Tuesday, February 5, 2013

First Principles

Thanks to Edutopia for illustrating what I believe more and more to be one of the central problems within public education. Check out the following chart (click through the pic to download the PDF):
As with almost anything in America, we are hobbled by the sheer plurality of belief. How can we expect to accomplish anything in education when we cannot even agree on the most basic first principle such as the purpose of education?

What's important to recognize is that this is not simply a rift amongst Americans. It's not as if there is a difference between what the public thinks education is for versus what teachers think education is for. In any school building, you will find almost as many answers to the question as there are teachers.

Now this may appear a rather unimportant detail, this question of what education is for. After all, the mechanic doesn't need to know what you're going to do with your car in order to get it in working order. But in teaching, it has EVERYTHING to do with the way we go about our business. It affects what we teach, how we teach, what and how we assess, and how we respond to assessment data. The chart above barely scratches the surface of these differences.

What's more,  as much as I may wish it were otherwise, there is no clear demarcation between the beliefs of the "good" teachers and the "bad" teachers. I personally know teachers who deliver first class instruction, give excellent and exhaustive feedback, and respond to student assessment data all in perfect accordance with "best practices," all the while believing that the purpose of education is to get students ready to join the world of work. So it's not that there's any kind of one to one connection between belief and practice.

But (again, like so many things in American life) a teacher's beliefs are often the only rationale behind the very worst kinds of practices, and the fact that the belief system is pretty common in schools gives that rationale a kind of false credibility.

Take for instance a recent Edutopia facebook poll asking if teachers believe that students should be allowed to retake quizzes and tests. A surprising number of teachers answer quite emphatically in the negative. Now, this should not be so surprising, considering how it's a position with a great deal of inertia behind it, but in attempting to support their position, their own beliefs about just what education is for come to the forefront.

Answers like, "There are no retakes in the real world," and "They have to learn to be prepared and get it right the first time," (besides being demonstrably false) tell us everything about what these teachers believe their role in society is: To prepare students to enter a cut-throat work-world by replicating it as nearly as possible, right down to the sting of defeat.

I happen to believe that these teachers are flat wrong, but the fact that their belief system is so prevalent, and is actually considered beyond debate for many citizens AND teachers, means that these kind of detrimental classroom practices are unlikely to end anytime soon, again, not because they are a necessary result of that belief, but because the belief is a convenient support for bad practices.

One way we could begin to talk about improving education would be to start having this conversation all the way down to the building level. It's the most basic tenet of good instruction: You have to have the end in mind. If we can't agree on that, what kind of results can we expect?

So, chime in: What are we doing here?

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