Regardless of what President Trump wants, the vast majority of American students will begin their school year with remote delivery of instruction. As the surging of infections in many southern and western states has occurred, health risks for both children and adults have again risen. (see here and here). And many parents unwilling to take risks with their children will opt for staying home and their children doing the best they can with electronic devices
Note that I avoid the phrase “remote learning.” I do so because “learning” implies that through a medium–a computer screen–students have acquired knowledge and skills, been assessed for mastery, and can apply either or both in a different situation. Sitting at home in front of an Internet-connected device and listening to a teacher conduct a ZOOM session or completing and submitting an assigned worksheet, or partnering on-screen with a small group, or have small groups of students collaborate on-screen separately from the teacher can be (and are) worthwhile tasks leading to learning. But the medium has severe limitations as anyone knows who has taken online courses and experienced it since lockdowns and sheltering in began in March. And veteran and novice online teachers, are familiar with both strengths and shortcomings of distance education.
Nor am I romanticizing in-person classroom teaching. Rest assured as someone who has taught for 14 years, headed a school district for seven years, and have studied how teachers have taught over the past century I know full well the limitations, nay weaknesses, of face-to-face instruction. I have studied school reforms aimed at transforming curriculum and instruction and found how some were fully implemented by teachers and ended up both stretching and entrancing students intellectually. But most did not.
Organization may be transformed such as the age-graded, eight-room grammar school replacing the rural one-room schoolhouse over a century ago. But that has been rare. for all of the rhetoric about multi-age groups in schools, project based teaching, and unleashed innovations of charter schools, the age-graded organization remains the mainstay of U.S. schooling nearly two centuries after the first one appeared in the 1940s in Quincy, Massachusetts. I have yet to hear anyone question this organization
Curriculum may be transformed as has occurred when the college preparatory curriculum that all high school students in the 1890s had to take and subsequently the differentiated curriculum (e.g., college prep, vocational/commercial. and general) that Progressives created in the comprehensive high school between the 1920s and 1940s. And a generation later only to have many of the courses mostly replaced by the New Math, New Biology and New Social Studies of the 1960s and 1970s. Then within a few decades, to have those courses once again re-engineered by reformers in the 1980s and 1990s with curriculum standards aimed at getting all students prepared for college. Not unlike the aim of those 1890s reformers who taught a bare fraction of 17 year-olds. Yes, curriculum has indeed changed again, again, and yet again.
And instruction has also changed. Transformed, no. But incremental changes, yes. And in that tradition of gradual change, the notion of “great” teachers continues to seize the imagination of students, parents, administrators, and, yes, teachers as well. That idea of “great teachers” persists. Yet the idea hides the conflicting traditions buried with the common belief that there are “great” teachers.
Consider that the majority of adults in the nation believe schools should test students to see that they prepare children with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to succeed in an increasingly competitive labor market and diverse community. In short, they embrace the dominant ideology of standards, testing, and accountability to prepare graduates for college and career. In the historical tradition of teachers transmitting knowledge and skills to students, Maurice Butler, William Taylor , Michele Forman, and other teachers push, prod, and inspire students to get high test scores, go to college, and succeed in life.
But for many other parents, practitioners, and researchers, a “great” teacher goes beyond high achievement. They want their children’s teachers—reflecting another age-old tradition of teaching—to work daily for the wellbeing of the child, see students as whole human beings, believe in active learning, create structures for students to collaborate and explore. In short, these folks embrace a progressive ideology of teaching believing with supreme confidence that students exposed to this tradition of teaching will do well on tests, graduate and go to college. They would point to Los Angeles teacher Rafe Esquith, kindergarten teacher Vivian Paley, and Foxfire teachers in rural Georgia nurturing, inspiring, and connecting to students.
Because parents, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers vary in their beliefs about “great” teachers and different historical traditions of teaching, I put the word in quote marks. Especially now when remote instruction will be the dominant way of teaching in the coming months.
Even more troublesome is that the current concept of a “great” teacher squashes together two distinct aspects of teaching that need to be separated: the difference between “good” and “successful” teaching. They are not the same. And here is where the concept of “great” teachers gets even more complicated. Please stick with me here.
“Good” teaching is teaching that pursues morally and rationally sound instructional practices. “Successful” teaching, on the other hand, is teaching that produces the desired learning. As Gary Fenstemacher and Virginia Richardson put it:
“[T]eaching a child to kill another with a single blow may be successful teaching, but it is not good teaching. Teaching a child to read with understanding, in a manner that is considerate and age appropriate, may fail to yield success (a child who reads with understanding), but the teaching may accurately be described as good teaching. Good teaching is grounded in the task sense of teaching, while successful teaching is grounded in the achievement sense of the term.”
Another way to distinguish between “good” and “successful” is when a 8th grade teacher teaches the theory of evolution consistent with the age of the child and best practices of science teaching (the “good” part) and then has her students complete three written paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate their understanding of the theory of evolution (the “successful” part). These teaching acts are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other. For the next few months, one has to imagine this occurring on screen with rapt students watching. It is hard for me to imagine.
For the past quarter-century, however, policymakers and politicians have chopped, grated, and mixed together the goals of schooling into a concoction seeking to make education an arm of the economy. They scan international test scores, focus on achievement gaps, and boost teacher pay-for-performance plans. This policy direction has shoved the notion of “great” teaching into one corner of the ideological debate and thoroughly erased the distinction between the “good” and “successful” in teaching. Now “great” teaching means test scores go up and students go to college. A big mistake.
Why a mistake? Erasing the distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching muddles policy prescriptions seeking to improve how teachers teach and what students learn. Most important is that policymakers have, again, ignored the history of diverse teaching traditions and different ways of teaching that parents, practitioners, and researchers prize resulting in an unfortunate monopoly on only one way of teaching while students—in their glorious diversity–learn in many different ways.
And during a pandemic when the main choice is on-screen delivery of content and skills, these distinctions matter but will be lost in the predictable hullabaloo over remote instruction (not remote “learning.”
Just as being “schooled” is very different from being “educated,” so too is face-to-face learning from “remote delivery of instruction.”