September 19, 2020

Sometimes a blog comment needs to be a post of its own

Will Richardson wrote a nice blog post, “The Thin Value of Proposition,” in which he argues that the true value in education is the relationship between teachers and students. Good point.

One of his commenters, Tony Baldasaro, a good guy, argued that teachers can be freed-up to individualize instruction if the curriculum and assessment is standardized for them. He called this the “upside of standardizing curriculum.”
“By taking the burden of lesson planning and assessment creation for all students at once away from the teacher, administrators can empower teachers to individualize instruction for every student.”
I like Tony and he is well-intentioned, but I could not disagree more. The way in which he articulated his argument really provoked me to write about some ideas I’ve been playing with for a long time. I hope you will give them some consideration.
Tony,I would argue that the mess we’re in is largely the result of twenty years of thinking like you describe. Reducing teachers to technicians who may make decisions about individualizing instruction for each student is impossible since agency to make larger decisions has been steadily robbed from teachers, along with an ability to fight the forces deskilling them. Teachers incapable of deciding what to teach will be less capable of determining how to teach. There is no pedagogical change or dramatic shift in student outcomes possible without an ability to change the intellectual diet provided for children.

Papert used to say that School at best teaches a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the universe, yet we quibble endlessly about which billionth of a percent is most important – the piece we have always taught. Take mathematics for example, the curriculum and pedagogical approach has remained constant since the Inquisition, despite dramatic societal shifts and the revolutionary impact of computers in real mathematics, not the BS served up in school. Teachers can either be experts in the true nature of mathematics, it’s beauty and power or devise little tricks to make a toxic curriculum a tad less poisonous. The result of that decision creates a scenario where we teach “Algebra in Utero,” pushing it down a grade level constantly while NAEP scores remain stagnant.

I want children to have teachers who can see a flower, read a short story or use a newspaper article as the basis for connecting lots of disciplines and powerful ideas at any moment to create rich rewarding learning contexts for children.

I’m in Krakow, Poland right now and am staying across the street from sort of school. I walked by today and heard children singing along to a song being played on the piano by their teacher. I don’t hear a lot of singing in American classrooms these days.

I became an elementary school teacher at the very end of the era when you needed to learn how to play the piano a tiny bit, teach PE, harvest meal worms and make puppets out of Pop-Tart boxes. We were explicitly talked about how if we saw educational value in playing Scrabble for three months, how to identify the educational objectives being met and write them in our plan book.

For generations, THAT was a teacher. Why do we ask so little of them today?

When I walk into classrooms, rich and poor – private and public, around the world today I see a remarkable return to whole class instruction. Gone are the projects, centers and other joyful spaces for becoming lost in one’s own learning. This sad reality may be the result of changing the definition of teaching to the delivery of curriculum and management of classrooms.

The elaborate ruse called differentiated instruction is only necessary because the curriculum is handed down to teachers on stone tablets. If the educators closest to children had the greatest voice in curricular decisions, individualization would be natural.

Gary Stager

2 thoughts on “Sometimes a blog comment needs to be a post of its own

  1. I cannot believe that you posted this today. I have been having this conversation about standardization and the killing of innovation in the classroom. So many schools focus on PROGRAMS and never bring up PEDAGOGY. The real meat of teaching is in what we believe about how students learn and how we teach in order for that to happen.
    THANK YOU!!

  2. I suspect the perspective of an elementary school teacher is vastly different from the perspective of a secondary teacher on this point. As a second-career educator, I was assigned to teach ninth grade English during my first year as a public school teacher. My classes were considered to be “regular” students—not honors, not ELL, and not remedial. However these 140 students were so diverse, that ¬it made teaching quite challenging. About five of my students were at-risk boys who did not live with their families; they lived in a nearby institution for boys who could no longer live at home. Sixteen of my students were in our school’s program for children of migrant farm laborers; their first language was Spanish, although they were no longer considered to be ELL’s. Some of my students were comfortable reading college level material; most read at a sixth grade level; and one was reading at a third grade level. One of the pieces of our curriculum was Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”. If I had had total freedom to teach as I thought was appropriate we would have been fine. We would have enjoyed discussing the universal themes of the play—young love, marriage, family conflict, etc. But instead, I needed to help my students pass the departmental test that all ninth graders at our school were given—a test that had questions I found difficult. We muddled through; but I don’t think I was really able to teach what my individual and various students really needed to learn.

    During my second year of teaching, I taught intensive reading at the middle school level. My classes were much smaller (6-18 students). Two of my classes were composed of new Haitian immigrants who spoke very little English. Several of these students had NO previous experience in school, but they were bright, eager to learn, and happy to be in school. They spent most of the day in an ESOL class. My job was to teach them to read using a scripted phonics program that contradicted everything I was learning about pedagogy in my alternative certification classes. We did our work—drills and worksheets. But I also supplemented the curriculum with my own creativity. One day I brought in pickles for students to taste since pickles were mentioned in the story we were reading. We watched old Electric Company episodes when we finished our workbooks early enough. We took short, impromptu field trips to learn vocabulary words like “brick”, and “stream”. And yes, we sang. I don’t play the piano, but I taught my students the song, “We Shall Overcome”; and introduced them to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as we approached his birthday. We had a good year.

    In the United States, our student population is so mobile and diverse that grouping students by age or grade in a classroom is doing them a disservice. If we grouped students according to competency rather than by age or grade, identifying an appropriate curriculum would be possible; and teachers could be freed to creatively adapt and enhance the curriculum to allow individual students to thrive.

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