what is teaching anyway? (complicated argument 2)

Yesterday I ranted about politics, the reason being that education is crucial to our continued existence as a semi-democracy. The specter of a fascist, conspiracy-theory driven regime in Washington is so beyond horrifying to me. I noticed today that a group of teachers of the year have broken their own rules about remaining neutral in elections and written a letter denouncing Trump, appearing in the Washington Post. I’m not the only one.

So, the point is, what are we as educators going to do about the apparent inability of citizens to think critically, weigh evidence and apply the lessons of history to the present? This is a matter of urgency, and we don’t have much time to fix it.

I laid responsibility at the feet of teacher education, which is not completely fair. I was reacting to the NYT article about teacher recruitment, which frankly made me angry. What I didn’t say  was that it’s a whole-society problem, and that teacher education is simply a reflection of the culture.

I recently talked to some middle school science students about learning. They had been doing a sequence of learning activities designed to “teach” them about the electromagnetic spectrum. We first explored what happens to light when it travels through a cup of water (with a pencil in it), and what happens to light when it passes through a convex lens.

We physically (by going outside and actually doing it) modeled the tried-and-true marching soldiers demonstration (click here) to think about what happens when light waves pass through a new medium at an angle. We then did an angle of incidence/angle of reflection lab with mirrors, and the students then read about light in their textbook and answered the “section review” questions. They created posters of the electromagnetic spectrum, and finally took a test. They did pretty well.

I had very good reasons for designing the unit the way I did. There was an extended period of exploration of the phenomena in question, so that students would have a deeper understanding of what the textbook abstractions were talking about. We physically modeled the marching soldiers because movement activates the brain and enhances learning. I regretted that I did not have multimedia available in this classroom so that we could explore other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, nor did I as a substitute have a stockroom full of equipment to tap into. Diffraction gratings would have been useful.

The interesting part was the conversation we had about learning when preparing for the test. I made the statement that the students were supposed to learn from the activities we had been doing. Someone said, “You have to teach us!” I immediately replied, “I can’t get inside your head and put knowledge in. You have to think. Learning is your responsibility.”

I reviewed the sequence of activities, and we discussed what had been the point of each. I tried to be explicit. “I’m not going to tell you what to think. You need to make sure you understand the point of each lesson. The learning happens inside your head.”

I’ve written before about students not understanding that the point of learning activities is to learn– in a blog post, “learning through discussion, what does it mean?”My conclusion is that the cultural model of learning, in which teachers tell students what to think, is the perspective through which learners understand classroom activities. They passively wait for the teacher to tell them what will be on the test.

Such a set of assumptions undermines democracy. Our students do not see themselves as anything but passive consumers of information, and not active agents whose job is to think about and determine the truthfulness of what they see and hear.

a complicated argument

It’s going to take many posts to make the argument about why teacher education is “failing.” See my post from yesterday

The first thing I want to say is that I respect one of the impulses that drives people to support Trump, that is, the feeling that corporations are completely in control of government. This is at least partially true. There are also people who will do anything to stop abortion, and are willing to support an unhinged, mentally ill, sociopathic, narcissistic fascist who probably has been responsible for any number of women getting abortions, and for all I know has paid for them. To those people I say, if you think abortion is wrong, don’t have one. Leave the rest of us alone.

I also say, “Be careful.” Democratically elected, unhinged, mentally ill, sociopathic, narcissistic fascists have, in the not so distant past, brought down on the world the fires of  tyranny, genocide and other unspeakable horrors of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Probably the last obviously mentally ill president was Richard Nixon. His paranoia led to Watergate. Perhaps even worse, he actively prolonged the end of the Vietnam War so that he could have political advantage. Thousands of people died so he could be president. His sociopathic, narcissistic behavior led to  his ‘’enemies list,” damaging the lives of people who opposed him.

There are also the persistent and reliable reports that DJT studied Hitler’s rise to power as a model for his campaign, and has done so for many years.

The point is—It is possible to support Trump if you are ignorant of history; otherwise the red flags and warning whistles are overwhelming and truly frightening. And why are people ignorant of history?

Teacher education.

The New York Times says that the US teacher pool is filled with the not very bright. They compare us unfavorably with Finland, which allows only applicants from the top quarter of university students to apply to become teachers. Something the Times doesn’t talk about: Teachers in Finland are well enough paid, have good working conditions and  have the respect of society. But the Times doesn’t talk about that, because bastion of corporate America that it is, it doesn’t support adequate funding for education.

If Americans want good teachers, they have to pay for them.

First Donald Trump, Now This

My good friend Charles texted me that he had read about how Finland has much better teacher education, and the NY Times had an editorial stating that low quality teacher education in the US is the cause of well, I don’t know, monumentally STUPID people? (That’s not exactly what the Times said. That’s what I say.)

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You can read it here.

When I read Charles’ text, I laughed bitterly, anger surging through my body. So the New York Times wants to improve teacher education. Well, well, never mind all the years of editorials urging competition and charter schools as the cure for low achievement, and all the years pressing for schools to be run like businesses. Schools are getting steadily worse since the 1990’s because corporate America has discovered the profits to be made from education. See the critique of the Times education positions here.

Americans are just batshit crazy. We have a perfectly good country and are throwing it all away. Okay, so the education debacle predates the DJT debacle and probably is part of the cause. I just don’t know where to begin.