Category Archives: dilemmas of teaching

Fundamental Dilemma Facing Teachers: Performing Both the Academic and Emotional Roles in Classrooms

Over four years ago I wrote a post on a new teacher’s dilemma. In that post I defined what a dilemma was and distinguished it from a problem. Then I presented an instance of a dilemma in a novice’s classroom and asked readers what they thought. Since then, I have written about dilemmas often in this blog (see here, here, and here). Because “dilemma” is so  often used as a synonym for “problem” and because these tensions over choices are constant in our personal and professional lives, I want to dig deeper into one facing all teachers be they teaching kindergarten or Advanced Placement courses. Whether they are new or experienced, whether they are white, African American, Latino, or a first generation college graduate in their family they inevitably face a core dilemma built into teaching when they have to perform both an academic and emotional role in teaching five-year olds or fifteen year-olds.

Let me unpack first what I mean by  dilemmas. I mean situations where a teacher, principal, superintendent, school board member has to choose between two or more competing and prized values. The choice is often hard because in choosing one ends up sacrificing something of value to gain a bit of satisfaction on another value. One learns to compromise in negotiating between two things they want very much.

An example of a common dilemma might help. One that each of us faces is the personal/professional dilemma. You value highly your work and you value highly your family and friends. Those are the competing values. But your time and energy are limited. So you have to calculate the trade-offs between doing more of one and less of the other. You have to make choices.

You map out options: Put in fewer hours at work and more time at home. Or the reverse. Take more vacations and give up thoughts of career advancement. These and other options, each with its particular trade-offs, become candidates for a compromise that includes both satisfaction and sacrifice. If you do nothing–another option–you risk losing out with your family and friends or with your job.

This is not a problem that one neatly solves and moves on to the next one. It is a dilemma that won’t go away. It is literally built into your daily routine. There is no tidy solution; it has to be managed because the compromise you work out may unravel and there you are again, facing those unattractive choices.

Within U.S. age-graded schools, whether they are high schools or elementary schools, whether schools are in neighborhoods where wealthy, middle class, or poor families send their children, two imperatives face all U.S. teachers: know your subject (the academic role) and know your students (the emotional role). Teachers value both roles. Yet these two roles, valued highly by teachers, place huge demands upon them. The academic role requires teachers to maintain a certain social distance from students while the emotional role requires teachers to get close to students. And here is the dilemma.

In the academic role, teachers teach first graders to read while upper-grade teachers teach Algebra or Biology. They convey knowledge and cultivate cognitive skills of students. Then these teachers have to judge the degree to which students achieve mastery of each. Evaluating achievement requires evidence of performance and social distance in treating all students the same in applying criteria –even if a teacher admires a hard-working, serious student who keeps failing key tests. Emotion is not supposed to sway a teacher’s judgment of students’ academic performance.

But U.S. teachers are also expected to get close to students. Professors, mentors, and principals urge teachers to know their students as individuals, their background, interests, shortcomings and strengths. Why? Because that personal knowledge will help the teacher draw students into learning what the teacher teaches. In displaying sincere interest in students, bonds of affection grow.  The relationship, the emotional ties between a teacher and her students, then, becomes the foundation for learning.

Balancing these competing roles and the values they represent, however, is hard to do. Many teachers only embrace the academic role: “My job is to teach science; my job is not to befriend my students.” Other teachers clasp the emotional role to their heart wanting so much to be closer to their students that they whisper to themselves: “Like me and you will like what I teach.” Finding the right mix is very difficult.

There are, of course, teachers who figure out how to balance these competing roles artfully by developing a classroom persona that is a distinct mix of both values. Their voices, gestures, clothes, verbal tics–all are part of the daily performance. They blend the academic and emotional roles into a mix that appeals to and prods students at the same time. They give genuine, heartfelt performances. Students, who can easily smell a fake, come to appreciate such teachers’ performances.

 

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“Good” and “Successful” Teaching: Where Does the Student Enter the Picture?

The singular and important role of the classroom teacher in getting students to learn is well established in the research literature (see here and here). I have no quarrel with that frequent finding (whatever the metrics) to confirm that teachers are instrumental to student learning.  What is far less clear is what part do five to 18 year-old students play in the chemistry of learning.

It is a question that I have puzzled over in my many years teaching high school and graduate courses. And I have no certainty in answering it.

For some teachers, as one told me after I observed his mediocre lesson, “I was selling but the students weren’t buying,” students bear the lion’s share of the responsibility. They are expected to come to class, obey the rules, do the homework, participate in discussions, and do well on tests. Those are students’ responsibilities. Other teachers (and policymakers) see it differently, that is, teachers bear full responsibility for motivating students, insuring that they have the classroom resources to succeed, and hammering home what has to be learned. Teachers, researchers, policymakers, and parents would quibble if one were to allocate percentages, for example, for the teacher is–to pick arbitrarily a number–70 percent and the student is, say again, 30 percent responsible. The uncertainty over percentages occurs because of different meanings attached to such phrases as “good” and “successful” teaching and learning.

Consider that “good” and ” successful” teaching are necessary to reach the threshold of what observers call “quality” teaching. To lead us through the thicket of complexity in meaning, I lean on Gary Fenstermacher’s and Virginia Richardson’s explanation (hereafter F & R).

“Good” teaching is about the how and what of teaching. For example, the task of getting a child to understand the theory of evolution (or the Declaration of Independence or prime numbers) in a considerate and age-appropriate way consistent with best practices in the field is “good” teaching. “Successful” teaching is about what the child learns. For example, getting the same child to write three paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate understanding of the theory of evolution or the Declaration of Independence is “successful” teaching. Ditto for a student able to show that she knows prime numbers by completing Eratosthenes Sieve. “Good” and “successful” teaching, then, are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other.

Does that last sentence mean that “good” teaching may not automatically lead to “successful” teaching? Yes, one does not necessarily produce the other. How can that be?

F & R point out that learning, like teaching, can also be distinguished between “good” and “successful.” The above examples of student proficiency on the theory of evolution, the Declaration of Independence, and prime numbers demonstrate “successful” learning. “Good” learning, however, requires other factors to be in place. “Good” learning occurs when the student is willing to learn and puts forth effort, the student’s family, peers, and community support learning, the student has the place, time, and resources to learn, and, finally, “good” teaching. In short, “good” teaching is one of four necessary components to “good” learning.

Policymakers snooker the public by squishing together”good” teaching and “successful” learning. In doing so, policymakers erase three critical factors that are equally important in getting students to learn: the student’s own effort, family and peers, and the opportunity to learn in school. Current hoopla over paying teachers for performance is the most recent conflation of “good” teaching with “successful” learning. Such a marriage of separate concepts ultimately deceives parents, voters, and students by suggesting that “good” teaching naturally leads to “successful” learning.

So those current policymakers and eager reformers who recite the mantra of “no excuses” for students’ low performance place entire responsibility (100 percent) for learning on the teacher’s shoulders. And it is here that I want to look more closely at the student’s part in the learning process to restore the critical distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching and learning described above.

Other teachers and researchers have written about the sharing of responsibility for “good” learning (see here, here, here, and here). Most observers do see the importance of students playing a small-to-large role in their own learning. Those who champion student-centered instruction (e.g., project-based teaching, “personalized” and “blended” lessons) see students taking responsibility for their own learning through self-regulation, giving tough tasks a second, even a third try, and similar independent behaviors. But such behaviors do not need to occur only in student-centered classrooms. For those teachers more comfortable with directed lessons they teach, here too student responsibilities beyond showing up and being quiet can be cultivated and become habitual if the teacher creates a classroom ethos where students feel that they must contribute to their learning.

For the fact is that teachers, like doctors with patients and therapists with clients, are wholly dependent upon students for both “good” and “successful” teaching and learning. Those teachers who recognize that basic fact–as I have over the years–seek to cultivate student attitudes and habits that help them take responsibility for their learning.

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One Burned-out Teacher’s Journey (Kavitha Cardoza)–Part 1

Kavitha Cardoza, Special Correspondent, WAMU Radio, Washington, D.C. interviewed an experienced District of Columbia high school Spanish teacher. This interview appeared April 3, 2015

Teachers in D.C. schools are under immense pressure to improve students test scores. Their job security depends on it. At the same time, teachers who do well can make tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses. Alli Baugher is dedicated, high-achieving teacher who’s dealing with burnout after just eight years on the job.

Explain what it was like starting at Ballou.

So I remember coming into Ballou my first year this very idealistic, recent college graduate and every year there would be these teachers that would leave and there was always this sense of pride for those of us that had stayed. And even in our first year, when it was just so hard and we were lesson planning till 10-11 p.m. at night and then baking cookies early in the morning for our students and just being ridiculous but we were still like “at least we’re fighting the good fight.” And I always thought it was so funny that in my third year of teaching, I was considered a veteran at Ballou. I was department chair. By my 7th year in a school of over 100 adults working there, there were only 10 that had been there longer than me. And I just found that crazy.

ballou.jpg

 

So tell me what happened

I was very confused. I worked very hard, I’d developed a rapport with my students, I had good working relationships with the other teachers in the building, I trust and respect my principal, and I feel really good about the fact that we have this new building, we have just so many exciting things in our future, but I am miserable. Coming home every day crying. I feel like I can barely do anything but collapse on the couch at the end of the day.

And then I started getting panic attacks during school. But I didn’t know what was happening to me and then it started happening more frequently. I was convinced that I could push through it, that I was a lifer, that I was committed to Ballou and to my students. And so over winter break I saw several therapists. I was very mindful of taking time to relax and to re-energize myself so that I could be a better teacher again when I came back.

Because not only was I having these panic attack experiences, I was also snapping at my students, I was losing my patience and it was almost like there was this little version of me over my shoulder going, “What are you doing? Who is that person, that monster, that you’re becoming with your students?” Because its the last version of myself that I ever want my students to see. I didn’t want them to go home, having not felt like I cared about them, that I thought they were wonderful. That I thought that they were really really capable and smart because so often the teacher is the one person that you can guarantee or hope to guarantee is going to tell them something positive about themselves that day.

And in that first week back at school before class even started, actually it was like 8:40 a.m. in the morning, I had just an awful panic attack that I had to go to the ER. I was able to describe this experience and what happened to me to friends and family that every day as teachers, our students are coming into the classroom with all of this pain and anger and they’re coming in hot with all of this stuff going on in their heads. And the only way to respond to that appropriately as a teacher is soaking it up like a sponge and just responding with kindness and patience and love and I think that my sponge was just really full.

There’s a big difference to me seeing you now and when I saw you in the classroom where you were just glowing. I feel a tremendous sense of sadness from you.

I started teaching at Ballou when I was 21 years old. So it was a quarter of my life. If anyone asked me “Who is Ally Baugher?” I would have said “I am a teacher and I teach at Ballou and let me tell you about all of my children.” Losing Ballou was very much like losing my identity. I felt like I’d let my students down, for some of my children just getting to school it was them overcoming incredible obstacles and I was saying, “I’ve had a couple panic attacks and I’m the one giving up.” I was really really hard on myself.

What we often forget is that teacher retention is also important because so many of the best programs in our schools are teacher driven. One perfect example there was a story probably five or six years ago about a teacher at Ballou who started a lacrosse team and it was this big news and everyone was excited about and the students loved it. And then she left and all of the kids came back the next year saying, “Are we going to have a lacrosse program still? Who’s going to do it?” And they were really still excited about this program but it was discontinued because there was no one there to run it.

When you started feeling the way you did, did you speak to your principal? I think DCPS would say they have several programs to retain teachers, you could teach part time and then do a hybrid model of some kind of management, they pay teachers more compared to a lot of urban school districts, they have recognition ceremonies, what about all those efforts?

 I think that the focus at Ballou, I felt like was so often on struggling teachers. I did reach out to several admins during the fall, and they were supportive, absolutely were supportive and I don’t fault them in any way for my needing to leave. I think one of the problems in the way that we approach teacher retention, one of the programs you mentioned was splitting time between some more leadership position while also teaching, so often our answer, our response, to teacher retention is moving them into non-teaching positions. We want you to be a teacher/mentor and we’re going to move you into an administrative position or a teacher/mentor position or someone leading professional development, that means that those best teachers are no longer in the classroom. And I think for a teacher retention program to truly work, the goal should be to keep our best teachers in front of students for a full schedule of the day. And that’s the big difference.

I think it’s important to note that this is not a story about Ballou, it’s not a story about DCPS, it’s not a story about me. My story is not unique and I talk to teachers time and time again that say, “I need to figure out how to make this job sustainable because I want to keep doing it and I want to keep working with these children. But, I’m tired.”

When so many people ask me about how I handle my job, they would assume it’s because of these “terrible kids” but they are just wonderful, they are my favorite part of my job, was. Any teacher will tell you that working with children no matter how challenging they are is the best part of my job. I feel like in order to improve teacher retention, there needs to be, especially for teachers working in high-risk communities, there needs to be a very deliberate break where teachers have an opportunity to still work in the field of education as a teacher’s assistant. Right? So that I’m given the opportunity to support another teacher and what they’re doing but don’t have the nightly responsibilities of lesson planning and filling out paperwork and making phone calls and all of those things. But also to reinspire them, to reignite them, to send them back to their schools that same idealistic excited change maker person that I was my first and second year.

 

Part 2 of this post raises issues of what can be done to reduce such losses to students and the community.

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Core Dilemmas Facing Preschool and Kindergarten Teachers (Part 1)

Private kindergartens became public ones at the end of the 19th century. It is a reform that has stuck.

Yet what early childhood teachers do everyday in their kindergartens has been a mystery for years. Mary Dabney Davis’s study, published by the National Education Association, was the first systematic examination of kindergarten teaching practices.

To get a sense of dominant teaching practices, Davis analyzed stenographic reports of observations done in 131 kindergartens.. These descriptions of 449 lessons in these kindergartens form the basis of the analysis. Of the selected kindergartens, three-quarters were located in public schools. Geographically, the sample was drawn from 34 states from every region of the nation. Nearly 40 percent of the children were immigrants and 3 percent were black.

While uncommon efforts were undertaken to get a cross-section of teachers, it was not a random sample since the list of participants was drawn from the records of the National Educational Association and classrooms were chosen on the basis of the superintendent’s or principal’s recommendation of teachers who were both exceptional and average. Nonetheless, what Davis did represents a giant leap beyond the fragments of data and anecdotes that researchers and policymakers have had available.

Davis constructed a five-point scale that tried to measure degrees of control in the classroom. At one end is the teacher-directed control and, at the other, student-directed control. Headings for each point on the scale are as follows:

  1. The teacher plans and directs the program activity
  2. The teacher carries out her plan with the cooperation of the children
  3. The children suggest and carry out the plans under teacher guidance
  4. The children make the plans and program under pupil leadership with teacher guidance
  5. The children make the plans and program without teacher guidance

To analyze and rate these descriptions, Davis went through all of them and rated each on the scale. Of the 449 lessons, Davis found the dominant modes of practice to be number 1 with 32 percent and 2 with 52 percent. She found 14 percent of the lessons were in 3 and 2 percent were in 4. No lesson was rated a 5.

To supplement these data she secured additional information on classroom practices from a survey of 535 kindergarten teachers and 162 administrators on subject matter, activities, aims, and teacher methods. This survey corroborated the observations of classrooms being largely teacher directed with different activities being more or less student-centered.

To give a clearer sense of what a kindergarten session was like, Davis assembled typical schedules that emerged from the stenographic reports of kindergarten practices.

From a public school with large enrollment of immigrant students, the typical schedule was as follows:

8:10-9:20 Self-adopted activity

9:20-9:30 Period for replacing material

9:30-9:50 Conversation. Discussion of problems in connection with work, health habits, nature study, the need for being careful in crossing streets, and so on.

9:50-10:10 Luncheon

10:10-10:20 Rest

10:20-10:30 Games and rhythms

10:30-10:45 Songs and stories

 

And from a large public school, the schedule was as follows:

8:50-9:00 Inspection

9:00-9:15 Conversation and greetings

9:15-9:55 Group work

9:55-10:10 Housekeeping

10:10-10:35 Games

10:35-10:50 Milk

10:50-10:55 Rest

10:55-11:30 Varied activities as, Monday and Tuesday, music and dramatization; Wednesday, stories and rhythms; Thursday, stories and music; Friday, stories and rhythms

Cryptic as these schedules are and confining as they appear when combined with the analysis of 449 lessons and a survey of experienced kindergarten teachers, these examples of two calendars suggest in a crude way how teachers constructed various classroom compromises in trying to finesse the core curricular and instructional dilemma facing preschool and kindergarten teachers: should the content of kindergarten focus more on the child’s social and emotional needs or should the content of kindergarten get children academically ready for the first grade (i.e., language, science, arts)?

This teaching dilemma showed up in the survey where teachers were asked what the aims of kindergarten were. Davis could find no consensus among teachers. She found a mixture of goals that sought “social behavior and habit formation; development of skill and technique (motor and physical, intellectual and thoughtful); factual information and aesthetic appreciation.”

Similarly, another dilemma presented itself to Davis as she went through the 449 lessons. Teachers were conflicted over authority. Teachers who believed in a developmental perspective encouraged identifying and using children’s needs to guide children in planning each day. Yet to guide children to act as independent individuals, teachers must exert authority in the child’s behalf. How much to leave to children to decide and how much for teachers to direct created tensions within teachers.

The core dilemma, however, that emerges from the stenographic reports involves choices between academic and behavioral preparation for the primary grades and holistic activities that blend reading, writing, arithmetic, and other skills matched to the students’ intellectual, social, and emotional maturity. Davis states that integrated skill work appeared naturally in quartering apples, counting napkins, and straws needed for lunch or writing on the blackboard the names of the fruit and vegetables that the children brought to school.

The two dilemmas were not made easier by the isolation of kindergarten from the primary grades. She found only three kindergartens in 137 schools where explicit cooperation occurred between the first grade teachers and kindergarten teacher.

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Viewers, please note that Mary Dabney Davis completed her analysis of 449 classroom observations and the teacher survey in 1924.

Of course, dilemmas facing early childhood teachers nearly a century ago are still around now. Part 2 takes up those persistent dilemmas facing preschool and kindergarten teachers. For viewers who want a full account of the kindergarten school reform, beginning in the late-19th century, and citations omitted from above post, see here.

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The Day of Three Miracles (Education Realist)

 For over thirty years, market-driven policies to improve schooling in the U.S. such as standards, testing and accountability have had at their core the belief that both academic excellence and equity–two prized values in this culture–can be achieved at the same time. From No Child Left Behind to Core Curriculum standards, these values advance this belief that both are simultaneously achievable. What Jack Schneider calls “excellence for all” approach to school reform. When value-driven policies meet school and classroom practice, when resources are limited and choices have to be made, however, dilemmas occur because values often conflict and resources are limited. Choices have to be made. Education Realist describes such tensions when academic excellence and equity collide in this story about a high school math department.

Education Realist is a math and history teacher. I have visited this teacher’s classes in math and history on two occasions, and have come to respect the method and curriculum I’ve observed. Education Realist, who wishes to remain anonymous, is also one fine writer who explores tensions and dilemmas that teachers face. Here is one.

A colleague who I’ll call Chuck is pushing the math department to set a department goal. Chuck is in the process of upgrading our algebra 1 classes, and his efforts were really improving outcomes for mid to high ability levels, although the failure rates were a tad terrifying. He has been worried for a while that the successful algebra kids would be let down by subsequent math teachers who would hold his kids to lower standards.

“If we set ourselves the goal of getting one kid from freshman algebra all the way through to pass AP Calculus, we’ll improve instruction for everyone.” (Note: while the usual school year doesn’t allow enough time, our “4×4 full-metal block” schedule makes it possible for a dedicated kid to take a double year of math if he chooses).

Chuck isn’t pushing this goal for the sake of that one kid, as he pointed out in a recent meeting. “If we are all thinking about the kid who might make it to calculus, we’ll all be focused on keeping standards high, on making sure that we are teaching the class that will prepare that kid–if he exists–to pass AP Calculus.”

I debated internally, then spoke up. “I think the best way to evaluate your proposal is by considering a second, incompatible objective. Instead of trying to prepare every kid who starts out behind as if he can get to calculus, we could try to improve the math outcomes for the maximum number of students.”

“What do you mean?”

“We could look at our historical math completion patterns for entering freshmen algebra students, and try to improve on those outcomes. Suppose that a quarter of our freshmen take algebra. Of those students, 10% make it to pre-calc or higher. 30% make it to trigonometry, 50% make it to algebra 2, and the other 10% make it to geometry or less. And we set ourselves the goal of reducing the percentages of students who get no further than geometry or even, ideally, algebra 2, while increasing the percentages of kids who make it into trigonometry and pre-calc by senior year.”

“That’s what will happen with my proposal, too.”

“No. You want us to set standards higher, to ensure that kids getting through each course are only those qualified enough to go to Calculus and pass the AP test. That’s a small group anyway, and while you’re more sanguine than I am about the efficacy of instruction on academic outcomes, I think you’ll agree that a large chunk of kids simply won’t be the right combination of interested and capable to go all the way through.”

“Yes, exactly. But we can teach our classes as if they are.”

“Which means we’ll lose a whole bunch of kids who might be convinced to try harder to pass advanced math classes that weren’t taught as if the only objective was to pass calculus. Thus those kids won’t try, and our overall failure rate will increase. This will lower math completion outcomes.”

Chuck waved this away. “I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. There’s nothing incompatible about increasing math completion and setting standards high enough to get kids from algebra to calculus. We can do both.”

I opened my mouth…and decided against further discussion. I’d made my point. Half the department probably agreed with me. So I decided not to argue. No, really. It was, like, a miracle.

Chuck asked us all to think about committing to this instruction model.

Later that day, I ran into Chuck in the copyroom, and lo, a second miracle took place.

“Hey,” he said. “I just realized you were right. We can’t have both. If we get the lowest ability kids motivated just to try, we have to have a C to offer them, and that lowers the standard for a C, which ripples on up. We can’t keep kids working for the highest quality of A if we lower the standards for failure.”

Both copiers were working. That’s three.

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I do not discuss my colleagues to trash them, and if this story in any way reflects negatively on Chuck it’s not intentional. Quite the contrary, in fact. Chuck took less than a day to grasp my point and realized his goal was impossible. We couldn’t enforce higher standards in advanced math without dooming far more kids to failure, which would never be tolerated.

Thus the two of us collapsed a typical reform cycle to six hours from the ten years our country normally takes to abandon a well-meant but impossible chimera. …

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Some Thoughts about Change, Innovation, and Watching Paint Dry

Let’s face it, in the U.S. change is far sexier than stability. Words like “innovation,” “revolution,””disruption,”and, of course, “reform” have replaced the 19th century common word of “progress.” With so much evidence about war, civil war, torture, poverty, in the world, the concept of “progress” is a hard sell. But not the idea of change. Especially, technological change. From iPhones to Chromebooks to driverless cars to controlling all home appliances with clicks on smart phones, Americans will line up outside stores days in advance to buy the next new thing.

Stability, continuity, day-after-day routines hardly excites Americans or makes films (except perhaps Andy Warhol creations). Stability is, you guessed it, ho-hum, prompting open-mouth yawns. No pizzaz, no cheerleaders, no drum rolls accompany calls for more stability in daily routines or in life. Political leaders from U.S. presidents to local school board members promise to turnaround the status quo. Particularly, when the topic is tax-supported, compulsory public education for children and youth ages 6-16 across the U.S. For the past thirty years, civic, business, and philanthropic leaders have targeted U.S. public schools for their mediocrity, as compared to international economic competitors. Calls for “transformation” of school governance, curriculum, organization, and instruction have rolled off the tongues of politicians, CEOs, and superintendents. What policymakers,  practitioners, parents, and researchers too often overlook or ignore is the dual purposes (and paradox) of compulsory public education in a democracy. Tax-supported public schools are expected to conserve and change.

Consider public opinion polls on what schools should do for U.S. children and youth. One illustrates the rich array of collective and individual purposes that parents and taxpayers expect schools to achieve. In order of importance, the top five purposes were as follows:

*Prepare youth to become responsible citizens;

*Help young people become economically sufficient;

*Ensure a basic level of quality among schools;

*Promote cultural unity among all Americans;

*Improve social conditions for people.[i]

The numerous and competing goals would not have surprised education scholars who have documented these public expectations for children attending schools. In the late 1970s, John Goodlad and associates conducted a major study involving 38 urban, suburban, and rural schools in seven states across the country. Their “Study of Schooling” examined the historic goals of U.S. schools and those they found stated in district, state, and school documents. There were 62.[ii]

Of course, I do not need to lean on public opinion polls to assert that public schooling’s socializing role remains a powerful expectation among parents and taxpayers since schools historically have been agents of preserving civic and moral values. Go into any preschool or kindergarten classroom and see how the teachers train young children to take turns, wash their hands before eating, to talk things through rather than hit one another–you get the picture. For older students, what they should learn in class has prompted battles over school prayer and ugly spats over whether “creationism” or “intelligent design” should be taught in high school science courses.

Historically, public schools have been expected to both conserve community values and traditions while simultaneously giving children and youth the knowledge and skills to make changes in their lives, communities, and yes, in those very values and traditions they absorbed. Some commentators see this as the ongoing conflict between the school’s traditional purpose of transmitting the dominant culture and the purpose of becoming a modern institution in step with the ever-changing society. That dual purpose of public schools has been often lost in current and past reformers’ enthusiastic embrace of schools becoming modern change-agents solving grave national problems.

This conflict in values prizing both continuity and change help explain the laundry list zealous reformers and ardent supporters of the traditional purposes have compiled about change and stability in public schools.
*Schools are resistant to change;
*Schools adopt one fad after another
*Schools change at a glacial pace;
*Schools move at warp speed in embracing innovations.

The contradictory complaints go to the paradox of what parents, voters, policymakers, and practitioners expect of schools and what seems to happen after reform-driven policies are adopted. Even after many changes are introduced into districts and schools, abiding routines and practices persist. Some social scientists call this phenomenon “institutional stasis” and “dynamic conservatism” where the Siamese twins of change and stability keep the organization in balance. In public schools it is not change or stability; it is both at the same time. Coping with this paradox of reform requires policymakers and practitioners to recognize the conflict embedded in the two-fold function of tax-supported public schools and then to—I use a metaphor here–master the art of jiu-jitsu in bringing opposites into harmony in a gentle, supple, and gradual way, a task that few policymakers achieve.

Educators often get flummoxed when they are expected to preserve community and national values while simultaneously being asked to make changes in school organization, curriculum, and instruction in order to solve larger economic and social problems harming the nation. Repeated criticisms of public schools over decades arise from this misunderstanding among fervent reformers of the public school’s basic role to both conserve and change.

Transmitting the dominant values and beliefs in the culture is far less sexy a proposition–more like watching paint dry–than “disrupting,” transforming,” and “revolutionizing,” public schools.

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[i] Lowell Rose and Alec Gallup, ” The 32nd Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools”Phi Delta Kappan, September 2000, p. 47.

 

[ii] John Goodlad, A Place Called School (New York: McGraw Hill, 1984), pp.50-56.

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Content vs. Skills Again and Again (Part 2)

The either/or conundrum pops up again. Across science, math, English, and social studies, classroom teachers weigh in on whether they are content-driven or skills-driven in teaching. The dichotomy afflicts all academic subjects and it is, of course, a false one but one that generates far more emotional heat than clear-sighted light, nonetheless.

The last post describing Will Colglazier’s lesson on the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 (and a previous lesson on the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression) seemingly focused on the skills historians use in examining a primary source for bias and close reading of a document. Yet both lessons were chock-full of content. Thus, content vs. skills offers a false choice. The more appropriate question about teaching an academic subject like history is: where on a continuum of content at one pole and skills at the other pole, would you place yourself?

Some teachers would be smack in the center, equally dividing their lessons into mixes of both depending on the topic they were teaching; other teachers would tilt toward the skills or content side. All teachers would have a center of gravity along that continuum. I, for one, would place myself on near the center but clearly on the skills side of the continuum.

In comments on the description of Will Colglazier’s lessons, a few illustrate the mix of both content and skill and how it differs among teachers. Here’s one comment from a teacher who teaches both math and  history.

 

… I’m a fan of primary sources. But I’m not so much a fan of the “what do you think” form of history…. I don’t think asking kids to decide “who is more believable” or “which side is responsible” is a useful way to teach history. I’m not creating historians. I’m teaching history and–hopefully–showing kids that history isn’t just a case of “what happened”.

Yesterday, I gave them a map of the states broken up by acquisition (original US, Louisiana Purchase, Mexican Session, Oregon Territory), and on the flip a list of states in order of joining (up through the Civil War. They were to simply put the date of statehood and “F” or “S” (free or slave) on each state. The point (which worked) see the pattern of joining–one slave, one free, and when that pattern broke.

So one kid, who is severely ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) to the point that I have to stand over him to convince him to work,  crinkled his brow, and asked “So what if a slave escapes to a free state? Is he then free?” .A couple minutes later, one of my top kids said “Hey, is this date for California a typo? It’s way out of whack. How did it become a state so much earlier than Nevada?”

Both great questions, unforced, solid lead-ins, and much more authentic than when given as part of an assignment to “think critically”. I’d rather teach a more authoritative version of history and let these arise naturally from genuine interest….

As you know, I believe strongly in teaching content while also teaching skills–particularly reading. And despite the occasional problems, the reading is going very well. I hope they remember the content, but I know they are spending more time actually reading.

A few weeks ago, I saw the above teacher teach four classes in a row, three of advanced math and one U.S. History. Recalling how she taught, I would guess that she would be close to the center of the above continuum but clearly tilting toward the skills side of the spectrum. I do not know where she would place herself.

Wherever she or I would place ourselves on that continuum, the stark and simplistic question of content vs. skills will arise again and again even though it ignores the obvious differences to where teachers are in managing both content and skills. Asking whether a teacher is content or skill-driven distorts the thinking process of those who  wrestle with how best to teach a subject. The false dichotomy is a simple-minded way of avoiding the complex decisions that knowledgeable and skilled history, science, English, and math teachers go through in planning the next day’s lesson.

Such decisions about teaching a subject are hardly new. Earlier generations of history teachers used primary sources, read documents carefully, found corroborating evidence for the source and worked their students as if they were historians. Will Colglazier’s lessons were preceded by a movement called The New Social Studies in the 1960s where much of what Colglazier was doing in his lessons happened a half-century ago.

The next post deals with that earlier movement to teach students how to read and think like a historian.

 

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