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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 02 2013

Book Club Part II: “Teaching and Its Predicaments” and “Teaching Minds”

I have recently made the decision to become a member of audible, entitling me to two free audiobooks a month. The benefit of this lovely service is I get to consume way more educational nonfiction without having to take time from teaching/lesson planning/gym. The drawback is that unlike with fiction, I love having books on education policy in the paper (or at least digital) form to scribble over, mark pages, take notes, etc. so that I can efficiently reference them later. With audiobooks, this is much harder to do. Instead of rereading and referencing the specific passages you are most interested in, you are forced to digest and grapple with the book as a whole (especially when you listen as you drive/run/clean and cannot pause for notes). So I am writing another blogpost to document I reactions to these two books, lest I inevitably forget the central arguments of each and the whole endeavor becomes useless.

“Teaching and Its Predicaments” by David Cohen is a wonderful discussion of the teaching profession, how it is different and similar to other professions and businesses, and some of the difficulties inherent to the practice that can frustrate reform efforts. Thole discussion is informative, balanced, and not at all partisan. What I found particularly interesting was his assertion that one of the central predicaments surrounding teaching is the trade-off between traditional and progressive styles of instruction. I am coming to think of traditional instruction as including the TFA I/We/You, clear objectives that usually focuses on knowledge or skills specific enough to assess using multiple choice or open response questions. Progressive teaching could be labeled as discovery-based instruction, project-based learning, investigations, and other styles where the students are more in charge of learning the skills for themselves, and perhaps even what skills they learn, how they learn those skills. Progressive instruction may have objectives that are less easily measured in an exit slip. The predicament Cohen elucidates is that while most educators would agree that all things being equal, progressive instruction is more meaningful for students, it comes with many costs. It requires more complex classroom organizations and procedures; it is more difficult to measure if your lessons are successful; failure is a common part of the process (which can look bad to evaluators); the breadth of what you can cover in a year is narrowed, and more skill is required on the part of the teacher to achieve success.

“Teaching Minds” is a much more intentionally divisive book by Roger Schank, who based on his own not-so-humble descriptions of his own career seems to be one of the most influential, entrepreneurial, and “disruptive” academics involved in the learning sciences. His central thesis is that cognitive science informs us that it is more important to teach cognitive processes (evaluation, judgement, diagnosis, modeling, prediction, etc.) than any set of facts or skills. While we generally are forced to take his word for this, his logic makes sense: facts fade away and disinterest students, these skills can be applied to whatever topics are of interest to students, and will be much more relevant in the real world. To get a sense of his distaste for teaching specific disciplines and his generally contentious writing style, he begins the book by arguing that schools would be better off teaching students how to drive and how to date (these two skills are useful and important to students, and all of the necessary cognitive processes can be embedded. Schank is even more dismissive of post-secondary educational institutions, arguing that college courses should be structured around these cognitive processes with professors using case-based projects to teach students to apply these processes to various disciplines, and that high schools are forced to teach an overwhelming array of useless facts and skills because colleges have decided that these skills are necessary, mainly so professors don’t have to teach these subjects. Schank blames the accountability regime as well for broadening the scope of what needs to be learned, and therefore forcing teachers to teach facts, not skills, and inevitably alienate and disengage all but the most kiss-ass students. He recommends (and is currently implementing) online vendors that teach these cognitive processes through engaging and real-world projects, as an alternative to college and high school curricula. His theory is in ways antithetical to TFA’s institute model of I/we/you and objective-driven instruction; he advocates what is taboo for TFA: planning lessons around fun and engaging activities (as well as these cognitive processes).

My takeaway is twofold: first, Schank not so gently reminds us that everything we think about effective instruction, standards, lessons, curricula could be totally wrong.  The (school) choice advocates will reasonably acknowledge this point and say, “that’s why we need choice to engender diversity, and let families, not union leaders, politicians, or distanced professors decide what and how we should teach.” Reasonable. But Cohen’s discussion of the dilemmas of teaching emphasizes the best rebuttal to this argument: competition, choice, and all efforts to incentivize schools in particular ways will create an environment where compliance, not risk or uncertainty, is rewarded. Since more meaningful/progressive/cognitive process-based  instruction requires risk, greater potential for failure, less easily measured outcomes, and greater uncertainty, school leaders will rarely respond to pressure by granting teachers the autonomy to teach in such a way, and certainly will not invest in the professional development necessary to cultivate this kind of teaching across the school. Because of these pedagogical and organizational realities, perhaps we need to focus on the teacher, not the school, as the best candidate for delivering innovation. That means focusing our efforts on re-professionalizing teaching, so that teachers have the knowledge, resources, training, and autonomy to experiment with and perfect a diverse array of pedagogical practices. With stronger links between the profession and research universities (not unlike the medical profession) innovation would come as teachers figure out what works best and researchers codify their findings for future teachers. See my post on Six Degrees of School Improvement for more on this pathway of reform.

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