Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Are Most Humans Beings Educable?

Certainly a great deal of human misery could be prevented if people could be taught to think more deeply and effectively. But is the common failure to do so a consequence of a lack of education as many suppose?

Perhaps,the real culprit is a widespread lack of capacity and/or inclination for learning. After all, in order for education to be a cure — much less a cure-all — for what ails the human condition the majority of humans must be capable of sufficient reason and understanding to be improved by that means. Plus, they must willing.

Suppose this is not the case? Suppose a great many humans, possibly even most humans, are not truly educable in any deep and abiding sense?

Is such speculation excessive? Perhaps it is; but consider the long-standing popularity of P.T. Barnum’s observation that “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Ponder also the durability of H.L. Mencken’s dictum that “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” Perhaps these and many similar observations are so durable because they are deeply rooted in reality.

This line of reasoning is heretical to those accustomed to the obligatory optimism that is so current regarding schooling. Nevertheless, there is evidence to support this more pessimistic view.

Consider, for example, that most Americans are more interested in how Michael Jackson died than the fact that we are are blithely destroying our own habitat, increasing our population at an unsustainable rate, and heating the globe to a potentially catastrophic level.

What are we to make of widespread indifference in the face of mortal threats to our very survival? Are they merely the result of inadequate education? Maybe so. But what if a very substantial number of humans, perhaps even a majority, are not educable?

Such folks are not necessarily stupid — though we shouldn't join the politicians in pretending stupid people don't exist. No,uneducable people may be too scared, mentally or physically ill, lazy, angry, or what have, to think deeply and effectively. Such people can only be trained.

What proportion of the population fits this description? Is it, say 10%? (According to the US Department of Education, this is the approximate total population prevalence rate of Americans who qualify for special education.) Is it really higher than that? You decide.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Thursday, July 16, 2009

HIDDEN FACTORS: What Competent Teachers Really Need to Know

My first year of teaching I taught seventh graders. Things went reasonably well, except for one youngster who drove me to distraction. He did it by echoing me. I tried a variety of tactics to get him to stop, but to no avail. In fact, if I said, "David, please stop repeating me" he frequently would respond by saying, "Repeating me."

This behavior went on and on and it was having a disruptive impact on the class. Finally, having exhausted everything I knew about behavior management, I felt I had no choice. The school, which was in the heart of the Bible Belt, still subscribed to the "Spare the rod and spoil the child" principle. In fact, on the first day of school I found a paddle sitting in the chalk tray of my classroom. It was red with "El Diablo inscribed on it." When I asked the principal about it he told me that paddles were made by kids in wood shop and I should feel free to use it.

He did the same. A giant of a man with a misleading Gomer Pyle manner, he wielded a mean paddle himself. School legend had it that no one ever returned for a second treatment from him; and there was no doubt why. When he administered punishment the crack of his two handed paddle resounded throughout the halls and the school's biggest behavior problems left his office in tears. The net effect was an orderly school.

Anyway, after weeks of trying everything I could think of, I reluctantly said to David, "If you don't quit repeating me I'm going to have to paddle you." "Paddle you" David said quietly. With that I ordered him out into the hall for the administration of corporal punishment.

As required, I asked a neighboring teacher to witness punishment. At the sight of my witness David realized I was serious and dissolved into hysteria. "Oh my God, he screeched, "don't hit me!" I tried to quiet him by saying, "Come on David, take it like a man." But David squalled, "I'm not a man, I'm a little boy!" By the way, he was uncommonly small.

The commotion attracted a crowd — chiefly the kitchen staff from the nearby cafeteria. The janitor and some passing students assembled as well. As my colleague struggled to put David over his knee, David screeched for help from the Almighty. The cooks clucked in disapproval and looked at me as if I were a war criminal.

Embarrassed and deeply regretting my decision, I just gave David a light swat. But he reacted as if I had hit him full force with a cat-of-nine-tails. When I returned to the classroom with a sobbing David the kids looked shocked and frightened.

That was the end of corporal punishment for me. For a long time I felt that the chief lesson I had learned was that there were better ways to control behavior. But years later I discovered, quite by accident, that repetitions such as David's are a classic symptom of Tourrete's Syndrome — a psychological disorder three times more common in males than females and most often found in children. So there is a very good chance that I paddled David because he was ill. So the second lesson to be learned from this incident is that teachers had better know their business better than I did.

Clearly aspiring teachers should learn much more than they typically do about youngsters and what either empowers or impedes their learning. In other words, teacher training must transcend mere methods and require in-depth understanding of both learning and learners as well as possible abnormalities such as Davids. Lacking this knowledge, novice teachers will surely make damaging mistakes.

The shame of it is that teacher preparation is moving in the opposite direction. The "highly qualified teachers" requirement of No Child Left Behind has turned out to be a joke. To save money and find "teachers" for America's educational wastelands, many states are requiring less, not more, of future teachers. The financial savings this makes possible are obvious; the human costs are typically hidden. But they are real nonetheless.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Course Evaluations and Teacher DIsempowerment

At sixty-seven years of age, I have survived good times and bad and have the scars to prove it. I have raised two children to happy, productive adulthood and stayed married to the same loving woman for forty-eight years. I have worked as a day laborer, a janitor, a night watchman,a store clerk, a barber’s apprentice, an Army officer, a seventh-grade teacher, and, for thirty-nine years, a teacher educator and author. Yet every semester I am required to submit to anonymous evaluations of my teaching by unripe undergraduates who frequently are more interested in partying and petting than in studying and learning. I should add that I don’t consider my faring well in these ratings as sufficient compensation.

To make matters worse, a disempowering ritual accompanies these evaluations. Professors are sternly instructed to distribute the evaluation forms and then to leave the room. They are not permitted to touch the envelope containing the completed evaluations. The last student finishing must seal the envelope, sign it on the seal, and hand carry it to the department secretary, who presumably is licensed to kill.

This humiliation is accomplished under the pretense that it is a course
evaluation, not an evaluation of the professor. But that fools no one.

Had someone asked me to evaluate my professors when I was in college, I would have thought they had taken leave of their senses. I knew, and my classmates knew, that we were green kids in the presence of full-scale adults who had accomplished a great deal more than we had. It was their business to do the evaluating. It was our business to try to learn — or at least pretend to.

Perhaps I knew my place better than most. As a teenager I apprenticed in my
dad’s barbershop, largely populated by tough, no-nonsense railroaders, coal miners and war veterans. I learned the hard way to be respectful of my elders. For example, I remember voicing an opinion on an adult subject only to have a grizzled railroader tell me that I reminded him of the barber's cat, "full of piss and wind." After that I kept my opinions to myself.

Professors might be able to learn something useful from “course” evaluations if they only knew which students wrote them. (After all, one doesn’t want to take a class-cutting dullard’s comments seriously; but the opinion of accomplished students are another thing entirely.) Unfortunately, student anonymity precludes the professor from knowing who is saying what, while it simultaneously teaches students to hold their tongues unless they can totally avoid responsibility for what they say.

Professors are generally not afforded the commensurate privilege of evaluating their chairs, deans, provosts, or presidents. And professors are almost always expressly forbidden from initiating communication with anyone on the board of trustee's. And all of thie pertains despite the fact that mature, experienced professors with expert knowledge are far better qualified to evaluate college administrators than immature. inexperienced and often strikingly ignorant youngsters are their professors.

Of course college administrators know full well that granting professors the power to evaluate them would disempower them as much as their present policies disempower the professors. Wisely, they are having none of that. What's sauce for the goose turns out, in this case, to be gall for the gander.

Sadly, student "course" evaluations are part of an emerging pattern of teacher disempowerment that is causing teachers at all levels to become more and more impotent. Yet, at the same time, teachers are being held more and more accountable. What a deadly combination. No wonder teachers are leaving the occupation in droves.

Things would change a great deal if faculty evaluations of college administrators served the same purpose that student "course" evaluations serve for the professoriate. Namely, as a gauge for the administrator's promotion and firing. But don't hold your breath waiting for that innovation.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com