A while back, Web lamented the state of our current schools:
The incoming admissions staff at the University of Waterloo have a problem with what they are seeing from their prospective students. Articles like these have been fairly common in the past fifteen years or so, and a backlash against some of the worst methods of teaching (especially the “whole language” nonsense and the idea of “open plan” schools) is slowly taking root.
I can’t speak for whole learning and open learning, both of which I am skeptical of, but some “experimental teaching methods” can actually be quite effective in smaller, closed environments. Particularly high-trust environments. The same applies for schools that don’t grade students, unschooling, and a host of other things that excited educators.
However, quick and obvious problems can appear when you try to do these things large-scale. It’s similar to the way that homeschooling lends itself to methodology that wouldn’t work in classrooms where the teacher doesn’t have intimate knowledge of all of the students and the differences in development in students can be quite profound. In other words, there are plans that can be extremely effective one-on-one that can get completely lost in a classroom.
A lot of pilot programs fall into this trap. The pilot programs work because you have a limited number of students often self-selected by involved parents being taught by teachers self-selected to the program. So impressive numbers can be turned in at first, but then when you try to get other teachers that aren’t on-board teaching students of uninvolved parents, the kids end up much further behind than they would be with a more standard curriculum.
Further, some of these methods were never actually successful in the first place. Or rather, they were successful because you had motivated teachers and motivated parents motivating their children and not because of the particular teaching style involved.
I’m a pretty big fan of charter schools and the like where you can try new and different things particularly for those parents and teachers that want to be involved with it. When it comes to the general student population, though, I am something of a traditionalist with those somewhat boring lesson plans, icky standardized tests, and even a degree of rote memorization.
The problem with these methods is that they are often ill-suited to two groups: the intelligent and the education enthusiast (ie those that like learning for the sake of learning). The problem is that the educational establishment consists primarily of these people*. They find themselves thinking “School would have been cooler and much more interesting if we’d done X” when what they mean is “School would have been cooler for people like me if we’d done X.” These people are outliers and they can be wrong to begin with if what they hated about school was actually somewhat effective.
It’s sort of like college. College, as they say, is not for everybody. A lot of people, particularly among Sigmoids and on the right more generally, want to delineate by intelligence. I think that’s only part of the equation, however. The other part is temperament. There are some really intelligent people that just don’t have the temperament for college. They lack a broad, abstract thirst for knowledge. They don’t enjoy learning for the sake of learning. They got by and did well in K-12 simply because there were simple metrics to meet. The more intelligent they are, the less they even had to try.
But college success is determined less by metrics (though those obviously count, too) and more by enthusiasm. This was why I did better in college while my ex-girlfriend Julianne, just as intelligent as me, struggled. She was and is uninterested in how the world works and school for her was all about metrics. She had no enthusiasm, so she did what she always did which was the minimal amount required. Gauging the minimum required in college is much more difficult at the college level than the high school level and it’s harder to self-correct because by the time you realize you’re in trouble, it’s too late. An honors student in high school, she flunked out of three colleges.
People like me, meanwhile, were made for college. In High School, it was drilled into me that college was going to be this extraordinarily challenging place where you were going to get flushed out if you didn’t really try. This concerned me because I didn’t really try in high school. But once I got to college, I did really well. The places where I struggled tended to be the ones where the classroom structure was more like high school. The places where I excelled were the ones where I had enthusiasm and the studying took care of itself.
I think that the education experts tend to be more like me. They look back at their earlier learning experiences with a sense of loss because they didn’t like it and often didn’t even realize they enjoyed learning (for the sake of learning) until they got into a more free-ranging environment in college. So they ask themselves, “What can I do to make sure the next generation doesn’t dislike school as much as I did?” and come up with all sorts of wacky answers. Wacky answers that sometimes would have worked for them, sometimes would not have, but don’t carry over to the general population.
This is where I think charter schools and homeschooling and other more experimental methods can come into play. If you take a class full of intelligent people, they may succeed in either a metrics-based or more open learning environment, but they will enjoy the latter more and it will often better position them to keep learning as they get older. But it can be a disaster when it comes to the general population where, the more open the environment and less metrics-based the environment, the less they really have to do. And the less they will do.
Gradeless education is perhaps the best example of this. Taking the focus away from grades in a high-trust environment can be a godsend. It removes a grand distraction and lets kids focus on learning. This assumes, of course, that kids want to learn. I think that this is often more true than the pessimists suspect, but it really isn’t the case with most young people. So grades are the only way to get them to learn. So they don’t learn. Learning by duress (under threat of a bad grade if they don’t) may not be ideal, but it’s better than nothing.
Standardized tests are another issue along these lines. There really is no argument against standardized testing that does not also apply to grading students on teacher or textbook derived tests. Standardized tests can and do get in the way of teaching and learning, but without any sort of metric you are giving teachers the same sorts of incentives you’re giving students if you don’t grade them. Some will teach no matter what, but a whole lot will do what’s required of them. That, by the way, would be essentially nothing.
A recent study by Teach For America did an analysis of what makes a great teacher and determined. While the goal was to figure out how to “make” more great teachers, the conclusions they came to are really things that only the most highly motivated people will do. Without metrics, there is little motivation for anybody but the enthusiastic. Enthusiasm on the part of teachers should not be and cannot be assumed. We should give great teachers the lattitude they need to do their job, but that should take place in charter schools and perhaps vouchered private schools or there should be a way to measure their progress against those of the average teacher with more structured requirements placed on their classrooms.
If there is no way that we can fairly measure their effectiveness, then they need to be placed somewhere that parents have a choice of whether or not they want their kids taught by an unaccountable but possibly fantastic teacher. For those parents that do not have a choice in where to send their kids, however, I think that the system has to assume that teachers will primarily respond to whatever incentives they have. That means you need incentives. If not standardized tests, then at least something other than the teachers’ and administration’s assurances that the kids are being taught.
I am a systems guy and have a general preference for systems that don’t rely on exceptional or internally-driven individuals and don’t rely on subjective evaluations drawn up by people with a vested interest in the reported outcome. If implementing such a system ties the hands of would-be outstanding teachers, I think that’s a fair price to pay for motivating the internally unmotivated. You’re typically going to get a lot more of the latter than the former.
That’s one of the things that impresses me about the Direct Instruction method, which unlike other teaching fads proposes (a) system-based, non-feel good solutions and (b) posts results that appear to be scalable because (c) they don’t rely on exceptional instructors. It’s that last part that makes people dislike the system. One of the common responses is that if you take autonomy away from the teacher you’re just going to get bad teachers. In my view, if you create a system good enough that the quality of the teacher doesn’t matter as much, it can still be a positive experience.
I realize that sort of thing is not for everybody and great teachers and un-metric kids may not particularly excel in that environment. That’s where charter schools and the like come in to play. Within reasonable limitations, provided that the parents want to send their kids there and the teachers want to be there, I really don’t see a problem loosening the reins. For everybody else: Systems, systems, systems. Even if it’s a system that I would have hated growing up.
* - Say what you will about the average intelligence of the average public school teacher, those that stick to education theory and become influential enough to set education policy are a different breed and do qualify as intelligent individuals. What could be argued, though, that what they have in intelligence can be negated and reversed by a lack of common sense and lack of interest in grounded thought and empiricism.