The following has been lurking in my drafts queue for quite awhile and as you’ll see from its apologies it has resisted completion and posting before. The new post at Ktismatics on the crappiness of teacher effectiveness evaluations is shaking it loose, for what it’s worth.
When we renounce learning we have no troubles… when there is abstinence from action, good order is universal. — Laozi
I’ve been collecting materials for an education post, but I’ve been too busy to pull them together and they’re starting to exceed both the scope of appropriate bloggery and my powers of synthesis. So rather than hold out for a perfectly polished and coherent analysis I’m just gonna rero this stuff with as much connective tissue as I can concoct and hope it’s stimulating for thought and discussion.
Speaking of which see two good posts on education, coming from two different angles: Undine at Not of General Interest on educational consultants and vacuous stereotypes of college faculty as pedagogy-challenged content experts; and Crooked Timber on schools that beat the odds.
In the comments to her post Undine expresses a common and understandable bad attitude about ‘educational experts’ patronizing content experts with their ‘one best way to teach’. The idea is that we know our stuff but we don’t know how to teach it. Do we really want to know what works best? (Assuming it really does, or if it does it’s translatable, which is the topic of the Crooked Timber post.) Undine echoes the students in our classes nicely by invoking ‘fun’: “the ‘stifling creativity’ part is what I fear most. If you can’t change anything [about your classes], a lot of the fun of doing it goes out of the process. I think about that sometimes with the elementary school teachers who are given scripts which they must follow word-for-word and minute-by-minute.”
Agreed, but what are these oppressive, formulaic practices for? To intercept the really bad outcomes, knowing that lots of teachers (and students) are bad and can do great harm while only a few teachers (and students) are good and will find a way to be so no matter what. Standards don’t raise the bar at the top, they raise it at the bottom. The top is by definition non-standard.
From the recent widely-discussed article by Elizabeth Green in the New York Times Magazine we learn that students learn better from good teachers than from bad ones. Thank you, science. Exemplary researcher and education-industrial-complex-entrepreneur Doug Lemov finds that key strategies, as gathered from effective teachers themselves, mostly boil down to what’s often called ‘classroom management’, or what I’ll call attention-wrangling: effective teachers are good at wrangling their students’ attention. Keys: giving/getting attention; ‘knowledge for teaching’; taking the perspective of the other (teacher reaches out to student’s perspective while teaching student how to reach out to hers); resilience/tolerance for failure, keeping at it until the click; dog whisperer quiet authority. Stand still while giving instructions. Really? Students are easily distractable and have short attention spans. Their problem? Teacher’s problem? Pretend to teach/learn – inflate grades to cover? Or teach students how to pay attention/focus?
If it’s the teacher’s problem, how do they learn to be the solution? Do they always need someone else (Hitler) to wrangle their attention? Persistent elite of attention-givers.
Of course education is a good thing and more of it is generally better than less of it. But there’s only so much education can do. It’s not the solution to all problems, or even part of the solution to some we throw it at. For example in a social order in which some people give orders and some people take them, some serve and others are served, some make messes and others clean them up, and parents are allowed to pass advantages on to their children, education is unable to fundamentally alter the playing field. If everyone got a college education, we’d have college-educated janitors. If everyone got a Harvard education, we’d have Harvard-educated janitors.
The pyramid is smaller at the top than at the bottom. As long as there’s a pyramid it has to be staffed somehow. People toward the top will not be willing to give up their positions and will enjoy disproportionate access to the means of keeping them and passing them down to their children. If education is historically part of those means but becomes equally available to everyone, this elite will simply use other mechanisms to staff their positions (as they already do). There doesn’t have to be a conspiracy or even evil intent to accomplish this, just people who care about their kids and want to keep what they have. Given this fact, and that most jobs farther down the pyramid benefit little from advanced learning, it may not be the best allocation of scarce community resources to try to give everyone a college education, or even a really good secondary education.
We spend so much on educating people who don’t ‘need’ to be educated and talk about doing even more of that every election cycle, as if it would obviously be good and helpful, because this is part of the ideological apparatus of the manufacture of consent in a mass democracy. Making education available to all creates the impression of fairness in pyramid-staffing, and possibly even conceals the structurality of the pyramid altogether, as if with the right education and a little personal grit everyone would be President or at least a Fortune 500 CEO, and win American Idol to boot. Of course beyond this theater of democracy education does a number of arguably-good things, like employing lots of women and minorities and keeping kids off the streets. It actually does these things better the less efficient it is, which may have something to do with why we’re always fiddling with it.