A No-nonsense perspective
Last summer, while visiting a friend, I picked up a novel from the bookshelf. The protagonist was a kindergarten teacher whose school shared a building with a prestigious “progressive” elementary school. Ten years previously, its progressiveness was defined by its unstructured approach where students were free to discover their own interests and choose their activities. Ten years later, its approach to students who were having difficulty learning became highly structured and rigidly disciplined. That approach, too, was branded as “progressive”. As we enter an new decade my perception is that much in education is merely a matter of fashion, ever changing in the search for panaceas to fix its alleged, sometimes real, failures.
Better, not necessarily new
When I come across job postings from schools looking for “innovative” teachers, I wonder, “What is more important? Innovativeness or effectiveness?” Innovation is most often understood as something new. However, not all that is new is good, nor all that is traditional, bad. Further, what is effective for one student may be ineffective for another. To add to the complexity of this. what one teacher may be able to implement with great success may not fit another’s personality or style. When I was a student teacher, one of my professors declared that he “distrusts the one-way person”. I have never forgotten that.
Excellent teachers develop an ever-expanding “toolkit” of approaches enabling them to find a way that works for each student. In order for teachers to add to their toolkit, they have to be looking for approaches that are new to them (but not necessarily new to the craft). Perhaps schools should be looking for teachers who “value personal growth and lifelong learning” rather than those who are “innovative.”
Engagement AND Rigour
What has become sadly rare, is a reasonable concern with academic rigour, with the notion that students should actually learn important material and skills well. In my work with schools and teachers, I sometimes encounter university graduates who, even with majors in English, are functionally illiterate. They have no idea what a well-written sentence is, or any appreciation of economy of language, of redundancy, of the impact of word-order, or a sense of the impact of one word rather than another. I think such students have been defrauded. They have spent at least sixteen years in school and emerged without what surely must be considered one of the most fundamental skills of an educated person. We have become so obsessed with making students consider themselves “successful” regardless of the quality of what they have done. We focus so much on making school fun and enjoyable, that we have, too often, forgotten that being able to do things well and understand the fundamentals of whatever discipline one is studying is necessary. Merely showing up at school is not enough, and sound learning requires hard and disciplined work under the guidance of skilled and themselves well-educated teachers.
Of course, good lessons are engaging. Of course classrooms should be pleasant, inviting places. But that does not imply that activities should be meaningless and superficial, and devoid of the substance that allows them to genuinely contribute to students’ education by allowing them to grow their understandings and skills.
Learning differences: teaching, not accommodating
A massively important way education has improved is in the recognition that students learning needs, strengths and challenges differ greatly, and that every effort must be made to enable all students to be (genuinely) successful. Gone, thankfully, are the bad old days when unsuccessful students were simply dismissed as stupid or lazy.
Working with students for whom school learning is particularly difficult requires excellent teaching. What is required is a determination to help students acquire skills and knowledge. However too often their needs are “accommodated” by enabling them to avoid tasks they find difficult. If a student finds it difficult to complete a test in the allotted time, just give him endless amounts of additional time rather than teaching him how to budget time properly. If a student has difficulty writing, just give her a scribe rather than engaging in the laborious task of teaching her to write. And so on. Does this mean that it is never appropriate to give more time, or provide a scribe? Of course not. But my sense is that too often, those kinds of avoidance accommodations are the default solution rather than the last resort.
I once observed in a grade 12 English classroom where the students all had been diagnosed with significant learning difficulties. What impressed me greatly was that they were doing the same work as their “regular” peers in other schools. It was no less demanding. They were “just” being extremely well taught in a small class in a school specializing in working with such students with a highly skilled teacher. Would being in a large “inclusive” classroom, as required by much current ideology, have served those students, or society, better? I doubt it.
A change for the better
One of the most important changes in education that has occurred over the period of my career is in the atmosphere of schools. Schools have become much nicer places for students, staff and parents. My work typically brings me into around 30 schools each year. These schools are always a mix of some I have worked in before and others that are new to me. They span all grades from pre-school to grade 12; public, charter and independent; and students from all social-economic and cultural backgrounds. In all of them, teachers, administrators and office staff generally treat students pleasantly, courteously and respectfully. For the most part, students respond in kind. Schools are happy places. And this is how it should be, and is very different from the harsh and even cruel atmosphere that was all too common in earlier times.
As we begin the new year, and the new decade, let us remember: all that is new and glitters is not gold. While there have been some enormously important advances in education, it’s possible for some of the things that are effective and matter greatly to be lost. As the old saying had it, let’s be sure that we are not “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”