Friday, August 26, 2011

What Teachers Should Know Before they Start Teaching

Mark J. Perry posted an essay on Carpe Diem two days ago about grade inflation in university education departments (see the image to the right). Aside from offering me, as the holder of a BA in education history and policy, some personal embarrassment, the post gives strong evidence for the lack of rigor in teacher training that I discussed in my last post. These soft standards have a double effect: they lower the public perception of teachers, and they leave teachers worse prepared to transmit knowledge.

I want to argue, however—and this follows pretty directly from the discussion of expertise in my last post—that upping rigor is not a sufficient solution to the problem of weak teacher preparation; indeed, low-rigor is more symptomatic of our teacher-training problems than causal. The more important question is, what exactly are we trying to teach teachers? We want to up the rigor, yes, but the rigor of what?

There are, generally speaking, two types of material in a teacher training program: subject-area content and pedagogical technique. I talked briefly about the issues surrounding pedagogical technique in my last post and at considerable length in my post on how to improve teacher training. Upping the rigor on the psychology and pedagogical theory courses that dominate traditional training programs will not make teachers more effective in the classroom; what we need is a different kind of pedagogical training entirely, one that occurs in actual grade schools, under the mentorship of master teachers.

What I want to talk about today are the issues surrounding subject-area knowledge. I touched a bit on this in my last post, but I want to go into more detail, because this is something I don’t hear anyone talking about. No matter how it’s done, more rigorous subject-area classes for secondary-school teachers are probably a good thing, but it’s worth thinking carefully about exactly what type of rigor we want. The word rigor gets tossed around a lot in education discussions, and I’m not the first to point out that it’s meaning has gotten a little vague: rigorous has become more or less synonymous with difficult. But there are a lot of ways to make classes harder.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Psychoanalyzing the Politics of Teaching (part 3): the Would-Be Profession

This is the third post in a series about the professional status of teachers. In my last post, I viewed the struggles of the teachers’ unions in the light of teachers’ ongoing and often frustrated struggle for legitimacy as a profession. In this post, I will talk about why that legitimacy has proven so elusive.

Teaching has never been on solid footing as a profession. A professional is a recognized expert, an authority within a particular field. Any field that attains professional status needs at least these three ingredients: specialized knowledge and skills; specialized training; and a system of formal certification, marking mastery of the skill set, completion of the training, and membership in the profession. Without these three ingredients, the professional’s expertise would have no recognizable validity; she would be indistinguishable from a snake-oil salesman. (There are other characteristics of professions that grow naturally out of these three, but these are the essential ingredients.)

Teaching has, for about a hundred years, possessed at least the semblance of all three elements—but only the semblance. There are tests required for teacher certification, but the tests are extremely easy; most well-educated non-teachers could pass them. There is training, but the curriculum and content vary wildly from one training program to another; so, though it may be specialized, it is not specialized in any particular way. The training is also brief, often undemanding, and of dubious practical value to teachers; and you don’t actually need to complete it to begin teaching. Teaching—or good teaching, at least—requires plenty of specialized skills and knowledge, but there’s not much agreement as to what those skills and knowledge are, and no one actually thinks that all or even most teachers possess them.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Morals We Want and the Morals We Have

The Cardinal Virtues: Temperance, Prudence, Fortitude, and Justice
A comment on my last post brought up some questions that I want to address publicly. Discussing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments to the House of Lords on the need for better moral education in British schools, one of my readers had this to say:
The ‘civic excellence’ [the Archbishop] wants is a collective virtue, not just an individual one. To achieve it, the British would not only have to educate their poor in values, they would have to look seriously at the values of the society, including those that tolerate economic deprivation and isolation.
I agree with that assessment, and I think it raises an interesting issue that another commenter on this blog has been trying to raise in another thread and which I have been a little slow to hear: namely, the dissonance between the morals we want to teach to kids and the morals reflected by the society as a whole.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Moral Education, the London Riots, and the Entanglement of Economics and Schooling

 My series on the fraught status of the teaching profession is still unfinished, but I wanted to put up a quick post on another topic. The Guardian’s political blog reported  yesterday, on comments by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the role that schools should take in the long-term response to the riots (and, inevitably in such discussions, the role that schools have taken in permitting the riots to occur).

Williams, speaking in the House of Lords, said:

There is nothing to romanticise and there is nothing to condone in the behaviour that has spread across our streets. This is indeed criminality – criminality pure and simple."

For Williams, the cure for further outbreaks could only be found in the long-term and in the reorientation of schools towards teaching virtues rather than skills:

Over the last two decades, our educational philosophy at every level has been more and more dominated by an instrumentalist model; less and less concerned with a building of virtue, character and citizenship — 'civic excellence' as we might say. And a good educational system in a healthy society is one that builds character, that builds virtue.

Character involves… a deepened sense of empathy with others, a deepened sense of our involvement together in a social project in which we all have to participate.

Are we prepared to think not only about discipline in classrooms, but also about the content and ethos of our educational institutions — asking can we once again build a society which takes seriously the task of educating citizens, not consumers, not cogs in an economic system, but citizens.

The nice thing about having a state church, I guess, is that there’s a voice for old fashioned ideas of morality and spiritual health in public debates. It says something about the state of a society, though, when the strongest public advocate for humanism is the church. I’m deeply sympathetic to Williams’s desire to view people in more than purely economic terms: citizenship is a far more worthy goal for education than consumerhood. Williams’s exclusive focus on character, however, ignores obvious economic factors that must play a major role in what’s going on in England right now. Viewed in the most cynical terms, his ideas of virtue and character appear to be tools for keeping the downtrodden from acting out: religion as the opiate of the masses.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Psychoanalyzing the Politics of Teaching (part 2): the Battle over Autonomy

[this is the second on a series of posts on the status of the teaching profession in American culture, the causes and implications of that status. Read part 1 here.]

Randi Weingarten, in 2010
A couple months ago, I read an article in The Times about a movement in a number of American schools and school districts to reduce homework loads, through policies that limit the amount of homework per night or designate certain holidays as homework-free. The most interesting thing in the article was only incidentally connected to homework:

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, views policies dictating how to do homework as “taking something that should be professional practice and making it into an assembly-line process.”

—i.e. don’t tell us how to do our job.

One might fairly reply: are we to have no say over what happens in our schools? If parents feel that homework loads have spiraled out of control, shall they have no recourse? After all, if our electrician starts putting dimmer-switches on every fixture in the house, we are perfectly entitled to tell her we don’t want dimmer-switches; and if our lawyer wants us to plead the fifth, we’re entitled to insist on taking the stand. Professional status is not a talisman against meddling, it’s simply a mark of expertise—or it’s supposed to be.