TT #24 – Teachers, Police Officers, and Order

With this posting, Traditionalist Teacher is abandoning (temporarily) the resolution to talk about old and bad ‘progressive’ ideas.  If you have been following this series, don’t worry.  There will be more.  However, the flow of recent new events demands a response – because they are ominous for teachers of any stripe.

Traditionalist Teacher overheard a conversation recently as he walked through his neighborhood.  Another pedestrian was walking up the sidewalk and saw an acquaintance sitting on the porch.  “I haven’t seen you in a while,” said the walker.

“I was in jail’” came the response.

“Hey, sorry about that.  Sometimes, bad things happen to good people.”

Traditionalist Teacher has been musing on that conversation.  By all appearances, both of the participants were young, twenty-five years of age at the most.  Neither appeared to be well educated – the language has been edited.

Those are not the points that surprised Traditionalist Teacher.  The first thing surprise was the fact that going to jail was being discussed so casually.  In the neighborhood in which TT grew up about a half-century ago, a trip to the county jail would have been something to keep quiet about.  These two young people were talking about it as though it was no more memorable than getting caught in the rain.

The second surprise was that the sidewalk philosopher apparently made no connection between the trip to the jail – the bad thing – and the character of the “good people” who are sent there.  Perhaps in certain circles there has always been a kind of panache at being the “bad boy” who violates society’s rules.  However, everyone – even his friends – knew that the bad boy was, well, bad.

That says a lot about the ways in which our culture has changed.

And then, since it is summer, and Traditionalist Teacher has a little extra time to muse, a thought occurred that connects that conversation to the news of the day and to our profession.

As the Summer of 2016 rolls on, the big story concerns the shootings of police officers.  These officers have no control over the situations in which they find themselves.  Most of them have been responding to emergencies, real and apparent, as is their duty. All they can do is to react to whoever and whatever they find when they get there. They are doing the job that society tells them to do and they are being killed – or at least severely injured.

Those who support the shooters are pointing to other situations in which other officers have shot civilians.  It is far outside of Traditionalist Teacher’s competence to evaluate the justice or lack of justice present when a police officer shoots a civilian.  Individual situations require individual responses.  If the individual officers have committed a crime, they should be punished.

However, none of the officers that are being shot have committed these crimes.  They are doing what society tells them to do – keeping order, and they are being punished for it.

So, the reader may well ask, why is an article about police activities being written in this place?

Fair enough.  The main point here is that there are many commonalities between the roles of public school teachers and police officers.  Obviously, we do not face life or death situations on a regular basis, but beyond that obvious difference there are many similarities.

We are also keepers of order.  We are expected to maintain the safety of our classrooms and schools.  Without a certain level of order and decorum, no teaching can take place.  Like the police, we often have to make instant decisions without all of the facts.  We do not create the situations, but we have no choice about whether we react to them.  Sometimes we err.

We both are bound by due process and search and seizure rules.

We are often judged by a public that has only a superficial understanding of the tasks we face and the conditions under which we face them.

Like the police, our actions are reviewed by our supervisors.  If that review finds that we acted badly, appropriate actions are supposed to be taken.  No one debates the necessity of such a process. However, it is a process that is very open to abuse.

We both work for governmental entities, meaning that our ultimate supervisors are politicians.  Occasionally, those politicians find it expedient to amplify our errors as a way of willfully ignoring the culpability of those who created the situation.  Making the public happy can – and does – override the goals for which we were ostensibly hired.

Just as justice is not always popular, neither is education.

Unfortunately, we live in a society in which those that uphold the rules – and police officers and teachers are both in that category – are growing less and less popular.

That fact scares Traditionalist Teacher right down to the bone.  In about a month, we are all going back to our classrooms.  All of those classrooms contain students who have witnessed and been affected by the events of the summer.  Their respect for the rules, already slight, will likely be diminished.  As a rule keepers, that situation is scary for all of us.

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TT #23 – The Self-Esteem Movement

As promised in the last entry, Traditionalist Teacher is spending the summer examining some of the bad ideas spawned by ‘progressive’ educators in the last half-century.  This is being done in hopes that teachers who did not have the misfortune to live through them will recognize a set of old and bad ideas when they come around under different name.  Trust me, they will.

The idea of the day has to do with the Self Esteem Movement.

The Self Esteem Movement was the brainchild of Nathaniel Branden, protégée (and one-time lover) of Ayn Rand, author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. For most of the 1960s, the Nathaniel Branden Institute was the vehicle through which Rand’s “Objectivist” ideas were peddled to the public.  Branden split from Rand personally and professionally in 1968.

In 1969, Branden wrote The Psychology of Self Esteem and proceeded to make his living on the idea for over a decade.  In it, he spelled out his “six pillars of self-esteem”:

  • Living consciously: being aware of what you are doing while you are doing it.
  • Self-acceptance: ‘owning’ your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and being kind toward yourself.
  • Self-responsibility: accepting your actions and owning your capacity to be the cause of the effects that you desire.
  • Self-assertiveness: treating your needs and interests with respect and of expressing them in appropriate ways.
  • Living purposefully: formulating goals and implementing action plans to achieve them.
  • Personal integrity: maintaining alignment between your behaviors and your convictions.[1]

It was the late 1960s and there was a lot of self-help stuff out there, and Brandon’s ideas were pretty similar to a lot of the other pseudo-psychological stuff on the market.

However, Brandon’s work got mixed up with some of John Dewey’s ideas and got translated into the schools.  Here Traditionalist Teacher is going to quote from the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society:

John Dewey and William James were among the early psychologist proponents of the importance of the self. Dewey discussed “intuition of self” in his seminal 1886 work, Psychology, using knowledge of self as the talisman for knowledge gains in general. Selfhood was, in this view, essential to freedom. But it was James who, in 1892, first used the term self-esteem with an explicit scientific definition. A key task in socializing children, in James’s view, involved helping them gain the capacity to develop “self” and, with it, the capacity to adapt to different social settings with appropriate projections of self. Self-esteem, more specifically, involved the kind of perceptions that, properly honed, were crucial to achievement and success.[2]

It is almost like a recipe for a bad stew.  Start with a little bad advice from John Dewey.  Mix in a lot of 1960s psycho-babble.   Let the mixture ferment for a couple decades.  Yield: a fine slumgullian mess of ‘progressive’ education theory.

The basic theory was simple:

  1. Kids weren’t learning because they didn’t think that they could.
  2. Kids didn’t think they could learn because they didn’t like themselves.
  3. Therefore, teachers could help kids learn by helping them to like themselves.

How could teachers help their students like themselves?  A lot of stress was placed on something called ‘positive reinforcement’.  The idea was that teachers often spent a lot of time correcting students – telling the students what they were doing wrong.  Since students couldn’t differentiate between failing at some task and being failures, the teacher became one of the reasons that the students believed that they could not succeed.

So, teachers were told to “catch them doing good,” as the saying went.  Every child, the theory said, craved attention.  Ignoring bad behavior would cause it to stop, because kids who did not like themselves acted badly – preferring negative attention to being ignored.  Complementing good behavior would meet the child’s need for attention, and the child would respond by doing more of the good behavior.

Other bits of practical advice in this vein went along these lines:

  • Correct only the most egregious mistakes.
  • When marking a student’s paper, include at least two good comments for every bad comment.
  • Stop using red pens for corrections.  Green ink communicates a more positive impression.
  • Never criticize a student’s ideas, only (if absolutely necessary) the way the idea was stated.
  • Send each student at least one “Happygram” a week.

Traditionalist Teacher will never forget the way that the self-esteem movement was introduced to the faculty by a principal who was instituting those ideas.  It was a fairly normal faculty meeting in 1992 or 1993.  At least it was normal until the end, when the self-esteem program was presented.  The assistant principals passed out a handout with a story on it called “Three Letters from Teddy.”  The story is a hardy perennial, and several versions of it can be found on the Internet.  The Vimeo people have made a short film which can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/81859856.

Perhaps the point of the story can be summed up in a quotation in which the narrator, Teddy’s teacher, in response to Teddy’s situation said, “That’s when I stopped teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic – and began teaching students.”

We were a pretty hard-boiled bunch of high school teachers and our reactions were not all that the principal, whom we had never regarded as much of a disciplinarian, desired.  He was disappointed in the way that we received the program.  Traditionalist Teacher et al were not totally sure that we were ready to abandon reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Finally, the principal said, “Look, if we can help some of these kids do better by building their self-esteem, WE ARE GOING TO DO IT!”

Case closed.

Of course, it didn’t work.  In fact, it proved to be counter-productive.  Student achievement went down and unacceptable behavior went up.  This was one ‘progressive’ idea that was such a disaster that even the progressives denied it.  A good example of the reaction can be read at http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/truth-self-esteem/, where Alfie Kohn – in many other ways a progressive’s progressive – describes in detail the flaws that underlay the self-esteem concept and its failures.[3]

The self-esteem movement told teachers that academics were not as important as the student’s well-being.  If standards needed to be relaxed, then we should do so.  Teachers who objected were accused of caring more about their subjects than they did about their students.  Of course, a few years later, the politicians got wind of the public’s reaction to the lowered academic and discipline standards.  They blamed (of course) the teachers.  The politicians’ solution was more standardized testing.  We all know where this one is going.

However, don’t think that means that the idea is dead.  There are still those who fly the self-esteem flag.  The biggest reason that this idea will come back again is that it is just too easy.  Administrators get to do what they do best – tell teachers how to teach.  Administrators won’t have to do the hard part that so many of them do badly – actually punish students for their bad actions.

Then, they will blame the teachers – again.

[1] Language simplified by the author.  Brandon’s sequel, entitled The Sex Pillars of Self-Esteem can be sampled at https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=z_z_quAbwacC&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=Self+Esteem+Movement&ots=yRIwPXFOdc&sig=0CJS2iOXU1VoE8-xOOCiqczec6g#v=onepage&q=Self%20Esteem%20Movement&f=false

[2] http://www.faqs.org/childhood/Re-So/Self-Esteem.html

[3] The article can also be found in the December 1994 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.  Since PDK is a journal of ‘Progressive’ Education, readers are encouraged to get a copy and put it away, just in case their administrators trot out some of these ideas.

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TT #22 – The Open School Concept

One off the stated goals for this site is to acquaint teachers with “Progressive” educational ideas that failed in the past.  There are two reasons that teachers should have this information.  The first is so that we develop an institutional memory.  Education is full of ideas that came along, gained a following, were implemented (often at great cost in terms of money and time), failed, and then were quietly shelved.  Soon they were forgotten – at least in part because they proved to be embarrassing to those who implemented them.

The second, and probably more important reason that modern teachers need this knowledge is that these bad ideas have a way of coming back – often with a different name.  All too often, the same rhetoric that made the idea appealing in the first place can be resurrected by a new educational guru who slaps a fresh coat of paint over the rot and peddles it as the next “big new thing.”

There are signs that this may be increasing, to an extent that even so jaded a commentator as Traditionalist Teacher found surprising.  The ‘progressives’ are running around like a flock of decapitated chickens.  They threw everything they had into Common Core, and it is going down in flames.  The public is losing patience, and the ‘progressives’ know it.  They may talk about the nay-sayers as a bunch of unsophisticated rubes, but those rubes still pay the taxes that support the schools.  This has the ‘progressives’ grasping at straws, and those straws are weak.

At any rate, over the rest of the summer, Traditionalist Teacher will attempt to bring to light a series of failed ideas from the past sixty years, explain them and the reasons that they failed, and evaluate the possibility that these ideas could again rear their ugly heads in your school.

The first in this series is called “The Open School Concept”.  If you have ever walked into a school that was built sometime between 1965 and 1980 and wondered why it was so badly designed, there is a pretty good possibility that it was built to be an Open School.

Basically, the Open School Concept tried to free students, teachers, and schools from what some thinkers called “the tyranny of the classroom.”  In this mindset, the classroom itself was a reason that students did not learn to the greatest extent possible.  Classrooms placed a single teacher in a room full of 20-45 students.  All of those students got the same lesson at the same time, regardless of the appropriateness of that lesson for each student at that particular time.

Traditionalist Teacher will attempt to be fair by letting the exponents of the idea explain it.  In this case, that will be done through a 1976 document developed by an organization called International Management Training for Educational Change which explained how the Open School Concept was applied in Austin Texas.[1]

“The open school concept used as an alternative to more traditional forms of schooling in selected elementary and secondary schools in Austin, Texas, includes seven major dimensions: individualized instruction, continuous progress of students, team teaching, multiage and multigrade grouping, differentiated staffing, open space classrooms and learning resource areas, and product and process evaluation.”

Whew!  How many of those catchphrases have you heard in your career?  So let’s unpack each of the seven “dimensions”.  To escape as much jargon as possible, we will discuss a hypothetical twelve-year-old female student.  She would normally be placed in the sixth grade.  However, this student reads at grade level, still has trouble with some fourth-grade math concepts, but is above grade level in social studies and science because her family has done a lot of travelling and her parents are interested in those topics.

  • Individualized instruction – This would provide instruction that is uniquely suited to her and each of her peers at any particular point in his/her development.
  • Continuous progress of students – Presumably, in a normal sixth-grade classroom, our student will suffer in math and probably get further behind.  She will get the instruction that she needs in reading, but will be hopelessly bored in science and history because the class will be learning material that she already knows.  Only in one case out of four are her needs being met at that moment.  Continuous progress offers the promise that she will be consistently challenged in all subjects, no matter what her level of understanding.
  • Team teaching – ‘Progressive’ orthodoxy holds that a group of teachers will be better able to meet the individual needs of students than a single teacher who has to adjust to the needs of the ‘average’ student in the class.  Having more than one teacher in the class helps individual needs be met.  Of course, this is a very expensive solution.
  • Multiage and multigrade grouping – Multiage and multigrade grouping would enable her to work on fourth grade math, sixth grade reading, and eighth grade science and ninth grade social studies all in the same place during the same academic year.
  • Differentiated staffing – She would have access to teachers whose training enable them to assist her at her current level of achievement – remedial math instruction, grade level reading, etc.
  • Open space classrooms and learning resource areas – Normally, she would be in a sixth grade classroom where the available resources would be those normally found in a sixth grade classroom.  The Open School Concept would place her in a room that will be larger and she would be able to use all materials that she needs, instead of those materials being housed in fourth, sixth, eighth, and ninth grade classrooms – most of them being unavailable to her.
  • Evaluation processes – She would be graded on the progress that she has made, rather than being compared with some arbitrary idea of where a sixth grader should be.

Golly!  That sounds good!  What teacher wouldn’t want to provide these advantages to the students?  What parent wouldn’t want them for his/her child?  Let’s do it!

Of course, left unmentioned were the advantages to the administration of the school under such a system.  These may be unspoken, but were very real.  First, it greatly simplified the process of constructing schools.  Fewer walls, fewer halls, less space overall meant that the schools were be less expensive to build, heat, and maintain.  Master scheduling and personnel allocation became much simpler.  More students on-task should have meant fewer students in the office.

There were, however, some problems.

First, for this to make any economic sense, the rooms needed to be very large.  If the school system budgeted on the basis of one teacher for every twenty students, this room needed to be able to house a couple hundred students, so that our hypothetical student would be able to have a fourth grade math teacher, a sixth grade reading teacher, an eighth grade science teacher, and a ninth grade history teacher.  Obviously, teachers could teach at more than one level, but that was still a lot of kids in a single space – however large it may have been.  More students made more noise – noise that some students were able to deal with, but that some others weren’t.

Second, not all students at the same grade level were at the same place within that grade level.  To make this truly individualized, each student had to be at a different place in each of the several subjects’ curricula.  The record-keeping and evaluation that were necessary to insure that each of those couple hundred students were learning at the optimum rate was all but impossible.

Third, with teachers bouncing back and forth from student to student and subject to subject, it was impossible to design engaging lessons for all of them and have those lessons available at a moment’s notice.  The teachers had to make one of two choices, either teach the students in groups – which defeated the whole open school concept – or develop a series of self-taught lessons in folders through which the student worked at their own speed.  Under such a system, the actual amount of time that any particular student spent with ANY teacher face-to-face shrank to almost nothing.

Fourth, such a system actually increased the learning gap that it was supposed to decrease.  Highly motivated students got the majority of a teacher’s time because they demanded it.  Misbehaving students got plenty of attention because a higher amount of order must be maintained in a room with so many students.  The quiet and unmotivated students lost out.

Fifth, multiage classrooms increased the potential for bullying and other unacceptable behaviors.  With all of the teachers working with individuals or small groups, those students not actually working with a teacher at any given time rapidly got bored and turned to talking, passing notes, and/or bothering the other students around them.  It was not unusual to have ten-year-old students in the same classroom with fourteen-year-old students – who were clearly at a different point developmentally.  Then and now, misbehaving students are much more interesting to other students than a manila folder full of photocopies.  The amount of student “down-time” went up sharply.

Teachers caught in the mess adapted as best they could.  Often, the teachers themselves re-divided the classes and recreated the classroom by building barriers out of furniture, portable chalkboards, and so on.   Within a couple years, most school systems abandoned the concept.

By the early 1980s, the open school concept was largely abandoned.

However, in the world of ‘progressive’ education, no idea is so bad that it can’t be resurrected.  A Canadian firm led by Randy Fielding and Prakesh Nair are actively trying to revive the idea.  The language sounds eerily familiar.

“The new Open Concept Schools touted by Fielding Nair International are based explicitly upon “education design principles for tomorrow’s schools.”  Classroom-based schools are considered a “relic” of the Industrial Revolution, and they are seeking to re-invent schools to promote critical thinking, collaboration, and flexibility among students. The first six of the dozen underlying principles reaffirm the return of “progressive education” ideas in a new guise: “1) personalized; 2) safe and secure, 3) inquiry-based, 4) student-centered, 5) collaborative, and 6) interdisciplinary.”  Grafted onto the list are: “7) rigorous and hands-on, 8) embodying a culture of excellence and high expectations, 9) environmentally conscious, 10) connected to the community, 11) globally networked, and 12) setting the stage for lifelong learning.”[2]

How can ‘progressive educators’ keep a straight face when they assert that the open classroom works?  Simple, most of them are too young to remember when it was tried the first time.  They drank the progressive Kool-Aid in teacher’s college, and the old verbiage has not lost its appeal.  In the world of ‘progressive’ education good intentions trump inconvenient facts every time.

Traditionalist Teacher would like to close with one last point, this one more personal.  The school in which TT teaches is in the middle of a technology initiative in which the students are expected to provide the devices themselves (BYOT – Bring Your Own Technology).  One of the advantages that was cited to those of us who were doubters was, “It will help you open up your classroom.”  Being a high school graduate of the mid-1970s, all TT could do was inwardly groan.

[1] http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED198608.  Other articles from the time can be found on-line at http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_197102_staples.pdf and http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_197501_armstrong.pdf

[2] https://educhatter.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/open-concept-schools-why-is-the-failed-experiment-making-a-comeback/ (emphasis in the original)

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TT #21 – Subsidiarity

In the last article, Traditionalist Teacher decried the effects of the bureaucratic mind.  It is, however, easy to complain, far riskier to propose a solution.  However, TT would like to point out that there is an antidote to the bureaucratic mind.  It is called subsidiarity.

It is a sign of the virtually universal nature of bureaucracy that the term itself is virtually unknown.  However, it can and does work.  It is the basic idea behind the English Common Law and the functioning of the oldest and largest organization in the world, the Roman Catholic Church.

Subsidiarity is the idea that any problem should be solved at the lowest possible level.  Webster defines it as, “a principle in social organization: functions which subordinate or local organizations perform effectively belong more properly to them than to a dominant central organization.”[1]

Perhaps the most important advantage of subsidiarity is that the problem, whatever the problem may be, is best solved by someone who is intimately connected to it.  The decision maker is apt to be more careful, because he/she/they will have to live with the consequences of the decision.  The eventual decision is more likely to consider the emotional and physical well-being of those affected because the decision maker personally knows all or most of them.

Think, if you will, about the way that a functional family makes a decision – say about the location of this summer’s vacation.  The parameters of the decision – the timing of the vacation, the length of the vacation, the available financial resources, etc. – are well known to all of the affected parties.  Likewise, the desires of each member are well known to the others.  It is easy for each member to share information with other members.  The decision can be made over time, with small and (hopefully) pleasant conversations happening naturally and sporadically for months before the vacation actually takes place.  The result is a vacation that meet the needs and resources of the family and some of the desires of each of its members.  Each family makes a separate decision, and no one expects the decision to be identical to the decision made by some other family.

Let’s draw an absurd contrast to a vacation planned by a central bureaucracy.  Every family gets the same amount of time, say one week.  A series of government subsidized vacation centers are set up, each center focused around a different experience – theme parks, a cruise, golf, beaches, camping, big city art and theater, mountains, etc.  Each year, the family is assigned to a rotation of these experiences – this year is the beach, next year the city, year three in a golf resort, year four is the cruise, etc.  Every family is treated to an equal share of the available vacation resources, all managed by the Department of Recreation.  For the sake of efficiency, all those living in a particular residence district will go on vacation as a group.

Traditionalist Teacher hopes that the disadvantages of this scheme are obvious.  TT’s idea of a perfect vacation involves a lot of time for rest and reading.  This idea would be absolute tedium to someone who enjoys more active recreation.

Now, it could be argued that a vacation is pleasant but relatively trivial.  Education, the argument goes, is FAR too important to leave to so haphazard a process.

Traditionalist Teacher would like to pose the contrary argument – that education is far too important AND far too intimate to be dictated by someone who does not know the student, and the better they know the student – the better the decision would be.

Over the course of the Twentieth Century, American public education – like America itself – has grown increasingly centralized.  Partly that is due to the increased power of the bureaucracy, but it is also due to our impatience.  Americans tend to think in large terms.  We want the complete solution, the grand gesture.  We admire leaders who can, “kick butt and take names.”  We adore power.

So then, what would a school system based upon the concept of subsidiarity look like?

First, the school district would be as small as economically feasible.  The decisions about feasibility would be made by the people within that district, rather than by some federal or state authority.  The values of the school district would also be set by that community.  In the event that some family’s values are violated by their community’s schools, those students would be able to attend the schools of some nearby district.  Should that not work, the family would be allowed to use their share of the available educational resources to choose, and partially pay for, another educational setting for their children.

Within the boundaries of the community’s well-stated and well-understood values, the teacher would be given the primary ability to determine the educational processes within that classroom.  Methods of instruction and discipline would be set and enforced by the teacher.  These decisions would, presumably, be based upon the best interests of the students and the gifts and abilities of the individual teacher.  Whatever level of coordination between teachers might be necessary could be done informally at lunch, after school, or in any mutually agreeable setting.

The primary role of the principal would be to oversee the smooth running of the school and building, the provision and allotment of available resources, and other needs common to all of the teachers and students in the school.  Those duties would include the hiring of new teachers as necessary and determining the master schedule.  Occasionally, those responsibilities would include the ability to step in should it become obvious that a particular teacher is either unwilling or unable to function effectively.

The superintendent’s main job is to oversee matters that are of concern to all of the schools in the district.  These would include the allocation of available resources to the various schools, transportation of students, etc. as well as the hiring of principals.

Before we turn away from the professional staff of the schools, it should be emphasized that the teachers should be free to ask the advice of principals and, in turn, the principals should be able to ask for the advice of the superintendent.  However, that conversation should be instigated by the lower level employee.  If the supervisor has successfully completed the task of hiring subordinates, they should be trusted to make the decisions appropriate to their office. Only when it is obvious that those decisions are not being made, or are being made in ways that are ineffective, should the superior intrude into the realm of the subordinate.

That then brings us to the job of the school board.  In most localities, the school board is made up of people who are representative of their community, but are not professional educators.  They have two primary functions.  The first is to hire the superintendent.  The second is to act as a conduit to inform the superintendent of the nature of schooling that the community desires.  This function is crucial.  Through it the community determines the overall philosophy, priorities, and policies of the system – which, after all, they fund through their taxes and/or tuition.

In this way, the circle is complete.  The community gets the schools that it wants for its children and will support.  The students are taught by professionals who have their best interests at heart, and the power to act accordingly.  The administrators run effective schools, according to policies set by an informed group of board members selected by the community.

There is a role for the state, but it is minimal.  The state should set minimum standards for procuring a diploma.  It could also be argued that the state should supplement the resources available to schools that serve impoverished communities.  Within this framework, little state and no federal bureaucracy is necessary.

Traditionalist Teacher understands that this will be tough to sell to the bureaucrats that run modern education.  They are in highly entrenched and, to a greater or lesser extent, powerful positions.  They will not want to give them up.  Cadres of administrators, denizens of the state and federal departments of education, and the unions who claim to represent the teachers will all sound a chorus of despair should any such proposal even come close to implementation.

To that chorus there is only one real answer.  The community needs to remind the bureaucrats of the mess that we find ourselves enduring now.  The bureaucrats have given us schools that promise much, are very expensive, and deliver all too little.  We – the teachers with the support of the community – can indeed do a better job more efficiently and at a far lower cost.

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/subsidiarity

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TT #20 – The Bureaucratic Mind and Education

If Public Education is not the largest bureaucracy in the nation, it has to be in the top ten.  Of course, its real size is camouflaged by the fact that there is one Federal Department of Education, each of the states has a Department of Education (even though it may be called by another name), and there are 13,515 public school districts across the nation.[1]

So even though there are thousands of different entities, the philosophies of all of them are so similar that they effectively operate as a huge bureaucracy with thousands of branch offices.  Yes, one does occasionally hear about a state – often Texas – that is bucking some trend.  However the mere fact that such an arcane subject as a dispute over educational philosophy gets into the news at all is a sign of how rare these disputes actually are.

However, Traditionalist Teacher is not here to throw around big numbers.  The goal of this article is to focus on the hundreds of thousands of individuals who work in the administrations of those systems.  Each of those school systems have administrative staffs whose members seldom, if ever, actually see a student in an instructional capacity.  The smallest system that TT has ever seen has six – a superintendent, an assistant superintendent, and a director of transportation with each having an administrative assistant (what we used to call a secretary).  The largest systems – New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami – have literally hundreds.

For just a moment, imagine the professional lives of those people.  Many – but not all – started out as teachers, but for a variety of reasons left the classroom.  Despite occasional, or even frequent, visits to classrooms, most are gradually losing their sense of the demands placed on a classroom teacher.  Each was moved into administration to provide a specific function, and that function becomes the primary focus of their working lives.  As their knowledge and expertise in that function increases, their understanding of the actual tasks of teaching decreases.

They begin to adopt the bureaucratic mind.

And this is one of the primary reasons that our schools do not work.

At this point, Traditionalist Teacher would like to acknowledge Anthony Esolen.  In an article on a totally different topic, he wrote “[T]he bureaucratic mind is fearful of conflict, fearful of standing up for truth against falsehood.  The result, if you will pardon the frankness, is to be stiff where you should be limber, and limber where you should be stiff.”[2]

You see. Our “typical” bureaucrat is in the certification, transportation, professional development, secondary education, Mathematics curriculum, student services, nutrition, purchasing, facilities maintenance, technology, or one of dozens of other offices and departments.  He/she believes that he/she is an educator.  In that illusion there is great danger, because he/she often sees him/herself as an expert teacher as well.  In fact, his/her ability to actually teach is decreasing, due to the lack of regular practice.  In this way teaching is rather like playing a musical instrument or speaking a different language – it you don’t use it, you lose it.

This is the reason that Traditionalist Teacher has long advocated a system in which EVERY administrator who needs a teaching certificate to hold their position still continue to teach at least one class each year.

This is, however, not the biggest danger of the bureaucratic mind in education.  The biggest danger comes when the bureaucrat is also a careerist.  The careerist’s primary, perhaps only, goal is the advancement of his/her own career.  He/she will pull all of the strings to make sure that his/her program is not cut or reduced in next year’s wave of ‘reform’.  The program must APPEAR to be a success.  The importance of not losing face in the eyes of someone who is higher on the food chain gradually becomes paramount.  The teachers themselves come to be seen as obstacles whose lack of ability imperil his/her career.  All too often, the bureaucratic careerist is exactly the kind of person who becomes the superintendent.

Most teachers do not possess bureaucratic minds.

Teachers need to keep too many balls in the air to focus on any one project.  Teachers must implement the curriculum, plan lessons, grade papers, honor parent requests, engage in ‘professional development’, participate in fire drills, keep attendance records, supervise the cafeteria and bus ramp, take students to pep rallies, coach, duplicate papers, gather materials, and – oh yes – actually teach.  Different individuals will gravitate to different tasks, but none of us can totally ignore these tasks.  We don’t EVER have the time to totally focus on any one task.

The unfortunate result is that the bureaucrats and careerists create ‘reforms’ in an administrative bubble.  Those ‘reforms’ have to be implemented by people who are already very busy doing a myriad of other tasks.  Even if the idea behind the new action is a good one, this fact severely limits its effectiveness.

And then, there is the fact that many of the ideas are not good.

Once again, to refer to the ‘bureaucratic mind’.  As Esolen pointed out, the bureaucrat is uncomfortable with the concept of truth and the difficulties that come along with any objective truth.  This meshes very nicely with the disdain for objective truth as seen in the philosophy of John Dewey.  The result is an educational bureaucracy that is afraid to teach facts.  It is much more comfortable with ‘discovery learning’ and ‘students finding their own truth’ where knowledge is secondary to the sort of intellectual manipulation that has students forming and expressing opinions based on very little information.

For those of us who are traditional in our ideas about education, TRUTH is the core of the whole endeavor.  Education, Traditionalist Teacher insists, without truth produces cleverness without wisdom.  Its products are a generation of people who are adept at manipulating information without establishing any kind of moral basis. They flip and flop according to the spirit of the times and their own emotions. Informing them of their errors produces neither contrition nor intelligent argument, but only the feckless mantra, “You can’t judge me!”

The bureaucratic mind has another unfortunate outcome.  By taking the power to discipline away from the teacher and investing it in bureaucrats overseen by other bureaucrats, the standards of conduct conduct deteriorate because enforcing rules involves the sort of absolutes that are so abhorrent to the bureaucratic mind.  Maintaining standards is difficult and may be controversial.  Giving in to the demands of the disobedient student and the unreasonable parent is easy – especially if you do not have to face that student in class tomorrow morning.

Intellectual, moral, and behavioral chaos – these are the products of placing education in the hands of the bureaucratic mind.

The cure is a concept called subsidiarity, which will be discussed in the next article.

 

[1] http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d14/tables/dt14_214.10.asp?current=yes

[2] http://www.crisismagazine.com/2016/buying-right-toys-faiths-r-us%e2%80%a8%e2%80%a8

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TT #19 – The Election and “Progressive” Education

Like most other educated Americans, Traditionalist Teacher has been musing on the mess that the 2016 presidential election has become.  Lest the reader worry that TT is trying to become a political pundit (a class of people already FAR too large), do not be troubled.  TT has absolutely no intention of arguing which party is right or which candidate is the best choice.  Rather, this entry will tie the process of choosing the president to the training that those voters got at the hands of ‘progressive’ educators.

So, first, Traditionalist Teacher will examine a number of aspects of the electoral process as the current political season has progressed since 2014.

Confusion – When one watches the election coverage, it seems that the various news sources occupy a variety of universes.  This is not a situation where there is an issue and two positions on that issue, which can be debated intelligently.  In this season, there does not even seem to be any agreement as to what the issues are.

Inability to deal with inconvenient facts – In each of us there is the desire to pretend that the inconvenient is untrue.  In the household of Traditionalist Teacher’s childhood, this took the form of mother asking where the cookies are, and the youthful TT replying, “What cookies?”  In the modern political culture, an inconvenient fact is depicted as the product of a ‘hit squad’, a ‘fishing expedition’, or an attempt at ‘character assassination’.  The truth of a situation is not assessed, only the seriousness of the charge.

Sound Bites and ‘Gotcha’ Journalism – These two ugly realities seem to travel hand-in-hand.  Out of a presentation, speech, or debate the media select a ten-second statement and then replays it endlessly.  This is especially true if the sound bite makes the candidate or supporter look despicable.  A moment of unguarded speech is used as evidence that the candidate is uncaring, corrupt, uninformed, or incompetent.  Contrariwise, a candidate who does not slip up is accused of being packaged or over-prepared by his/has staff.  Related to the above is –

Obsessions with ‘hidden meanings’ – The various pundits seem obsessed with the location of hidden meanings in these unguarded comments.  Even if the meaning that the news media spins into the comment in question contradicts everything that candidate has ever said about the issue, the clip and the spin become the ‘truth’ from which all manner of conclusions can be drawn.  This, then, places the candidate in a situation in which he/she can either deny the conclusion or ignore it.  Denial giving the conclusion another news cycle during which it can be replayed.  Ignoring it leaves open the speculation that the conclusion might possibly be correct.

Rarity of considered thought and emphasis on emotion – The next time you watch a televised news program, try to separate the time that it appeals to thought from the time that it appeals to emotion.  The first time you try, you will be amazed at the time that is spent getting emotions engaged in the stories of the day.  In part, that is the nature of television.  Pictures, especially pictures that move, convey emotion far more effectively than they reveal fact.  Historians often speculate that Abraham Lincoln and both Presidents Roosevelt would have failed in the age of televised politics.  Lincoln’s and Theodore Roosevelt’s high and squeaky voices would be fodder for Saturday Night Live lampoons. Franklin Roosevelt’s attempts to hide his paralysis would never be tolerated in this supposedly more tolerant age.  Those of us old enough to remember the 1992 presidential campaign can easily recall the effect of Bill Clinton’s saxophone solo on SNL.  Candidates no longer try to dazzle us with the brilliance of their thinking – in fact, the ability to think brilliantly is sometimes seen as an unfortunate tendency that the successful candidate learns to hide.

Emphasis on identity – Identity groups have always been important in American politics.  Andrew Jackson was able to attract the votes of westerners and farmers by vilifying the ‘aristocratic’ John Quincy Adams.  Often today, though, the emphasis on WHAT we are rather than WHO we are appears to be ascending.  Part of this is the fact that followers of different ideologies have the ability to get their information from those of a similar ideology.  In the 1960s of Traditionalist Teacher’s youth, liberals and conservatives got most of their information from ABC, NBC, CBS, Time magazine, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, and the local newspaper.  There were magazines on the right and on the left, but their readership was small.  Today, cable television and the Internet have created a plethora of options that divide us according to race, ideology, gender, gender identification, age, region, and (most of all) political ideology.

Hooliganism – This can be seen as a natural reaction to many of these conditions.  When those whose emotions are engaged in different directions meet, the result is intolerance – which becomes violent very quickly.

Perhaps, by this time the reader may well be wondering when Traditionalist Teacher is actually going to discuss teaching.  Well, that time is now.

If one asks the educated about the value of education, one of the common responses goes something like, “My education helps me to understand people who are not like me.”

Yet, ‘progressive’ education has often had the opposite effect.  “How,” the aghast progressive might exclaim, “could this be?  I have spent my life teaching tolerance.”

Let’s examine that claim by looking at some of the educational practices that have contributed to the current situation.

Teaching skills rather than facts – Basically, rather than teaching students actual facts, we are teaching them to manipulate facts.  This creates the impression that facts are malleable, that different people can have different facts.

The emphasis on the development of uninformed opinions – In the “inquiry oriented classroom,” students are encouraged to develop opinions and hypotheses, but are seldom asked to defend them.  The thesis is developed, and facts are chosen by the student to support the thesis.  Facts contrary to the thesis are simply ignored.  Certainly, given enough time and insight, a teacher could take it to that level – but time is a rare thing.  All scientific/historical scholarship is based on gathering facts.  Only AFTER facts are gathered should a hypothesis be developed.  This is especially true of relatively uninformed students, who are often manipulated by their ‘progressive’ teachers into expressing opinions with which the teacher agrees.

The emphasis on emotion over logic and fact – All too often, teachers and schools see the development of emotional well-being as their primary function.  This is especially true in grades 6-8.  The student’s body and emotions are undergoing radical change, the theory goes, and the student needs to become comfortable with those changes before he/she is equipped to do real intellectual work.  The school becomes an emotional intensive care unit, keeping out those facts and ideas that are uncomfortable.  This would be bad enough if it only affected the ‘Middle School.’  Unfortunately, it spread – first to high school and, more recently, colleges.

Tolerance of emotional outbursts – The emphasis on emotion also extends to those who act out in class.  An outburst of temper is a cry for help, not a lack of the self-control, which is necessary to function in society.  Therefore, self-control is seen as repression – and repression is to be avoided at all costs.

Multicultural Balkanization – Teachers are trained to focus on the differences between students rather than those factors that unify the class.  Students are taught that their differences are the things that make them special.  All cultural ideas are seen to be equally desirable – except the Judeo-Christian values that elevated Europe and by extension North America.

All of the above can be seen in full display in the 2016 presidential campaign.  The candidate who has the most entertaining outbursts gets the attention.  The voters often choose who gets their vote based on how that candidate makes them feel rather than a calculated look at issues, positions, and proposals.  The sight of the name of a political candidate that one opposes written in chalk on a sidewalk causes emotional damage.  Voters turn to those outlets whose overall philosophy are most like their own.  Any pretense of objectivity in news gathering and reporting grows progressively more dim.  Actual discourse between those of opposing views becomes increasingly rare.  Demonization of those whose views are unlike one’s own grows more common.  A thick streak of narcissism runs through many office-holders and candidates.  A sense exists that the only way to be a ‘real’ member of one’s race, ethnic group, or class is to support one party or the other.

Where did this sorry state of affairs originate?  Look no further than your local ‘progressive’ school.

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TT #18 – Good Night, Miss Dove

It is perhaps not surprising that one of Traditionalist Teacher’s favorite movies is one about a traditional teacher. The film is 1955’s “Good Morning, Miss Dove” starring Jennifer Jones in the title role.

Traditionalist Teacher will not be surprised if most readers have not heard of the film, or perhaps even of Miss Jones. Jennifer Jones is best known, to the extent that she is known today, for playing the 19th century French visionary Bernadette Soubirous in The Song of Bernadette.   Her entry on the Internet Movie Data Base shows 27 credits.

But enough of this – Traditionalist Teacher is here to talk about the film, not its star.

The kind of character that Miss Dove represents has all but disappeared from American education. Her type, the no-nonsense spinster schoolteacher, was once common.  Traditionalist Teacher is certain that everyone over a certain age has a story about some such teacher.   They entered the profession before World War II, so most of them had retired by the 1980s.

In large part, they were products of their times. During the first half of the twentieth century, career options for women were few.  Basically, those educated women who needed to work for whatever reason could choose between nursing and teaching.  Those with some interest in the natural sciences became nurses, most others became teachers.

Before World War II, it was a matter of course that a female teacher who married would resign her position. Pregnant teachers (and most newly-married women were pregnant within a year of their weddings) could raise uncomfortable questions in a world in which the word pregnant was not allowed in movies.  Traditionalist Teacher actually worked with a teacher who was married secretly for three years (1939-1942) because her graduate student husband could not afford to support her.   They pretended to marry shortly before he shipped out in early 1942, and she was able to continue working because her husband was off at war.

These women made massive personal sacrifices for their profession, and they took it seriously. Their standards were high, their methods were rigid.  In many communities, they were legendary.  They were often the best educated women in many small towns, and their opinions were respected.  It was quite possible for them to have taught three generations of the same family over careers that often spanned four decades.  Because they usually lived simply, their meager salaries often allowed them to travel during the summers – with the result that they had often seen more of the world than anyone else in town.  Their diction and grammar were perfect, they dressed in a style that was both professional and conservative, and they knew everyone in town.

Such a woman was the movie’s Miss Dove. Every student was met at the classroom door with a curt, “Good morning, William” or “Good morning, Susan” – no nicknames allowed.  Miss Dove sat at her desk while she addressed the students. Paying attention was expected, talking out of turn intolerable.  A fact was not assumed to have been learned until it could be cited from memory.  Slouching or putting your head down in class meant time spent on the “posture correction stool.”  An inappropriate word that slipped out yielded a trip to the restroom where a bar of soap would be used to cleanse the tongue.  Every student understood what was expected of them, and the teacher’s disciplinary decisions were final, without appeal to either principal or parent.

While such a classroom may sound like a nightmare to many ‘progressive’ educators, it had its compensations. Miss Dove’s room was a truly safe space, in which students were treated fairly.  Having no family of her own, Miss Dove was available after school for students who needed extra help.  Compliments were rare, but genuine – and receiving one of them could leave that child smiling for weeks.  She knew her students’ parents, and that gave her powerful insights into the lives of those children.  At one point in the film, she hears that a former student has recently given birth.  She calculates that she has thirteen years left before retiring, enough to see the child through elementary school – “That child will need me,” she says to herself.

As the plot develops, Miss Dove is stricken with a potentially fatal illness. Both her doctor and nurse are former students.  The local Rotary club offers to pay all expenses to get her the best medical care possible at Johns Hopkins or the Mayo Clinic.  She refuses, placing absolute confidence in the caregivers that she helped raise and mold – knowing both their abilities and shortcomings.  Life in that town stops while Miss Dove is in surgery, with a doctor giving regular reports to the collected townspeople from the steps of the hospital – as though Miss Dove shares the status of Michael Jackson or Princess Kate, which is not quite true.  Miss Dove is far more important.  Knowing that she, in her way, has cared for them; they now care for her.

Traditionalist Teacher is not mourning for a past that can never be recovered. We will never again see the Miss Doves of the world, because the conditions that created them are gone – and that is for the best.  It is, however regrettable that our rage for ‘being on the forefront of educational reform’ has caused us to forget so many of Miss Dove’s simple lessons.  We have forgotten that knowledge means actually KNOWING things like facts, laws, theorems, and principles.  We have forgotten that good teachers can be trusted to make good decisions.  We have forgotten that the best way to manage a classroom is with rules that are understood by the students, and enforced quickly and rigidly, but fairly.  We have forgotten that the school rules are not just about keeping it together in the classroom, but giving students a foundation for their lives.

One last thought for now. During the tenth (at least) time that Traditionalist Teacher watched the film, the thought occurred that Miss Dove would have retired in 1968, when TT was in sixth grade and the world was falling apart.  The question occurred as to how Miss Dove would have reacted to the zeitgeist of the ‘Summer of Love’. She was right – the child referred to a few paragraphs ago DID need her, and so do the rest of us.

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TT #17 – The Method that Dares Not Speak Its Name

There is one once-common teaching method so reviled that its name is never spoken, except in derision.  Even its best practitioners have learned to call it something else.  Once, this method was so common that teachers were often evaluated purely on their ability to do it well.  Today, it is an indicator of gross incompetence – even if the teacher involve can prove through test scores and student interviews that it works.  By this time, many readers will have figured out what Traditionalist Teacher is talking about.  It is the dreaded, soul deadening – dare I even write it? – LECTURE.  (Cue ominous organ music at this point.)

Whew!  Now that it has been said, there is a certain lightness of being.  Perhaps it is it akin to that of an initiate who attends an AA meeting and says for the first time, “Hi, I am Bill and I am an alcoholic.”  It is time to admit, boldly and before the entire world, that Traditionalist Teacher is a lecturer!

At this point, Traditionalist Teacher would like to refer the reader to the Wikipedia entry for “Traditional education” which as of this writing begins:

Traditional education, is also known as back-to-basics, conventional education or customary education, refers to long-established customs found in schools that society traditionally used. Some forms of education reform promote the adoption of progressive education practices, a more holistic approach which focuses on individual students’ needs and self-expression. In the eyes of reformers, traditional teacher-centered methods focused on rote learning and memorization must be abandoned in favor of student-centered and task-based approaches to learning. However, many parents and conservative citizens are concerned with the maintenance of objective educational standards based on testing, which favors a more traditional approach.

Notice that the unnamed contributor can only get out the first sentence before he/she rushes back into the cocoon of the “progressives”.  One can read through the entire entry – go ahead, Traditionalist Teacher will still be here when you get back – and never see the term lecture.  You will also find that traditional education is held up as a straw man in whose directions the arrows of the enlightened are to be pointed.  Nobody likes it, except (gasp) “many parents and conservative citizens”.  One can almost imagine the “God and guns” crowd that President Obama warned us about walking into the school office in their camo gear and demanding traditional education for Billy Bob, Junior between chaws of smokeless tobacco.  What do those dolts know about education?

Ask most people in the education establishment what traditional education is and you will almost always get the reply, “lecture and rote memorization”.  You might also hear something about “teacher-centered education” – usually said with a bit of a shudder.

Traditionalist Teacher referred to the phrases “teacher centered” and “student centered” in TT#13, so readers to whom those phrases are unfamiliar may want to look there for clarification.  Suffice it to say that TT believes that the phrase “teacher centered” is one of those tags deliberately designed to make something look worse than it is.

What are the “progressives” so afraid of?  Basically two things – student disengagement and teacher leadership.

On the first point, Traditionalist Teacher has some sympathy.  Most of us of a certain age have seen the 1986 film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  If you haven’t, a young Matthew Broderick plays Ferris, a young man who is considerably more intelligent than anyone who works at his high school.  Ferris fools his too-busy parents into thinking that he is sick and then has the time of his life while his parents work and the assistant principal tries to catch him.  For a few moments early in the film, viewers catch a glimpse of the class that Ferris should be in.  The teacher, played by Ben Stein, is “lecturing”.  Actually, what he is doing is talking to himself and answering his own Aquestions while being totally oblivious to the students in his class.

Although it cannot be proven, Traditionalist Teacher is convinced that Ben Stein is the vision in the minds of “progressives” when they think of lecturing.

So, then, why do lectures still happen in this enlightened age?A  For one simple reason – a lecture is the most efficient way for someone who has information to transmit it to a group of people who do not.

Basically, the lecture format assumes that the lecturer has information that the listener needs or wants.  The lecturer speaks and the listener listens.  Knowing their limitations, the wise listeners will take notes for future reference.  All too often, however, the listeners “tune out”, and – for those students – the lecture time is wasted.

That, then, brings us to the second problem that “progressives” have with lecturing.  This is one for which Traditionalist Teacher has no patience – that there is something inherently wrong with the assumption that the teacher has the information and the student needs the information.  This assumption irks “progressives” in a number of ways.

First, it offends the “progressives” sense of egalitarianism.  This will be discussed in a future entry.

Second the learners being lectured to are not active.  If you have been hanging around education schools very long, you have heard or seen the following in some form:

                                We remember –

                                                10% of what we read

                                                20% of what we hear

                                                30% of what we see

                                                50% of what we see and hear

                                                70% of what we discuss with others

                                                80% of what we personally experience

                                                95% of what we teach others

                                                                                                                – Edgar Dale[1]

 

Traditionalist Teacher has no idea just exactly who Edgar Dale is, and would appreciate a response from any reader who does.  It is the sort of thing that is seared into the mind of young teachers and teachers-to-be.  Since there is no way that actual research could come up with numbers whose patterns are so clear, Edgar could be a greeting card writer for all we know.  Nonetheless, his influence on American education is profound.  On the basis of such evidence, teachers are instructed to avoid lessons that feature reading and lecture and to embrace discussion, experience, and students teaching each other.

Balderdash!

This is the sort of thinking that comes out of dorm room bull sessions and the first year of teaching.  Most of us have been enthused by the informal gathering of people discussing some topic that is of immense interest to all the members of the group, including ourselves.  These often liberally lubricated discussions make the participants feel that they have come to new branches of wisdom and unheard-of solutions to the problems that have bedeviled human societies since the beginning of time.  However, they are usually gatherings of the self-important who have little information and nothing better to do.  At best, they might cement information that has already been learned, but they certainly don’t teach anybody anything.

And then – what of the dorm room resident who doesn’t know anything about the subject under discussion?  He/she either keeps quiet and enjoys somebody else’s beer or gets up and leaves to look for more agreeable entertainments.

It is virtually impossible to create a situation in which the students experience the material being studied.  Traditionalist Teacher knows of one teacher who attempted to simulate World War I trench warfare by arranging the desks in two rows and having two groups of students throw paper wads at each other.  Another taught “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by having the students charge down the football field.

As Traditionalist Teacher’s daughter would condescendingly say, “Seriously?”

It is true that, for most of us, we did learn a lot about our subjects the first year that we taught them.  That, however has no relationship to an artificial situation in which the students are “teaching” each other.

Let us reflect upon the student presentation.  If the reader has never seen one, the students stand in front of the class and spout a series of facts that they do not understand – presumably learning those facts in the process.  Of course, the other students are more “tuned out” than were the environs of Ben Stein’s above mentioned class.  Can anyone tell me how the uniformed ideas of the student presenter make up a better learning experience than does the knowledge of the teacher?

If any reader actually knows Edgar Dale, do him a favor and advise him to go back to his old job in Hallmark’s Sympathy Card Division.

Certainly, there are good lecturers, great lecturers, and mediocre lecturers.  The great lecturer can be informative and inspiring.  Many of our greatest authors roam the country doing “book talks”, which are basically just lectures about their own work.  Traditionalist Teacher would like to register a vote for the belief that even a mediocre lecturer would do a better job of teaching than a bunch of confused kids.

And, if you want to tell me that the research says that I am wrong, see TT #10.

Even though this has already gone on far too long, Traditionalist Teacher would like to make one last point.

If one does an Internet search for the phrase “College and Career Readiness”, the result will be many entries.  That phrase has become one of the mantras in American public education.  According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “We need to raise our standards so that all students are graduating prepared to succeed in college and the workplace.”[2]  Massive efforts are being made to achieve this goal.

Memo to Secretary Duncan – there is one skill that is being omitted, and it may be the most important skill of all.

You see, Mr. Secretary, the horror of the lecture disappears as soon as one transitions from secondary to collegiate education.  In the nation’s colleges, except in the schools of education, the lecture still holds sway.  Go into any large college today, and you will find large rooms full of undergraduates sitting in rows, all facing the front of the room.  At the front of the room is a single man or woman, and he/she is the only one in the room talking.  Some of the students are taking notes, trying to capture the flow of words for future study.

Why are the wiser of those students feverishly writing in their notebooks?  It is happening because at some time in the near future, they will have to take an exam that will test their understanding of the words that the professor is saying.  The ability to capture the professor’s train of thought and fact in as few words as possible is a skill, an extremely valuable skill.  In college, it is often the difference between success and failure.  It does not matter if the presentation of ideas is scintillating or deadly dull.  The professor determines what material is important, and it is the student’s task to demonstrate the capability to learn it.  Nor does the value of that skill end with college.  The ability to capture and relay complicated ideas in simple language is prized in every aspect of life that is not purely manual.

Yet, students arrive in college without this basic skill.  Their high school experience is so full of “student centered” lessons that they have never developed the ability to sit still through a lecture – much less to recognize and take note of the important material within that lecture.

The lecture has been the standard form of transmitting information from one generation to another for millennia.  Students have been complaining about it almost as long.  We, unfortunately, are simply the first generation silly enough to take their complaints seriously.

[1] http://www.uh.edu/~dsocs3/wisdom/wisdom/we_remember.pdf

[2] https://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/blueprint/faq/college-career.pdf

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TT #16 – A Little Wisdom from the Past

A rather remarkable document fell in Traditionalist Teacher’s path today. Its source was unexpected.  Its wisdom is profound.

The source is Calvin Coolidge. For most, Coolidge is a nearly forgotten man.  Marvelous books about him have been written fairly recently by Robert Sobel (2000) and Amity Shlaes (2013).  However, the average American has long since forgotten about him.  Back when the memorization of lists was thought to be important, he was stuck between Harding and Hoover.

It is not Traditionalist Teacher’s goal to lift up Coolidge’s memory – although that would be a worthy goal. It is to use this document as a statement of what the goals of American education once were, and a lamentation of the fact that those goals are so seldom expressed today.

The document is the transcript of a speech that Coolidge gave to the National Education Association on July 4, 1924.[1]  He took the occasion to tie the goals of education to the hopes of the nation.

Traditionalist Teacher will start with Coolidge’s conclusion:

A new importance is attaching to the cause of education. A new realization of its urgent necessity is taking hold of the Nation. A new comprehension that the problem is only beginning to be solved is upon the people. A new determination to meet the requirements of the situation is everywhere apparent. The economic and moral waste of ignorance will little longer be tolerated. This awakening is one of the most significant developments of the times. It indicates that our national spirit is reasserting itself. It is a most reassuring evidence that the country is recovering from the natural exhaustion of the war [World War I], and that it is rising to a new life and starting on a new course. It is intent, as never before, upon listening to the word of the teacher, whether it comes from the platform, the school house, or the pulpit. The power of evil is being broken. The power of the truth is reasserting itself. The Declaration of Independence is continuing to justify itself.

There is an elegant and faintly old fashioned ring to this passage, and TT is drawn especially to the sentence, “The economic and moral waste of ignorance will little longer be tolerated.”

Would that it were so. Ninety years after Coolidge spoke, we not only tolerate ignorance, we celebrate it.  College students talk of getting “stupid drunk” during spring break.  A business calling itself stupid.com will sell you (among other more vulgar things) a sort of air pump that enables one to shoot marshmallows.  People’s misfortunes ‘go viral’ in social media.  The self-destructive behaviors of the Kardashians and Miley Cyrus have made them famous, and even respected in the eyes of many of our students.  TV and movies celebrate a sort of strange mix of sensuality, stupidity, and arrogance.

However mistaken the end of that sentence may be, the first part is absolutely true. Ignorance is a moral and economic waste, and society says it is our job to do something about it

Like a badly written movie, now that we have the end, let’s flashback to the beginning. Basically, Coolidge’s argument is simple.  Education exists for two reasons – to help the individual and to help the nation.

In an attempt to let the late president speak for himself as much as possible, Traditionalist Teacher will present a kind of abstract of the speech, preserving the words and making only those changes that will be necessary for one quotation to flow into the next as seamlessly as possible. Of course, TT hopes that the reader will be inclined to read the whole speech in his/her own good time.  For the sake of clarity, the president’s words will be italicized and TT’s changes will be in regular type.

[T]he fundamental conception of American institutions is regard for the individual…. We recognize the dignity and worth of the individual, because of his possession of those qualities which are revealed to us by religion. … America has been the working out of the modern effort to provide a system of government and society which would give to the individual that freedom which his nature requires.

[T]he greatest obstacle to freedom is ignorance. …[I]f the people were going to maintain themselves and administer their own political and social affairs, it was necessary as a purely practical matter that they should have a sufficiently trained and enlightened intelligence to accomplish that end.

In addition to this, the very conception of the value and responsibility of the individual, which made him worthy to be entrusted with this high estate, required that he should be furnished the opportunity to develop the spiritual nature with which he was endowed, through adequate education.

Clearly, in Coolidge’s mind, freedom for the individual is sacred in its origins. Equally clearly, it cannot be maintained without education.

As important as education is to the individual, Coolidge held that it was at least as important to the nation.

It is necessary also that education should be the handmaid of citizenship….

The body politic has little chance of choosing patriotic officials who can administer its financial affairs with wisdom and safety, unless there is a general diffusion of knowledge and information on elementary economic subjects sufficient to create and adequately to support public opinion. …

Another element must be secured in the training of citizenship, or all else will be in vain. All of our learning and science, our culture and our arts, will be of little avail, unless they are supported by high character, unless there be honor, truth, and justice. Unless our material resources are supported by moral and spiritual resources, there is no foundation for progress. A trained intelligence can do much, but there is no substitute for morality, character, and religious convictions. Unless these abide, American citizen ship will be found unequal to its task. (Emphasis added)

President Coolidge went on to discuss the role of the teacher.

But the main factor of every school is the teacher. Teaching is one of the noblest of professions. It requires an adequate preparation and training, patience, devotion, and a deep sense of responsibility. Those who mold the human mind have wrought not for time, but for eternity. The obligation which we all owe to those devoted men and women who have given of their lives to the education of the youth of our country that they might have freedom through coming into a knowledge of the truth is one which can never be discharged. They are entitled not only to adequate rewards for their service, but to the veneration and honor of a grateful people.

Unlike the rhetoric of many modern politicians, this was not just hot air pumped out to get votes (although it should, perhaps, be noted that 1924 was an election year). By reading his Autobiography, one finds out about the way that he rode miles on horseback during the Vermont winter to get a better education than that which was available in Plymouth Notch, the village of his birth.  He also knew a bit about teachers.  When he met his future wife, Grace Goodhue, she was teaching in a school for the deaf – the same school to which much of his estate eventually passed.

Traditionalist Teacher has to think that modern schools would be much better off if those who would like to be known as ‘the education president’ had half as much wisdom as the wise man from Plymouth Notch.

[1] http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/at-the-convention-of-the-national-education-association/

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TT #15 – Truth

As the title, implies, Traditionalist Teacher is going to be rather more philosophical than usual. This bit of philosophy is especially relevant to teachers, because the philosophical question represented by the word “truth” lies at the core of much that is wrong with modern American education.

Basically, the question that this entry centers around is, “What is truth?”

Before you think that Traditionalist Teacher is going off on a philosophical tangent, give yourself a moment to think about the question – because there are a lot of ways to look at truth. To keep things relatively simple, TT will deal here with the two most popular conceptions of truth – universal and relative.

Universal truth says that anything that was ever true is still true today and will always be true.

Some people say that universal truth denies the idea of progress. “If things change,” they may say, “how can there be universal truth?”  That question is based on an inaccurate notion of what it means for something to always be true.

To use a simple example, people in 1500 would have said “There is no such thing as a machine that can move itself.” Those of us born since 1900 know that there are a number a machines – cars, airplanes, locomotives – that do move themselves.  The believer in universal truth would respond that it was true that there were no machines that could move themselves in 1500; and that will ALWAYS be true.  That did not change because people eventually figured out how to build machines that were able to move themselves.

Universal truth is an obstacle to those who want to use the schools to remake society, because it recognizes that a just and effective plan for change must recognize that there is an authority beyond that of the self-styled modern intellectual. It is an affront to the pseudo-dominance of modern and popular lies.

One does not need to be religious to believe in universal truth. We are applying it when we understand that we are going to get soaked if we stand out in a driving rain without an umbrella.  It is just true.  No amount of argument will change it.

Relative truth says that truth is an individual concept.

“Truth changes,” says the relativist, “because people change as they relate to their changing world.” Since our reactions differ, the relativist might posit, truth will be different for different people.  Some relativists view the differences as so great that they will argue that truth, itself, does not exist.

It is not the role of this blog to definitively answer such questions. By this time, Traditionalist Teacher assumes, the reader will have figured out if he/she is believes in universal truth, relative truth, or is somewhere in the middle.

Traditionalist Teacher’s goal is to apply these concepts to the current state of American education.

Since much in American educational theory and practice is based on the teachings of John Dewey, it makes sense to figure out how he saw truth.

Dewey’s rowed his oar in the relativist pool. Dewey was a specific kind of relativist called a pragmatist. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.”[1]

Basically, pragmatism boils down to this – if it works, it’s true. If it used to work, it was true then.  If it doesn’t work anymore, it isn’t true anymore.  If it works for me and doesn’t for you, then it is true for me but not true for you.

Understanding pragmatism gives one an insight into the doctrines of “progressive” education. Most of us would use the words fact and truth as largely the same thing.  Dewey’s philosophy of education sees the process of discovery as more important than the retention of fact.  That makes perfect sense, if you don’t believe that there is any such thing as universal truth.  Fact becomes fungible, something to be examined and manipulated so that the student discovers “their” truth.  The process of thinking through a problem becomes more important than figuring out the right answer.  If that sounds like some of the things that you have heard from your own teachers, your colleagues and/or your administrators, that is not an accident.  It is the result of buying into a philosophy that leads one to those conclusions.

So, even though many teachers might have trouble explaining pragmatism, they are, effectively, pragmatists. This is even true of teachers who live their own personal lives as people who believe in absolute truth, like those who are devoutly religious or deeply embrace some other system of morality.

In the last fifty years, we have seen an assault on facts. Memorization is seen as a useless accumulation of material that the student does not understand.  Bloom’s taxonomy[2] holds that recall of facts and basic concepts is the lowest form of thinking.  Teachers who concentrate on transmitting factual information are criticized because their classroom atmosphere does not promote “critical thinking”.  Administrators evaluating those teachers are fond of saying things like, “they [the students] can always took that up.”  The teaching of mathematics has long since abandoned the idea that its most important function is getting the right answer.  In fact, the whole idea that there is a “right” answer is often held up to derision.

Traditionalist Teacher would like to posit that, if you believe in the importance of universal truth, pragmatism is the enemy. If truth is abandoned, our students become fodder for any politician who appeals to their emotions.  One cannot recognize lies if one does not possess the truth.

[1] http://www.iep.utm.edu/pragmati/

[2] https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/

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