roll your tongue. Let’s just lose them.
Writing and mathematics, on the other hand, count for a lot. So does drawing, and so does singing, even if most current workplaces haven’t figured out how to use them. And so does recess, partly to teach teamwork and peer dispute resolution in games, and also because, as Aaron Wildavsky intuitively realized (he always began meetings with “let’s go for a walk!”), and as has been shown by real research, you think better if you use your large muscle groups. Clearing the school day of hoary memorization and drill-and-kill junk can free up time for real teaching.
Now, how could we do better teaching real content that doesn’t just stupefy and demotivate kids? I’m pretty sure the answer here lies in building teaching around projects, especially collaborative projects, and recognizing that students are pretty different from each other by not trying to make them all the same on every dimension on which we evaluate them. On this last point, one of my major professional failures has been to get my colleagues to view our alumni as a diverse cohort of people who will not all have learned exactly the same core curriculum “basic skills”; our curriculum discussions always go forward (actually, they stop high-centered with their wheels spinning) under a cloud of fear that someday, somewhere, one of our alums will be found not to know what the standard error of a regression measures, so the game is to claim the most possible time in the required core for your specialty (if every policy analyst doesn’t have to know what I teach, what does that make me?).
What I mean by a project is an (i) interesting, (ii) complex task (iii) somewhat beyond the students’ abilities, (iv) for which success has no intrinsic ceiling, (v) whose outcome is not known to the teacher/coach, (vi) preferably continuing over days or weeks so the teacher can interact with the students about what they have done so far as it goes forward, (vii) that engages as many kinds of Gardner’s intelligences as possible. Though a task like this can also be as short as a good open-ended question in a discussion-based class session.
This kind of work completely upends the affective relationship of students to “the basics” that many people are absolutely sure has to be taught (= told) ‘first’: instead of being a new problem for the student, this or that skill or fact set becomes a solution to a problem the student knows she has. Everyone I know thinks he has enough problems already, thanks, but is happy to learn something that will help with those. In architecture school, my classmates could barely keep awake in the structural engineering course, but as soon as they needed to know how deep the floor had to be to hold up the ceiling over an auditorium, because that forced the second floor level to a point that might mean the grand staircase would have to be folded, etc. etc., they were quite interested in beam formulas; indeed, I had to ration helping them so I could get some drawing done. More and more, I’m absolutely sure that the correct sequence is challenge first, tools second, no matter how much the untidiness of the resulting learning process offends authoritarians and the insecure. The last time I taught the policy design studio, I got a comment on a course evaluation form to the effect that “with assignments like these, students reach higher than they ever thought they could.”
I think a model project of this kind for K-12 is theater (and/or video), and not a production of someone else’s play: something the students write, rehearse, organize, make scenery for, get and give coaching in speech and blocking, learn to wire up lights and sound, find and think about the relevant content, and deal with issues of starring roles and the differences between fame and merit, visibility and value. My grade school graduating class always did a big project like this; ours was about Peter Zenger, and I still remember how much we learned about colonial life, freedom of the press, politics, lighting, speaking all the way to the back of a room, what to do with your hands, and more. I was assigned to write the trial scene, and at the age of thirteen, because no-one told me I couldn’t, found my way to the New York Public Library and the actual trial transcript of hundreds of pages, and somehow extracted a playable stage trial from it. We didn’t have helicopter parents then, but we did have one parent who taught us some carpentry for scenery and another who brought in a sewing machine for costumes and showed a couple of students how to use it, and lots of others who were paying attention to what their kids were up to (without doing it for us).
Now, how does something like this figure in the kind of quality assurance I’ve been advocating, organized attention by peers and colleagues to process and discussion of alternative methods? Two ways. First, the students involved in a project of this kind can easily be directed to spend time talking about how they are doing what they are doing with each other. Second, a lot of student time in a project of this kind is spent without direct teacher oversight, so teacher time is actually freed up to allow observation of each others’ work and kibitzing and coaching. It also downplays the zero-sum competition among teachers for simpleminded test score improvement that drives out real organizational learning; how do you “grade” a performance by a whole class, that took a semester or a year of everyone doing different things, on a scale that takes off points from 100 for defects?
How could it go wrong? The obvious way is that some or even all the students will fail to engage with some piece of the traditional curriculum, and will fall behind grade level in multiplying fractions, or not learn what happened at Fort Sumter on schedule. Oh, my GOD; what a f..king NIGHTMARE! The more important way is that even grade school kids are likely to bring in something they are not authorized to know yet (think Calvin and dinosaurs, or your kids and Final Cut Pro) and worse, that the teacher doesn’t know, and instead of rejoicing in having opened a door, the teacher gets all insecure and antsy. I don’t know what to do about this except to get teachers to think carefully about the wonderful question Mark Moore asks, “What exactly entitles you to hold the chalk?”
Point the kids at real stuff; loosen up about different kids zooming ahead on different stuff; make both the traditional content (not too rigidly) and untapped creativity and imagination useful in confronting parts of a large, openended challenge, work in groups. This is hard; actually it requires the teacher to provide more structure, and react more creatively and quickly, than traditional lecturing and quizzing. But I am coming to think its the only way; we actually can’t keep the country afloat by making clerks for Mr. Bumstead and bubble test stars.