Saturday, March 13, 2010

Real Teacher Education

After a long day of PD yesterday, I've been thinking about how we see ourselves as educators. Been thinking about what our own education means and how we continue to develop as teachers. Been thinking about real teacher education.

Our PD session ended in a faculty discussion where we debated what the role of lecturing is in the high school classroom. On one side, we had folks who said that kids need to "learn to become engaged in a lecture" because that's the primary form of classroom communication they'd see in college. On the other side were the folks who argued that outside of the college classroom, there wasn't a job on Earth where the primary form of communication is lecturing and therefore we should dispel with it in our classrooms in favor of 'real world' education.

This of course, is a classic argument that's been going on since at least Mr. Dewey's days.

And I think it misses the boat.

Because the argument is structured in such a way to propagate the false dichotomy between 'levels' of learning and experience. I'd argue that rather than gear your instructional strategy towards expectations in educational leveling -- i.e. teaching with different strategies to second graders than to college freshmen based on the 'ideas' of what the expectations of teaching and motivation are -- what we really should be doing is understanding who our students are in a meaningful and compassionate way and, without any preconceptions about what's going to 'work', we should be formulating approaches democratically with the input -- and veto power -- of our students.

The students deserve the veto. It's their education, after all. And if the teaching method you are using isn't working for them -- be it lecture or open learning or project-based or what-have-you -- then they have a right and obligation to petition you to understand what would work for them and you have a professional obligation to try out new strategies.

Hard? Yes.

Professional and necessary? Even more so.

I'm tired of teachers acting like their 'tried-and-true' method is the only way. I was tired of it as a student and I'm tired of it as a teacher. It's arrogant and it stinks of the fear of losing the comfort of the 'normal'.

Nothing about your students is 'normal'.

I realize that I can be a bit militant in the pages of this blog. And I fully realize that I've got an ego and personal arrogance that occasionally makes me look like a jackass. So I'm gonna say right here right now: Don't base your teaching approaches on the arguments that you hear on this blog. Rather, base your teaching approaches on the conversations you have with your students. Find out who they are. Ask them how they learn. Challenge yourself to figure out how to teach them. Each of them.

Because in the end, this isn't about lecturing vs. not lecturing. It's not about preparing kids to be able to handle college. It's not about the authority of one form of instruction over another.

It's about engaging minds and empowering individuals.

That's it. That's the whole point of education.

And you ain't gonna engage the mind of a student by arguing the finer points of pedagogy with your colleagues. You're only going to engage the minds of your students by learning from them how their minds work. You've got to talk to them. You've got to know them. And you have to trust one another.

Real teacher education happens when you leave your ego behind and jump into the learning process as not a 'teacher' or a 'facilitator' but as a fellow human being who has compassion for human beings and who recognizes the real importance of education as the armor of empowerment. Because the 'real world' is an endlessly relative term; and what we really want is not to produce students capable of dealing with one kind of 'real world', but capable of adapting, showing compassion, and helping to empower others in whatever world in which they may find themselves.


  1. I completely agree with your argument. My mom, an amazing teacher, told me when I was a student teacher that the kids drive the curriculum. First and foremost, they are what you're teaching, not the IRP, or whatever else the document from above might be called.

    The tricky thing is that if you're going to let the students have the power in a classroom, you as a teacher have to be willing to bend and change accordingly. You have to be able to let go. You have to listen and pay attention to what they want and need. And those things change with each group of students and each passing year. So it's more work and it's hard work, but I think it's essential to reaching each group of students that enters the classroom.

    Students are unlikely to maximize their learning if we don't learn them as both individuals and as a group of learners, first.

  2. Here, Here! Free the children from mandatory school and curriculum. Pablo Freire and Ivan Illich are the best thinkers I know on this subject. Read deeply in them and your world view will grown and deepen with the love and empowerment of humanity. De-Schooling Society and Pedagogy of the Oppressed are great places to start.

  3. "It's about engaging minds and empowering individuals."
    Spot on. Once students want to learn, their excitement really makes the classroom a special place to be in.

  4. Pardon me for being the voice of opposition on this one. I agree totally with everything about engaging the students, gearing the curriculum in their direction, etc. The thing that troubles me, and this is a think aloud here without filter and without full process, is this idea of a democratic classroom. I hear the term frequently nowadays and I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around it, and not just because I tend to be libertarian :-)

    Has human civilization evolved to the point that all other methods of education in the last several thousand years become inferior? Never before has education been "democratic". I may be wrong and am very open to correction, remember I'm thinking aloud here. I'm seriously not trying to be extremist or absolutist. Can students, even high school students, be given this kind of autonomy and be prepared for college, at least on the current timetable and schedule set by society?

  5. Your posting is timely for me. The other day a colleague and I discussed a student in her elementary classroom who currently is working far behind grade level. Parents agreed to psycho-ed testing at the start of the year which indicated the student had mild intellectual difficulties but the parents were not convinced to modify their child's program at that time. My colleague felt that since the student was still not progressing she should approach the parents again about modification. This caused an emotional tug of war within her. She really believes that the student is not capable of working at grade level but she also worried about how her student would react to working on materials clearly not grade level in class, the effect it would have on her self esteem and how other students in the class would react to this. I suggested that she talk with the student. Ask the student how she would feel if she was working on obviously different level of work from the other students in her room. How does she feel now about her ability to complete the assignments she is given? The suggestion made her pause - she admitted that she had not thought of that but thought it was a good idea. Giving her student a voice, empowering her, in a decision that will affect future years of schooling, would give my colleague more information about the situation. With the suggestion I actually saw my colleague relax. I think that she realized that there was an avenue she has not yet explored that may help her and the students parents reach a decision that would be best for the student. I believe my colleague is a caring, compassionate, good teacher but I left wondering why she had not thought of this on her own. What I came up with was that many teachers think of themselves as the "leaders of learning" that occurs in their classroom rather than facilitators of learning (I admit to working towards being a 'facilitator' and away from thinking of myself as the 'leader' in my classroom - I am a 'work in progress'). We are the 'experts on learning' and should know what is 'best for our students'. It scared my colleague when she did not know what was best in this situation. How can we know what is best when we don't talk with our students? Empowering students can empower teachers, too

  6. Right on. "Tried and true" is often just teacher-speak for "makes students compliant." I think many have forgotten that's not the ultimate goal they got into education to pursue. Students may learn a lot, or not, be engaged, or not, but as long as you have control over your classroom, you're a "good" teacher.

  7. While I admire and enjoy the debate in this blog, could I say that I loathe the title?
    If we are educators then we should know how to use the language.
    Could I “Eat foodless?” What would be the “foodless” that I was encouraging others to eat?
    This matters. No, it really does. Language is the only medium we have for discussing meaning. The more we are attempting to say something important, the more important it is to say something well.

  8. @Anon

    I agree of course that you can't 'eat' without food. But you can teach without paper.

    Here's a few posts detailing further thoughts about paperlessness:

    Thanks for commenting,

  9. Shelly, thanks for this timely post. It was a relief to have someone articulate the thoughts I was recently unable to express... You see, over the weekend, I had a small spat with my SO over my methods of teaching. I had been revising an old lesson plan from my student teaching days to include more differentiation and technology, and I wondered aloud if stations were appropriate for secondary students. The old LP centered around a 60-minute PPT lecture, and I was told that I was not preparing students for college as lectures were the norm. Needless to say, as a new teacher, this was something I still struggled to explain.

    I completely forgot about the humane part until you brought it up. I've been focusing on the teacher title, rather than the human title. Thanks for the post.

  10. I completely agree with your argument. Fortunately, I work in an independent study environment where personalization is the key to student success. I thought I was personalizing instruction to meet the needs of each of my students, but reading your blogs and what you have been doing in the classroom is AMAZING! I feel so empowered by the information you have provided and am inspired to go as paperless as possible! Thanks for your insight!

  11. Shelly, thanks for this timely post. In independent study environment, I agree personalization is the key to student success, but this especially applies to art education schools.


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