Every society and culture has its set of assumptions & myths (in the good sense of that word—that is, a deeply and largely unspoken set of beliefs) that make that society work. And, like everything else that human beings touch, these assumptions & myths have both a good and a dark side.
One of the defining myths of our modern Western culture is our obsession with Machines. Now, machines have done a lot for us—I shudder to think what life would be like without flush toilets and washing machines. But, of course, we make the typical human mistake of assuming that if some is good, more must be better. So, if machines work well in some areas, they must work equally well in all domains!
And what is a machine? I’d say it is a non-human device that replaces human labor.
For example, I suggest that a corporation (if it is functioning properly) is a profit generating ‘machine’. But a dirty little secret of corporations is that human beings are ultimately unnecessary. And, in fact, corporations replace human beings with machines at every opportunity. At present some work is off-shored to poor souls in distant lands who are willing to live in toxic waste and work for $1 a day, but as their standards of living slowly rise, the corporations will ultimately replace them with machines as well. (Might the slow but steady replacement of humans with machines explain in part our persistently high unemployment?)
This same Machine approach is currently being applied to education. For all practical purposes, educators are currently being reduced to ‘Teaching Units’ and students to ‘Learning Units’. And having reduced teachers and students to machine-like Teaching Units and Learning Units, we can apply corporate & manufacturing style “process improvement” methodologies to all the Teaching Units, who will in turn apply them to their Learning Units, and the Learning Units will respond equally. (Well, a few might be identified as malfunctioning and given Special Recalibration—I mean Special Education.)
Another defining myth of our modern Western culture is our obsession with Progress. Now, one way of describing Progress is our drive to improve ourselves and our environment, and that is one of the great defining characteristics of Humanity. But, another way of describing ‘growth without limit’ is ‘cancer’. We can all remember when it was ‘common knowledge’ that there was no limit to how high housing prices would go. Oh really? Will the average house ever sell for a trillion dollars? Of course not! And now in hindsight we can bitterly see the folly of the idea of ‘no limit to house price growth’.
The Progress myth is tricky, because it can be hard to know what the limits of growth really are in a particular situation. There was a time when it was considered impossible to run the mile in faster than 4 minutes. Then Roger Bannister broke that ‘barrier’ in 1954, and very quickly other athletes broke the 4-minute mile ‘barrier’ as well. The next goal is the 3-minute mile (the current record is 3:43). But I would suggest there is definitely a limit: I don’t see how a human being will ever be able to run a mile in one second.
I would submit that Progress is another myth over-applied to Education. “Test scores have to go up every year.” Oh really? Like housing prices? What happens when 100% of the students get perfect scores on the CAHSEE? “That can’t ever happen,” you say, and of course you are right—that is my point. The human population always has been, and always will be a bell curve—a few on the high end, a few on the low end, most in the middle. So we can never achieve 100% graduation rates, 100% proficiency, 100% of anything unless the measures are dumbed-down to the point of meaninglessness.
I humbly suggest that there is really only one ‘pedagogical approach’ that works, and that is A Skilled Teacher Who Cares. A human being teacher who knows all the methodologies, and applies and adapts them to each of his/her unique human being students.
Much is made of the vaunted ‘Socratic Method’. I would argue that it is NOT about asking questions—any computer can spew a series of irrelevant questions. Instead, what the Socratic Method really boils down to is a wise teacher asking a leading question, and responding to the student’s answer. No boilerplates. No canned responses. One older and wiser human being guiding and interacting with the younger.
Now of course we can’t have one-on-one teaching. (Well, we COULD if that were a cultural priority, but it just isn’t.) So allowance has to be made for one teacher and many students, and even Socrates (by all accounts) had many students at a time.
But I would suggest that if the intent is to enact a set of policies that will drive Good Teachers out of the profession, then the current set of policies could hardly do a better job.
In short, isn’t it obvious that the way to improve education is to attract and keep Good Teachers, and give them the (minimal) support they need to do their jobs?
Good teachers don’t need much. Socrates just needed a space to teach. Archimedes’ math teachers needed sand and a stick for their geometric drawings. Now by all means there are modern conveniences that make teaching easier—overhead projectors and such. And computer-aided learning can definitely support a Good Teacher. But machines can never replace a Good Teacher, nor can the latest unilaterally imposed ‘methodology/technology of the week’.
And while merit pay for superior teachers is fine in concept—there is certainly nothing wrong with the idea of paying Good Teachers more—yet I would submit that Good Teachers don’t go into the profession—or better, the ‘Calling’—because of money.
Want to improve education in America? Reduce the federal Department of Education by 100%, the state Department of Education by at least 80%, and district staff by at least 50%. Use all the money saved to reduce class size, increase teacher salaries, and screen the applicants like crazy. (Let the Good Teachers do the interviewing!) Talk to the current Good Teachers—what do they need to do their jobs better? Many (most?) of those things are cheap and easy.
Teachers and students are not Machines. And they are not capable of infinite Progress. Machines and Progress have their place, but what ultimately accomplishes education is Good Teachers. There are no silver bullets. And as for the “Methodologies of the Week”? The Good Teachers already know them all.
As long as we continue to drive Good Teachers out of the field, instead of cultivating and supporting them, and treat teachers and students like Teaching Units and Learning Units, then education will continue its steady march into the tar pits—where the dinosaurs died.