I first posted this article back in September of 2015, and finding it again by chance when a reader commented, thought it worth a reprise. I’ve often been disgusted by the enormous gap between administrators–those former educators squirreled away in a “central office,” well away from actual schools and classrooms. In all my years in education, I’ve never had one of them visit me classroom and ask what they could do to make my job easier. What could they do to help me be more effective, to provide a better educational opportunity for the kids.
Part of the problem is they tend to see life in terms of policies. To be sure, most of them believe their brilliant policies–fads really–will actually be of value to students, and perhaps even teachers, but as this article explains, they virtually never are. All too often, they make the lives of teachers more difficult, and they diminish educational opportunity as they waste millions. Teachers, on the other hand, are concerned with people, seeing every one of their students as individuals with individual needs.
For those that have never taught, and want to know what it’s actually like, this article may provide at least a bit of enlightenment useful in the continuing education debate. The article:
As I’ve often observed, contemporary education is inherently–and tragically–fad-based. Theorists, usually from universities, or think tanks come up with “new” ideas that in reality are anything but. Or educators planning to make their way out of the classroom repackage old ideas with new acronyms and terms, and sell them to school administrators looking for brilliant “new” programs that will help them stand out as educational innovators and perhaps, one day, pave their path to a superintendent’s job.
Along that path is always the litter of untold millions of wasted taxpayer dollars, and lost time that could have been used productively by students and teachers. Reality is that people learn in the same ways known to Aristotle and Plato. There really is relatively little new under the sun, particularly in education. To be sure, there are new technologies that make accessing information, perhaps even producing documents, a bit faster and easier, but when it comes to making new neural connections and building bigger, better brains, fads tend to be debilitating viruses rather than fountains of knowledge and youth.
Among the fads that have been around for awhile, still, upon occasion, raising its battered head, is the idea of “student-centered classrooms.” Marcia Powell, billed as an Iowa science teacher, explains in EdWeek:
What interests you? Sports? Historical novels? Cars? Finding crafty ideas on Pinterest? For adults, making choices is the norm. We’re motivated by stimuli that we value, by our passions. If ideas hold no personal interest for us, we often quit, unless a relationship or reward is involved.
Our students aren’t so different. Expert teachers know how to give students choice and voice, finding ways to design learning experiences that tap into what students value. This isn’t always easy, especially if our preparation experiences didn’t frame learning this way. Here are five questions that can help us develop and refine the teacher strengths needed for creating a student-centered classroom. Use them to start the new year off right!
Adults are indeed so motivated, but only in part. More important motivations tend to be economic survival and caring for one’s family, which tends to significantly interfere with hobbies and making more delightful choices.
Transferring this concept, so blithely expressed, to children, is not reflective of reality. Most kids don’t know what they like or want to do from one minute to the next, and designing “learning experiences that “tap into what students value” is a recipe for disaster. Much of what many kids “value” is trivial, self-defeating, even harmful. We must never underestimate the intelligence of children, but we must never overestimate their information. Most kids simply don’t know what they don’t know, a problem affecting not a few adults.
Here are Powell’s suggestions for educational salvation:
1. How does the classroom environment promote interaction among learners—and how do you operate in that environment? Student-centered classrooms are big on collaboration, which means they don’t usually have rows of desks facing a teacher lectern or desk. Instead, desks or tables are arranged so that it’s easy for students to collaborate on projects or on analyzing readings (rather than listening to lectures). And whether teachers are leading lessons on protein synthesis or the issues leading up to a world conflict, we make the most of these possibilities.
The primary philosophical foundation underlying student-centered classrooms is the necessity of teachers giving up any traditional philosophy or technique of teaching. In fact, this theory usually demands teachers no longer use the “T” word, substituting instead “facilitator” or some equally nebulous and mushy term. There are very specific reasons why teachers do what they do, including where desks are placed and oriented, reasons based on available time and space and on what works. Lecterns should never become barriers or crutches, but they tend to be handy to hold books and papers, particularly when one must teach the same lesson seven periods a day.
Forgotten–or simply ignored–by SCC theorists is that different disciplines require entirely different approaches. One-size-fits-all doesn’t even work well for pantyhose. Also ignored is human nature, particularly the nature of children.
Teacher strength: giving up absolute control. The teacher becomes a participant and co-learner in discussion, asking questions and perhaps correcting misconceptions, but not telling learners what they need to know.
And why, pray tell, did I attend college and graduate school? Why do I read 2-3 books a week? Why do I continually upgrade and change my materials and methods? Why do I spend long evenings and weekends meticulously grading student writings? SCC true believers call teachers that actually and effectively teach “the sage on the stage,” considering that a clever and damning indictment. But if I am of no real value, if I am only there to “facilitate” whatever discussion kids want, or more likely, don’t want, I don’t deserve my paycheck, my preparation, ability and experience are superfluous, and the schools are grossly defrauding the public.
2. What kind of assessments do you use? Student-centered assessments ask open-ended questions that force learners to reflect and synthesize what they have learned. They demand that students access higher orders of thinking. [skip]
Assessment can be a creative product and process that involves student choice.
“Assessment” is contemporary educationalese for “test.” In English, most of my tests are writings of various kinds. I often give kids the options of responding to a work of literature in one of several ways, but that’s not what Powell and other SCC true believers are suggesting. Their methods allow kids to test themselves in ways they think fitting, or at least that’s what their formulations of language suggest. Perhaps their students wrote it?
Teacher strength: valuing student engagement over convenience. It’s easier to scan a bubble test, or run it through a script like Flubaroo. But these assessments do not tell us nearly as much about critical thinking—or students’ progress toward the Common Core State Standards. Creating and completing meaningful assessments is hard (but worthwhile) work for both teacher and students.
Here I agree with Powell, but only to a degree. Again, different disciplines require different approaches. As a teacher of English, I use few multiple choice tests–though mandatory, high stakes tests require such questions for convenience in scoring–so scanning bubble sheets is not in my vocabulary. Higher levels of thinking are a relative matter, based on the age, intellectual development and abilities of students, and are highly dependent on the discipline being taught–or as with SCC methodology–not taught. I do believe in demanding high levels of effort and achievement, but believe me gentle readers, most kids are not enthusiastic about producing it, nor would any but a very few come up with the idea of requiring it.
I’m skipping Powell’s third area as it primarily suggests good teachers must be able to change directions if things aren’t working or to meet obvious student needs. Indeed, but circumstances seldom allow the kind of wholesale rejiggering Powell advocates. Contemporary teachers, slaves to mandatory test preparation, and losing more and more precious minutes of class time each year, must be masters, above all, of picking and choosing that which is most valuable and necessary, topics, ways of thinking, and methods of which students know little or nothing. This is, in part, why we actually require college educations and continuing professional education of teachers. Take the link for Powell’s thoughts if you choose.
Now we get to the foundation of Powell’s thinking:
4. Which is more important to you: compliance or knowledge? Occasionally we come across learners who drive most of their teachers crazy. They text on the sly, don’t hand in homework, read unrelated books during class time. Backing them into a corner is an understandable reaction: ‘Dude, you’re in my class to do my work.” It can be almost infuriating when this learner takes the test and aces it: He or she understands the content and is competent at what you have to offer. [skip]
Teacher strength: admitting you do not have the market cornered on knowledge. The truth is that 21st-century learning is focused more on creation and critical thinking than on compliance. Most of us were formed in a teaching crucible that emphasized our wisdom and students’ compliance. Shifting our perspective means that students take on more active roles as learners and that our roles change, too. We must decide whether to think and act as facilitators who empower (and learn from) our students—or as the people guarding the vault.
I was wondering when Powell would get around to “facilitators.” At least some SCC types know to keep that one at least somewhat stealthy these days. “Guarding the vault?” On the contrary, teachers help kids open the vaults of knowledge. Powell is entirely missing the point–several points, actually. Professional teachers know there are always people–and sometimes students, that are bigger, stronger, faster, prettier, smarter, etc. than they. Fortunately, education is not a matter of beating each other about the head and shoulders with IQ test results. Professionals are not in the least intimidated by smart students, nor are they at a loss for how to handle kids who don’t do their work, don’t do as they are asked, or are disruptive of the learning opportunities of others.
One of the primary roles of schools, a role that parents have shifted more heavily on the shoulders of teachers in recent decades, is civilizing children and preparing them to live and work with others. It matters not how brilliant a child is; they still have to live and work with a wide variety of people, some pleasant and engaging and some mean and miserable. They must be able to complete tasks to the standards and expectations of others, particularly their college professors and their bosses. We do children no favors by allowing them the idea they are stunningly bright and special snowflakes allowed to not only do as they please, but to tell teachers–oops! Sorry! Facilitators–what they are allowed to do to better service the fleeting needs of the snowflakes.
Certainly I don’t suggest treating kids unprofessionally or with disdain. Kids recognize truly smart and capable adults. They need encouragement and support, but above all, they need discipline and guidance. Children look to the adults in their lives to learn how to think and behave, whether to be cruel or kind, whether to be hateful or loving. When they do well, they deserve proportional praise for their efforts, and when they don’t, they need progressive consequences to encourage them to do better.
5. If learners weren’t required to come to your class, would they? Ask yourself this difficult but honest question: Is there joy in the journey we are taking together? It’s one of the most difficult tasks in teaching, because it asks us to consider the learner as a part of our community, rather than just a mind to fill. Asking this question—and responding to the answer—requires a combination of flexibility, humor, and the ability to try new things, fail, and laugh when things work out … and when they don’t.
Powell seems to be on the right track here. Teaching and learning must be fun, and if done right, both are. Teachers that believe in what they’re teaching, who don’t teach anything that isn’t valuable, who are truly enthusiastic about all they do and who are genuinely glad to be the teacher of their students know their kids–most of them–will reciprocate. Kids are like dogs; they have no doubt who loves them. However, we must never mistake popularity with effectiveness. Many kids will gladly choose to take a class that requires little of them and allows them to do as they please. Fewer will take a class that is fun, but which requires actual effort and accomplishment.
And then Powell dives headfirst into the SCC swamp:
Teacher strength: developing healthy relationships with learners. You’ve heard all the warnings before: Don’t let them see you smile, don’t communicate with them via social media, don’t let them know that you aren’t the expert. But it just doesn’t work that way in our own lives. If we sincerely believe in lifelong learning and commit to modeling it, we’ll be honest with one another, cajoling, encouraging, and mentoring with challenging and appropriate dialogue.
Actually, it does work that way in our own lives. We tend to have active BS detectors and know who is truly expert and who is a mere poseur. We also know that we must, if we want to remain employed and stay out of prison, maintain “healthy” but professional relationships with our students. We can be friends with kids, but responsible, adult friends, friends that will always do what is best for them regardless of whether they like it. Of course we’ll rat them out! Of course we’ll tell their parents! We’re not their peers. They don’t need, and have no idea how to deal with, middle-aged homies.
Smile? Of course; every day and for every kid. Communicate with kids on social media? Call or text them on their smart phones? Please stop by the principal’s office on the way out of the building and leave the forwarding address for your final paycheck. You are not their homey, and their parents will not be amused with your SCC “healthy relationships.”
No one expects every teacher to know everything, and smart teachers readily admit when they can’t immediately answer a question. MY students have no doubt I was born without the higher math gene. This is merely part of being a professional. But what Powell ignores is yet another central fact of human nature. It matters not how smart a given child is. They are, and always will be, inexperienced, inexperienced not only in life, in interacting with others, in social and survival skills, emotionally, and indeed, intellectually. With very few exceptions, their brains have not reached adult levels of development and function. Professional adult teachers have not only learned how to think and reason in ways actually developmentally impossible for most students, particularly in the K-12 system, but they have gone beyond those foundational skills and developed the ability, and the dedication, to teach others how to do the same.
That, and much else, is what is lost when one becomes a facilitator rather than a teacher.
Student-centered classrooms? Yes, but only to the degree that real teachers feel an absolute obligation to provide the best educational opportunity their resources and abilities allow. The rest is expensive and destructive fairy dust and unicorn horns.
Do you, gentle readers, have something of a better idea what’s actually going on in education? If we really think”reform” is necessary, it would be wise to begin with restoring actual teaching, which requires actual effort on the part of students, rather than wasting untold millions of the newest fads. The mere fact that administrators don’t ask teachers–the people actually doing the work–how they can help them…well, doesn’t that speak volumes?