TT #27 – The Power of an Idea that “Ought to Work” – Project Based Learning

One of the most interesting, and yet frustrating, aspects of life as a traditionalist teacher is watching the progressives attempt to justify ideas that “ought to work” but often do not.

An excellent example came across Traditionalist Teacher’s desk this morning.  The article is called Project-Based Learning: ‘Promising but not Proven,’ Researchers Say.  It comes from THE Journal[1], which asserts itself as being in favor of “Transforming Education Through Technology.”[2]

As anyone who has read this blog would know, Traditionalist Teacher is highly skeptical of anyone who asserts the ability to transform education.  However, to many this is the siren song that they find irresistible.

The article’s author, Dian Schaffhauser,[3] asks an important question, “Does a focus on exploring real-world problems and challenges help students learn more effectively?”

In an attempt to create a process by which those ‘real-world problems and challenges’ could be explored, project based learning (PBL) was devised.

The article goes on to point out some important steps that should be taken to increase the potential success of the strategy.

  • First, lock down the design principles. They need to be measurable, address both content and assessment and be informed by practice. Researchers should also study adaptation of the design principles, taken to fit the local school setting.
  • Second, pay more attention to implementation — how the rollout of PBL is “affected by the broader school context,” how different approaches to professional development affect PBL, how teacher belief influences use of PBL and how the use of technology addresses teacher challenges in the classroom. The report suggested that researchers pay more attention to “teacher-initiated PBL” as well, because that’s the most common way students get exposure to it.
  • Third, a “top priority” for PBL research should be to structure PBL design principles that can be used in different settings, such as different grade levels, student populations and subject areas.

According to the article, the jury is still out.  That is very curious because PBL has a very long history.  It is hard to pinpoint just how long that history is, because the names of ideas in the educational world change on a regular basis – even though the underlying ideas remain largely unaltered.  So, to illustrate, Traditionalist Teacher decided to record the development of PBL through personal experience.

As a student, about 1967, Traditionalist Teacher’s own sixth-grade teacher decided to experiment with it.  The class was studying Scandinavia, so the teacher divided the class into four groups.  There were four bulletin boards in the classroom, so each group was assigned one.  One group did Finland, another did Norway, a third did Denmark, and TT’s group did Sweden – which delighted TT, because TT’s great grandparents had emigrated from Sweden in the 1880s.

The groups had an hour a day for a week to research its country and prepare its bulletin board.  On Monday of the following week, each group did a presentation for the class based on its bulletin board.

It was not a disaster.  Most of the bulletin boards looked pretty good.  We were well-behaved enough to sit quietly and listen to each group’s presentation.  On the other hand, when we did the next unit, our teacher went back to his previous methods and the experiment was not repeated.

By the time that Traditionalist Teacher was in charge of a classroom, the methodology of PBL was far more developed.  In the file cabinets that sit behind TT as this is being written is a series of files containing something called “The Brookville Project”.  That experience is briefly described on page 124 of TT’s book Can America’s Schools be Saved – How the Ideology of American Education is Destroying It.  The project was carefully designed to enable the students to use a series of period images to learn about everyday life in the United States before the turn of the twentieth century.  Each image was supplemented with a series of open ended questions.  Then there was a group component in which the students were to collaborate to compile their impressions.  After that, each students was to complete an individual component in which each student was to elaborate on one of those impressions.

Traditionalist Teacher’s belief in the methodology at the time could be witnessed to by the amount of time that it took to develop the project.  During development it was hoped that it would be good enough to be published.  At the time, the majority of TT’s teaching load was Honors American History, so that – in the time-honored process known as “action research” – would be the test group.

The day came to begin.  Traditionalist Teacher used the latest thing in classroom technology – it was 1987 – an overhead projector to display one of the images in the project.  We worked through the questions connected with that image as a whole group.  The students’ responses were encouraging, so TT divided the students into groups (the jargon for these at the time was Collaborative Learning Groups), told the students to assign roles for the individual members, and informed them that they would have three days to complete the task.  At the beginning of the second class period, the goals and process that the students were to follow were reviewed, and the students were turned loose.  At the beginning of day three, TT explained the individual component of the project, and again gave the students the period to complete their work.

It all seemed to go well.  There was lots of conversation within the groups, and most of it seemed to be about the project.  When day three ended, Traditionalist Teacher was eager to see what the students had produced in their virtual trips to Western Pennsylvania in 1878 – the date when the book containing the images was first published.

Unfortunately, the written responses were superficial at best.  These were intelligent students, and should have been easily capable of deducing the information from the images.  Yet, it was obvious that very little thought had actually gone into the responses.  The disappointment was palpable.

However, there is always room for improvement, after all, the process had adherents throughout the educational community.  The questions were revised for 1988, in an attempt to make them simultaneously more open ended and yet more directive.  Yes, this was a contradiction in terms, but the young Traditionalist Teacher believed that there was too much good in the process and in the work that TT had done to implement the process to give up after only one try.  Again, the responses were disappointingly superficial.

TT gave it one last try for 1989, but by then the heart was no longer in it.  Again, the response was lukewarm.  At that point, the project went into the file folders in which it remains.

So where, according to Ms. Schaffhauser’s criteria, had Traditionalist Teacher gone wrong?  It was designed with great care.  The responses were measurable.  A rubric had been included in the project to inform the students of the way in which their work would be evaluated.  It had been carefully and enthusiastically implemented by a teacher who believed in the process and in the importance of the information being conveyed.  Underlying the whole project was the belief that its visual nature would make it accessible to less successful students than those in my honors American History class, although an easier set of questions might have to be devised.

For Traditionalist Teacher, the last nail was driven into PBL years later, on the first parents’ night at TT’s current school.  In a room full of parents of freshman students, several parents inquired about projects.  It seems that the middle school which those students had recently left had fully embraced PBL, especially in Social Studies.  TT explained that there would be no projects, and the parents breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Somewhat puzzled, TT asked a colleague whose own children had attended that middle school about the conversation.  Basically, the response was that the parents were tired of having to do the projects themselves and then having to make special arrangements to transport the completed projects to school without breaking them.

So, why then does PBL still have adherents?  As far as Traditionalist Teacher can see, the only answer is that it ought to work.  It has all of the earmarks of the way that John Dewey said that effective classroom instruction should be done.  It is collaborative.  It is learning by doing.  It involves higher order thinking.

So many want it to work so badly.  They keep trying to tweak it so that PBL will deliver on its promise.

To those of us in the fraternity of traditionalist teachers, the message is clear.  The progressives have been trying to massage this concept into workable form for over fifty years, and have not yet accomplished it.  It is time to admit that, while PBL ought to work, it just doesn’t.

Let’s not waste any more student or teacher time on this clunker of an idea.

[1] According to THE Journal’s website, “THE Journal is dedicated to informing and educating K-12 senior-level district and school administrators, technologists, and tech-savvy educators within districts, schools, and classrooms to improve and advance the learning process through the use of technology. Launched in 1972, THE Journal was the first magazine to cover education technology.”

[2] https://thejournal.com/articles/2017/11/08/project-based-learning-promising-but-not-proven.aspx?admgarea=News1

[3] According to the note at the end of the article, “Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media’s education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology.”

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TT # 26 – The Leaking Ship

Traditionalist teacher has recently discovered one of the great frustrations of having recently published a book.  While the writing and editing process continues, it is always possible that the writer will have a brainstorm which will improve the overall quality of the book.

Unfortunately, sometimes the brainstorms come after the book has been published.  Such is the case with the content of this posting.

Assume for a moment that you are on a ship.[1]  As the cruise continues, people begin to notice that the lever of the water appears to be rising.  Since this is impossible, the watchful among the passengers have no choice but to conclude that the ship is slowly sinking.

Wanting to avoid panic, the observant passengers quietly approach the officers of the ship with their concerns.  At first, the officers deny that there is any problem, even to themselves.  However, as time goes on, the situation grows gradually more dire.  Other passengers, less circumspect than the others, begin to notice that a few areas on the lower decks have water on the floors – water that was not there a few days ago. The officers are forced to begin the search for a solution.

However, their search is limited.  They are so certain that the ship is well constructed that they do not inspect large areas on the hull of the ship.  Wanting to convince the increasingly concerned passengers that they are taking action, they begin fixing visible parts of the ship.  These are not the parts that are leaking – and the officers know it – but the passengers are temporarily placated.

The ship continues to take on water, and evidence of this fact gradually accumulates.  Those who first noticed the problem grow more vocal.  The officers, citing the need to prevent panic, lock the malcontents in the brig – located in the increasingly waterlogged lowest deck.  Others can see the problems with the ship, but say nothing because they are afraid of being drowned in the brig.

This is the current state of American education.  The ship is sinking.  The passengers who are in the best position to see the danger are those teachers who know that their students are not learning.  Those teachers who speak out are fired or are disciplined in other ways – they lose their tenure, receive unsatisfactory evaluations, or are made out to be the “real reason” that the schools are failing.  Other teachers, hoping that the ship will stay afloat until they reach the port of retirement, say nothing.

The reasons that the ship is sinking, as well as the reasons that the officers are not repairing it, can be seen in Traditionalist Teacher’s new book, Can America’s Schools be Saved – How the Ideology of American Education is Destroying It, is available through the author’s page at https://store.bookbaby.com/book/Can-Americas-Schools-Be-Saved or  through Amazon.  Please consider reading and reviewing it.

[1] Traditionalist Teacher wants to take this opportunity to credit Mr. John Horvat, whose book Return to Order uses a cruise ship analogy to describe the social and economic situation of modern day America.  Those with an interest in reading this important work can obtain a copy of it through the Return to Order website at https://www.returntoorder.org/soft-cover/?PKG=RTOWEB12&couponcode=SOFTCOVER&QTY=1

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TT #25 – Traditionalist Teacher – The Book

It has been many months since I added a new entry to this blog.  To veteran readers – if such there be – I apologize.  For some time, it has occurred to me that the topics that this blog has tried to bring to a broader audience required a more organized treatment than the blog format allows.  So, for the last couple years, I have focused most of my writing time to putting together a book.

Now that book has arrived.  Entitled, Can America’s Schools be Saved – How the Ideology of American Education is Destroying It, the book deals with many of the same themes as the blog does.  In my never-to-be-humble opinion, it is pretty good.

Judge for yourselves.  Swing by the book’s website, https://store.bookbaby.com//bookshop/book/index.aspx?bookURL=Can-Americas-Schools-Be-Saved and read the sample that is posted there.  If you go to the site before November 1, 2017 you will only see the e-book version being offered for sale.  If you want to hold a real book in your hands, don’t worry!  It is just taking a little longer to produce, but will be available soon.

Since the world of online book sales relies on the posting of unbiased reviews, I would especially appreciate it if any readers posted one.

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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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