Monday, March 9, 2009

The Value of Questioning Conventional Wisdom

At the risk of revealing just how bad I am at keeping up with the next must-read book, I’ll admit that I only recently finished Freakonomics. The 2005 book offers, among many other things, an interesting (if not terribly satisfying) exposé on teachers who cheat on standardized tests, as well as a report on the negligible effect that school choice has on student performance in a large urban school system.

More than any of the specific case studies, though, I came away from the book thinking about the need to question conventional wisdom, the concept defined by John Kenneth Galbraith as a version of reality constructed not out of truth, but out of convenience, self-interest, and the desire to preserve self-esteem. The far-reaching, often negative, effects of unquestioning adherence to conventional wisdom permeate the scenario that Kylene Beers presents in her recent report, The Genteel Unschooling of America’s Poor.

The viewpoints held by the administrators and teachers in Beers's report are informed by the accepted truth that the students at the under-resourced urban school do best with (and, in fact, need) highly structured, rule-based, rote learning and aren't the “right kind of kids” for learning experiences that require or lead to higher level critical thinking.

In some ways, it’s difficult to blame the individual participants in the processes Beers describes. After all, what teacher or administrator wouldn’t be tempted to cling to a version of the truth that props up his or her self-esteem and seemingly validates the work he or she is doing—especially when federal, state, and district mandates and initiatives seem to be supporting that view?

Education, however, has never been about the self-esteem and validation of the ones at the front of the classroom. It’s certainly gratifying to be able to reach the end of a class period or school day and think, “I did a really great job with my kids.” But if success is measured in silent compliance and if hard work is gauged by completion of skill-and-drill worksheets, the teacher’s esteem and validation are as empty as the education the students are receiving.

Beers's report also reminded me of something from an even older must-read book, a passage from Hamlet that a colleague displays prominently in her classroom: “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” Don't these lines reveal what’s truly unfortunate about the instance of conventional wisdom Beers discusses? Just as teaching shouldn’t be about the validation of the teacher’s worth, education should never be about who students are when they walk in the door. The focus has to be on what they will know, what they will be able to do, and who they may be when (and after) they leave.

5 comments:

Nan said...

The last paragraph of this blog really touched me and I think it's right. Sometimes we get so caught up in the here and now it's hard to think about exactly what we are doing and why. We need to remember that our teaching and lessons stay with our students for a long time. That is what we need to think of when we look at our students tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Beers misses the point. Methods are efficient. Teachers are effective. A formulaic approach (if the formula is good) in the right hands can get great results. Beers saw bad programming and, most likely, bad teaching and jumped to the conclusion that student needs to be taught using self discovery, which is a method (which should be judged by its efficiency, not its effectiveness [teachers are effective, not methods). Lots of teachers who teach the way Beers suggests and they don’t get results. That doesn’t mean self discovery can’t work with an effective teacher. It just means that she doesn’t get it.

mj hollman said...

I have not had a chance to read Beers'
book. However, my guess is that she is not playing the "versus game," i.e. one approach is "better" than another.
I've always believed that the approaches used for so-called gifted students should be offered to students with all literacy backgrounds. They deserve the "fun stuff," too.
Gentility may even have its place -- but student writers need to have a variety of genres, voices and opportunities to choose from. Whether they can spell "opportunity" or not.

Beth Hogan-Chan said...

Beers' description of an unsuccessful school warns against anemic, formulaic teaching in low socio-economic schools. In order to identify what works in education, it is important to examine districts with high numbers of stressors as well as high levels of success. Schools in such districts that tend to be successful cultivate resilience and perseverance in both students and teachers. As Alice Miller’s case studies found, however, it takes the concern and intervention of adults to inculcate resilience in children facing extreme obstacles such as poverty, neglect, abuse, illness, and loss.

For our part, successful faculties of K-12 teachers implement the most effective teaching, evaluation, and community-building practices we can muster. Specifically, challenging learning tasks offer students opportunities to become more intellectually resilient. When students are given the support they need to work on complex, worthwhile tasks at and above their instructional level, they learn. When children are expected to take part in the construction of their own learning and the climate of their own school, they engage. In turn, when adults coax students to revise and redo work, students understand that perseverance is a crucial part of the learning process.

We cannot remove the obstacles our students face outside of, and sometimes inside, school. We can, however, help them think differently about the obstacles they encounter in either environment. We can calmly counter our most vulnerable students if they claim that a writing project is too hard, an equation too vexing, a science experiment too confusing, or a foreign language too inscrutable. Of course they won’t put it in these terms. They’ll just say:

“I can’t do this.”

We, their teachers, can listen to their words and their silences and say, over and over, year after year, in thousands of different ways:

“Yes, you can do it, honey, let me show you how.”

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