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War on Teachers II: Why It Can’t Work

(The title is inspired by Historiann’s excellent post. Also a note: unlike most of the things I blog about, teaching is what I’ve done professionally for decades. I taught in universities, not schools, but the two aren’t totally unrelated.)

Let’s face it. The war on teachers is about money. People want to pay less and get more.

Sometimes you can do that. Solar power and energy efficiency instead of nukes and oil come to mind. In that case paying less and getting more is the sign of an intelligent choice. But when the low price comes from a flimflam artist selling cheap hope, falling for it is the mark of a fool. So, really, the first order of business is to see how low the price can go and still give you what you’re paying for.

So what are we paying for? What is learning, really? And, for that matter, teaching?

Everybody has learned, so there’s nothing all that new here. There are many active components in learning. Remembering the relevant facts or sources takes effort, making the relevant connections to find solutions to problems takes even more effort, and figuring out where the gaps are in one’s knowledge and filling them takes perhaps the most active commitment to effectiveness of all.

Anything that requires active participation requires willingness, and willingness cannot be forced. That is a hugely important point that much of the current popular discussion about education overlooks. Learning cannot be forced. Punitive measures have never worked, don’t work, and will never work because they can’t work.

Now let’s think about teaching. Here again, everyone old enough to be reading this has done some teaching, even if they haven’t always recognized it as such. So compare what I’m about to say to your own experience, and not to what you’ve heard.

Effective teaching is whatever enables effective learning. Knowledge of the subject matter is only one component. Presenting it so that students can learn it easily is another small component. Most important is paying attention to each student, getting a sense of what they’ve understood, what they’re still missing, and how best to fill the gaps given the student’s way of organizing information. It feels a bit like an exercise in mindreading, and the teacher has to care about the student to be able to do it. Understanding someone else simply doesn’t happen without caring. The teacher may not even care about the student, strictly speaking. They may only care about doing their work to a professional standard. But whatever the origin, they have to care.

Everybody who teaches does that to some degree. Parents showing their children how to button a shirt are doing it. Pay close attention to yourself when you’re trying to help someone you care about learn something. There’ll be that distinct feeling of trying to get inside their minds in order to figure out how best to explain it. The main difference is that non-teachers do that briefly, generally only with one or a few people at a time, and usually only for relatively simple concepts. Multiply the effort and attention involved times the number of students in a class, the amount of the subject that needs explaining, and the number of hours teaching, and one can start to have some concept of what it is that teachers do.

But that’s just part of it. Think about doing a teacher’s job. The closest thing to it that most people have done at some point is public speaking. That addresses the first step, presenting information to a group of people. The act of doing it requires intense concentration because one’s mind has to be doing several things at once: keeping the overall presentation in mind, speaking coherently about the current point, and simultaneously preparing the next few intelligent sentences while the current ones are spoken. A practised teacher will also, at the same time, be gauging the level of understanding in the audience and modifying the presentation on the fly as needed. When the students being taught are young, the teacher will also be keeping order and checking for untoward activities, all while not losing track of any of the above five simultaneous aspects of the act of teaching. That level of concentration and engagement is standard during all of in-class time. It’s not special or something only the best do. Some do it better than others, but every teacher does it.

Teaching is not a desk job. The physical requirements are much closer to performance art than anything else. The parallels extend to other areas. As with performance art, the great majority of time spent on teaching happens outside of class. And, also as with performance art, it won’t amount to anything unless the individual involved puts a great deal of her- or himself into it.

All of the above should make clear that teaching requires even greater active involvement than learning. Teaching, like learning, also cannot be forced. Punitive measures have never worked, don’t work, and will never work because they can’t work.

Firing teachers won’t make the survivors care. Humiliating teachers isn’t going to make them love their work. Telling them how to do a complex and specialized job, while demonstrating complete ignorance of what’s involved from the very first word, is not going to make them do a better job.

So what does work? That could, and has, filled many books. I’ll try to not to run away with the joy of holding forth on my pet notions in the last part, The War on Teachers Ignorance.

Posted to Acid Test, The Confluence, Corrente.