Tinkering and Learning

Annie Murphy Paul has a short piece on her blog about “The Joy of Making Things,” and it argues for a more hands-on, experimental approach to learning than one typically finds in school:

Research in the science of learning shows that hands-on building projects help young people conceptualize ideas and understand issues in greater depth. In an experiment described in the International Journal of Engineering Education in 2009, for example, one group of eighth-graders was taught about water resources in the traditional way: classroom lectures, handouts and worksheets. Meanwhile, a group of their classmates explored the same subject by designing and constructing a water purification device. The students in the second group learned the material better: they knew more about the importance of clean drinking water and how it is produced, and they engaged in deeper and more complex thinking in response to open-ended questions on water resources and water quality.

I haven’t read the study being referenced here, but it sounds like the intervention employed a kind of inquiry-based, learning-through-design approach. I would add that one possible advantage to this method, aside from the question of which way helps students “learn the material better,” is the affective dimension: How do students feel about the subject? What attitudes toward water resource management (or science more generally) were formed as a result?

Some of my own work (such as this) suggests that approaching a subject from an attitude of play and experimentation can profoundly affect later perceptions of (and practices within) that subject. Unfortunately, school isn’t typically set up to allow students much room to experiment, especially in this age of increasingly high-stakes standardized testing.


Are Our Schools Failing?

Our American school system is failing, right? You would think so, if you put much stock in international test scores on reading, math, and science. In the most recent set of tests, US children received mediocre scores. You would also think so, if you relied on President Obama’s latest state of the union address, in which it is made clear that he and his administration puts a lot of stock in said tests.

But as Yong Zhao and Diane Ravitch point out, the fact that US children aren’t acing international standardized tests isn’t an occasion for panic. Or rather, it’s kind of ridiculous to panic over our performance on those tests, since we’ve been performing about the same on them for the past 50 years. If, as the current administration suggests, there’s a relationship between performance on these tests and prosperity, then why didn’t our economy collapse decades ago? As Ravitch puts it, “there is no logical connection between international test scores and the success of our economy. Our scores have been poor to middling for 50 years, yet we have the greatest economy in the world.”

In other words, US performance on international tests is no cause for alarm. However, that’s not to say everything is fine with our schools. In fact, it’s possible that we are destroying the very things that made us the “greatest economy in the world” in our misguided attempts to raise test scores. Again, Ravitch:

Instead of promoting innovation, creativity and imagination, the current obsession with raising test scores discourages these things. Students are learning to pick the right answer and being penalized for thinking differently. Subjects that spark students’ imagination, like the arts, are being squeezed out of the school week. And some districts plan to develop standardized tests for all subjects, which are guaranteed to do damage to students’ ability to think creatively.

So, the deep, tragic irony is this: What makes America great is its innovation, creativity, and imagination, and yet, in the name of “keeping up” internationally, we’re moving to destroy these very qualities by endlessly testing and retesting our children.

In other words, we’re going the wrong way. With that in mind, here’s an illustrative story, recounted by Yong Zhao:

The king of the state of Wei intends to attack its neighboring state of Zhao. Upon hearing the news, Ji Liang, counselor to the king rushes to see him. “Your Majesty, on my way here, I met a man on a chariot pointed to the north,” Ji Liang tells the King, “and he told me that he was going to visit Chu.

“But Chu is in the south, why are you headed north?” I asked.

“Oh, no worry, my horses are very strong,” he told me.

“But you should be headed south,” I told him again.

“Not to worry, I have plenty of money,” he was not concerned.

“But still you are headed the wrong direction,” I pointed out yet again.

“I have hired a very skillful driver,” was this man’s reply.

“I worry, your majesty, that the better equipped this man was,” Ji Liang says to the King, “the farther away he would be from his destination.”  “You want to be a great king and win respect from all people,” Ji Liang concludes, “You can certainly rely on our strong nation and excellent army to invade Zhao and expand our territory. But I am afraid the more you use force, the farther away you will be from your wishes.”

De-Professionalizing Teachers

According to this piece in today’s Inside Higher Ed, both the US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and one-time maker of crappy-but-ubiquitous software Bill Gates have recently argued that school districts shouldn’t base teacher pay on whether those teachers have masters degrees or not. This whole thing, of course, is tied up in larger arguments about “merit pay,” by which folks like Duncan seem to mean something like “basing teacher pay on how their students perform on bullshit standardized assessments of their performance.” (Alright, that “bullshit” is all mine, but the rest is a pretty accurate representation.)

All of this is also a not-so-subtle attack on the very idea of teacher education. As I discussed in two earlier posts (here and here), it has become fashionable to claim that teacher education is pointless, that learning about how people learn doesn’t make someone a (potentially) better teacher. Following this logic, medical schools should stop teaching courses in anatomy, law schools courses in jurisprudence, and business schools, well, whatever the hell it is they purportedly teach. Surgeons just need on-the-job training and a stack of pre-approved procedures: cut here, snip this off, sew this up, repeat. Why bother thinking about why you’re doing any of it?

Duncan has been using this rhetoric of wanting to “professionalize” teachers. That’s as egregious a piece of double-speak as I’ve heard since the Bush administration. What Duncan really wants is to de-professionalize teaching, to make it into an assembly line on which student test scores are the widgets being produced. Wikipedia, on the other hand, defines “profession” as “a vocation founded upon specialised educational training”. Lest you think Wikipedia is off on this one, here’s the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition:

An occupation in which a professed knowledge of some subject, field, or science is applied; a vocation or career, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.

Hmm…sounds like the sort of thing one might do after getting a graduate degree. Duncan doesn’t want teachers to be professionals; he wants them to be factory workers.

Now, perhaps there is room to debate the question of whether a masters degree should automatically earn a teacher higher pay. There apparently isn’t much research about the impact a degree has. But I do know that a teacher who earns a masters degree (beyond the baseline credentials needed to teach) is at the very least demonstrating a desire to become more of a professional. And those who earn advanced degrees often return to their schools not only re-invigorated themselves, but with lots of ideas to share with their colleagues. Isn’t that worth rewarding?

Education vs. Creativity

Our five-year-old son started kindergarten a few months ago, and it hasn’t exactly been a smooth transition. Things are improving, I think, but this whole thing has got me thinking about the function of education in our society. Such a high premium seems to be placed on discipline and conformity.

This is partly why the work of Sir Ken Robinson increasingly resonates with me. Robinson argues, among other things, that our current educational system is designed to meet the challenges of the last couple of centuries instead of the challenges of today. In other words, it is set up to produce assembly-line drones or docile cubicle dwellers. I guess I have slightly higher ambitions for my children.

Of course, the other reason Robinson’s stuff resonates with me is because I’m an educator myself. It’s important for all of us teachers–from K-12 through college–to reflect on what exactly it is we think we’re preparing our students for. Below are videos of a couple of Robinson’s talks.



PBS’s News Hour had a report yesterday about a Vanderbilt university study focused on whether tying teacher bonuses to student scores on standardized tests had any effect. According to the report, the researcher, Matt Springer, “offered 143 Nashville teachers bonuses of up to $15,000 if they could substantially raise test scores. Then he compared those teachers’ performance to a group of teachers offered nothing.” The result?

The conclusion of the report is that opportunities to earn a large financial incentive didn’t increase student performance. It didn’t change teacher behavior overwhelmingly.

In other words, the students of teachers offered this incentive didn’t do any better on standardized tests than students of other teachers. It seems you can’t buy better test scores.

Why does this matter? There are profound implications for the kinds of national education policies being pursued right now by the Obama administration. The President’s “Race to the Top” program, which basically has states competing for stimulus funding for education reform, has shown a clear preference for states that are willing to implement some form of “pay-for-performance.” According to the News Hour report, 11 out of the 12 states that have “won” this funding competition have agreed to tie teacher pay to things like student test scores. The idea here (besides busting teacher unions, which is, of course, also part of the point) is to create economic incentives for teachers to increase student test scores. Continue reading

Is Teacher Education a Crock?

You’d think so, if you were paying attention to the news this past week. First, there was the news of the New York State Board of Regents voting to allow “alternative” programs like Teach for America to award masters degrees, where that right had previously been given only to accredited schools of education. Then there was an NPR story on Boston’s Teacher Residency Program, which supposedly uses a “residency” model, borrowed from medical schools, to get aspiring teachers more actual practice as part of their training.

There is nothing inherently wrong with either of these things. However, what struck me was the degree to which both stories seemed to take it on faith that, somehow, current methods of teacher education simply aren’t working. This is from the NYT article on the Regents’ vote:

The programs would need to have a strong emphasis on practical teaching skills, a nod to criticisms that traditional education schools spend too much time on theory.

In a similar vein, here’s what the NPR story says:

“Most teacher training institutions focus more on content and less on practice and how people teach,” Payzant [founder of the Teacher Residency Program] says. So, he wondered, why can’t schools be more like teaching hospitals with seasoned teachers, just like seasoned doctors, responsible for the induction and training of the next generation of teachers?

An underlying (and unexamined) message in both of these pieces is that teacher education programs are too much about “theory” and “content,” and not enough about “practice.” Continue reading

PhDs Teaching at Community College?

Note: A revised version of this post, titled “Not a Consolation Prize,” appeared in Inside Higher Ed in April 2010.

I’ve got mixed feelings about Tom Hurley’s article in today’s IHE suggesting that recent English PhDs ought to seek teaching jobs at community colleges. On the one hand, he’s got a point: the job market for English PhDs is terrible, and only likely to get worse. On its surface, Hurley’s point seems to be that “teaching at community college ain’t that bad, really” along with a more submerged thesis: “look, you’re not going to get that job at a doctoral intensive university, so you need to lower your expectations.”

I don’t dispute either of these claims, but because I teach in the Composition MA program at San Francisco State, where our primary mission is to prepare our MA students to teach specifically at community colleges, I see some potential problems with the notion that we ought to be flooding community college departments with newly-minted English PhDs. Continue reading