For well over a century, a perennial dilemma has haunted (and taunted) teachers of high school English, social studies, math, and science. Should they teach students existing subject-matter in approved courses of study and textbooks (e.g., know key dates and people, geometry proofs, and Periodic Table of Elements) or should they focus on students understanding concepts and learning how to inquire, think, and problem-solve (e.g.,teach critical thinking skills in history and English, use Geometric Supposer software that allows students to move figures, estimate changes in quadrangles, circles, etc. and construct their own understanding of concepts).
With the onset of electronic technologies, using high tech devices has become entangled in that perennial curricular dilemma of content vs. skills: should new technologies help teachers transmit the existing curriculum or should new technologies shift traditional ways of teaching subject matter toward ambitious classroom practices of building students’ creativity, inquiry skills and problem-solving.
Of course, I pose these as mutually exclusive issues but when policymakers consider stakeholder interests, political context, (e.g., the current press for test-based accountability and national curriculum standards) and available resources–compromises get made and hybrid policies emerge in practice melding the two positions. Everyone takes college prep courses is the current policymaker mantra, for example, yet career/technical academies and other options for youth pop up daily.
Even with these hybrid policies, strongly-held beliefs about knowledge, teaching, and learning have divided policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers into different camps for decades and go well beyond the usual labels of “progressives” vs. “traditionalists.” Imagine E.D. Hirsch inviting Alfie Kohn to go for a long hike on the Appalachian Trail.
Now consider that math lesson I described. For those who champion national curriculum standards, Core Knowledge schools, Everyone Goes to College, using test scores to evaluate teachers, and similar policies, the math lesson would be “good.” The teacher executed efficiently and with brio a familiar “warm-up,” introduced new material, directed students to practice what they learned, and assigned homework. Moreover, the lesson would be considered “good” because her students were attentive–no one went to sleep or had to be admonished–and she used a new technology to both engage students and help them learn the concept of Scale.
Others, however, would grade the lesson mediocre. Why? Because information transfer–as some would put it–was the goal of the lesson, not getting students to ask questions, pose different ways of solving the stated problem, or provide alternative answers. Even if such student actions did occur–the description of the lesson suggests they some did happen–they were accidental, not intentional. Moreover,the use of the IWB only strengthened a traditional geometry lesson. Sure, it was a nice touch to have students use the stylus, have a calculator magically appear on the IWB, and similar novelties but, in the end, the new technology altered neither how the teacher taught or how students learned. Same old, same old
So here are two competing judgments of the same lesson filtered through ideologically tinted lens that disagree over whether it was “good.” To complicate matters further, recall an earlier distinction I made (see post of February 28, 2010 “Great Teachers?”) between “good” and “successful” teaching. “Successful” teaching defines whether students actually learned the concept by supplying evidence from tests, verbal responses to teacher, or actual application of concept, say on the IWB.
Evidence of “success” in this math lesson can be found in teacher questioning of different students, as she walked around the room inspecting students’ working as they worked in pairs. Questioning a student who was stuck is another instance of determining “success.” But these are “soft” measures. Students’ test scores on CST items dealing with geometry would be “hard” measures. Those I do not have.
So where are we now? Two disparate judgments of a “good” lesson and only “soft” evidence of “success” presented. For many policymakers advocating the use of students’ test scores to evaluate teachers, there is a solution that ends the distinction of content vs. skills and “good” vs. “successful.”
In Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and other places, value-added analysis of test scores are being used to determine the “success” of teachers. For those elementary school teachers (not easily done for high school teachers) whose student test scores show gains over time, they are rated both “successful” and “good.”
As for me, while I do not have “hard” evidence that the lesson was “successful,” I consider it a “good” traditional lesson taught by a skilled, knowledgeable teacher working within a system of district and state test-driven curriculum-standards, testing, and accountability (one that distributes few rewards and many penalties for low test scores). It is a system that assumes an “information transfer” framework and expects teachers to do what is expected. Some teachers do it well, as in this lesson, and some teachers do it poorly.