Regular readers know I am a critic of what contemporary education, K-12 and college, is fast becoming. Mandates of all kinds, local, state and federal, have reduced secondary class time to 45 minutes or less.
So what. What’s five minutes here or there?
Take five minutes from a 50-minute class. Multiplying that by 180 school days (a reasonable average) equals 900 minutes. Divide that by 45 minutes (one class period) and each and every class has lost 20 periods–one month of instruction in that school year. Add in all of the pervasively “normal” disruptions to class time–assemblies, extracurricular absences, pep rallies, athletic contests, plays, etc.–and it’s a wonder there is any time left for teaching and learning.
You may think, gentle readers, I’m just covering already plowed ground, but this article is about something new: process vs. teaching, and it affects every secondary school in America to varying degrees.
Ideally, all schools would follow the traditional model that built the most technologically and economically advanced, just, free and productive society in history: hire good teachers and let them teach. Does this sound outmoded? Consider that human beings learn in precisely the same ways they learned in the time of Socrates. Those with the will to learn seek out people who know what they want to learn and are willing to teach them. Add in the elements of teachers that care about their students, and are determined to give them the best educational opportunity their abilities and resources allow, and students willing to take advantage of that opportunity will learn.
Never forget this: all the world’s greatest teacher can do is provide the opportunity for students to learn. The rest is up to them.
Today’s thought exercise involves the direct parallel to politics (education is almost entirely politics these days). In our national life, there is a class of self-imagined elites, elite because of their educational credentials (attending a “name” college isn’t proof of anything other than attending that college), their positions, and their imagined moral and intellectual superiority. They believe–no, they know–they are chosen, and uniquely qualified to tell everyone else–normal Americans–what to say, what to think, how to spend their money, how to educate their children… you get the picture.
The same division exists in education. The self-imagined elite are the administrators, and to a slightly lesser degree, principals. Let’s refer to them as educrats, a very different breed than educators. While many teachers–the education system equivalent of normal Americans–also have master’s degrees and doctorates, they are much lower status than the elites because they have the high-paying jobs, making two, three and more times the salary of teachers. They are–to their way of thinking–therefore far superior to mere teachers, just as our political elite think themselves far superior to lowly normals.
I am, of course, generalizing. If your school district is not infested with such superior beings, you’re fortunate, but most of all, your children are fortunate. They may have the opportunity to be educated as well as the ancient Greeks. Modern electronics are more hindrance than help, and are often used for the sake of using “technology.”
I’ve written extensively on the damage wrought by mandatory, high stakes tests, most recently in High Stakes Testing: A Pox On Humanity in November of 2018. The damage is not only financial, but a major destroyer of class time, but tests are a topic for another article.
The major contemporary problem is self-imagined elite true believers in process. Contrary to what some think, teaching is not easy. Excellent teachers have unique skills, and understanding of human nature and brain development others lack. Were this not so, every teacher could be excellent, and such excellence could be taught in university teacher programs. We all know how well that works out.
The acolytes of process are believers in programs sold by consultants, often people who quit teaching and developed their programs/processes to cash in. Generally, they focus on one narrow technique or idea, and present it as guaranteed to universally and in all grade levels cause students to reach unimaginable heights of academic performance–often measured by high stakes, mandatory tests. Administrators seeking to pad their resumes, or trick school boards into thinking them forward looking, brilliant educational innovators, buy these programs, often costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Once bought, they can’t abandon them without admitting they were foolish in the first place.
These programs–each a process–promise miracles if every teacher follows them to the letter. They’ll make excellent teachers miraculous, and every other teacher above average.
Some principals drink the process Kool Aid and push these programs with the fervor of junior high cheerleaders. Others want to keep their jobs, and knowing these programs to be not only nonsense, but destructive nonsense–a fraud on their students and communities–force them on teachers anyway, who…let me give you a few examples, gentle readers.
#1: Student-centered learning, via Brown University. This is a concept that has been plaguing actual teachers for years. It is the idea that teachers should not be “the sage on the stage,” but must, instead be “facilitators.” And what will they “facilitate”? Why, the innate brilliance of all students, who will, given the opportunity, teach themselves and each other, and far, far better than those outmoded teachers!
Student-centered instruction differs from the traditional teacher-centered instruction. Learning is cooperative, collaborative, and community-oriented. Students are encouraged to direct their own learning and to work with other students on research projects and assignments that are both culturally and socially relevant to them. Students become self-confident, self-directed, and proactive.
Among the things Brown (and other proponents of the concept) recommends are: letting the kids select their own reading material, evaluate their teachers and critique their methods and abilities, teach each other instead of having old-fashioned teachers do it, have students lead discussions, and in general teach themselves and each other. That they have no such knowledge or ability matters not at all because the magical process will make it all happen.
#2: Formative Assessments, as Scholastic.com explains:
Traditionally, we have used assessments to measure how much our students have learned up to a particular point in time. This is called ‘assessment of learning’ — or what we use to see whether our students are meeting standards set by the state, the district, or the classroom teacher. These summative assessments are conducted after a unit or certain time period to determine how much learning has taken place. Although assessments of learning are important if we are to ascribe grades to students and provide accountability, teachers should also focus more on assessment for learning. These types of assessment — formative assessments — support learning during the learning process.
Since formative assessments are considered part of the learning, they need not be graded as summative assessments (end-of-unit exams or quarterlies, for example) are. Rather, they serve as practice for students, just like a meaningful homework assignment. They check for understanding along the way and guide teacher decision making about future instruction; they also provide feedback to students so they can improve their performance. Educational consultant Rick Stiggins suggests ‘the student’s role is to strive to understand what success looks like and to use each assessment to try to understand how to do better the next time.’ Formative assessments help us differentiate instruction and thus improve student achievement.
#3: Exit Cards (AKA “Exit Tickets”):
One of the easiest formative assessments is the Exit Card. Exit Cards are index cards (or sticky notes) that students hand to you, deposit in a box, or post on the door as they leave your classroom. On the Exit Card, your students have written their names and have responded to a question, solved a problem, or summarized their understanding after a particular learning experience. In a few short minutes, you can read the responses, sort them into groups (students who have not yet mastered the skill, students who are ready to apply the skill, students who are ready to go ahead or to go deeper), and use the data to inform the next day’s or, even, that afternoon’s instruction.
You may already, gentle readers, have realized these processes are most applicable–and only barely so–in elementary school. In secondary education, they’re a disaster. For example, their advocates actually think without these processes, teachers can’t possibly know what their students are learning or how to teach–excuse me–“facilitate” them. Next week, I’ll explain the complete nature of the disaster, but for now, let’s focus only on the destruction of time factor.
Formative assessment, in the real world process, works out to forcing teachers to quiz their students about what they know or don’t know about a topic, or about aspects of that topic before actually learning anything about it. In reality, good teachers do this throughout their teaching, just not as a formalized, time consuming process. The kinds of formative assessments the elite demand take from 5-15 minutes at the beginning of each class. That’s right. It doesn’t matter if the class is reading and discussing a novel that will take two weeks to read, teachers are expected to use the magic process each and every day. Let us compromise with 10 minutes. That would remove fully 40 days–class periods–from each class, eight weeks of instruction time, for kids to write and talk about what they don’t know.
The allied “exit ticket” part of the process requires taking from 5-10 minutes at the end of each class to have students fill out a card explaining what they have learned that class period. Let’s again use 10 minutes. In the real world of education, one must plan not for the fastest students, but the slowest. With that calculus, we’ve lost another 40 periods–two months.
On a daily basis, this reduces a 45-minute class to a mere 25-minute class. It’s even worse than that. It normally take 3-5 minutes at the beginning of class to do attendance, get everyone seated and working and settled down, and 2-4 minutes at the end to discuss upcoming issues and get everything put away. I’ll be kind and say 5 minutes, which reduces each class to only a 20-minute learning opportunity.
Why is process-driven education a disaster? Teachers are forced to spend half–or more–of each class pushing the process about supposed learning they never have time to teach kids–if they’re allowed to teach kids at all. They have to be facilitators, remember?
This isn’t coming to a school district near you, gentle readers, it’s already there.
Next Week: I’ll explain, specifically, why this process driven approach destroys the very educational opportunity it is supposed to improve. I hope to see you there.