I spent this weekend binge-watching Season 3 of House of Cards. There’s an excellent scene in one of the latter episodes where Frank is prepping for an upcoming debate and he’s concerned about using the word “action.” His Communications Director suggests replacing the word with “vision” because “people can project anything they want onto vision.” So true.
Recently I attended a PD conference for my district. One of the sessions was a panel discussion wherein the issue was trends in education. No practicing teachers were on the panel, but the room was filled with about 600 of us. The panel members discussed the glory of Alberta’s Inspiring Education initiative, the failure of constructivist approaches in elementary mathematics, the inextricable socio-economic factors that influence education, and the nature of trends in pedagogy and philosophies of education. The last ten minutes were reserved for questions from the audience, none of which were particularly illuminating.
As a subject expert with ten years of secondary education experience, I enjoyed the range of opinions presented in the discussion, but I also felt somewhat offended, as I often do when education policy is discussed with “stakeholders” throughout the province. Perhaps more than any other profession, teaching is subject to the scrutiny and influence of people who are not teachers, or may never even have been. That’s because every member of society is impacted by education. So, of course, teachers, policy experts, parents, and students should have a voice in defining what we want our education system to be. However, deference should be given to teachers, who are on the front lines of education every day and who, presumably, have the historical knowledge and training to the job they’re entrusted to do.
Unfortunately, when teachers allow themselves to engage in fruitless debates, such as whether or not constructivist approaches to teaching and learning yield deeper understanding for the majority of students, or whether or not allowing the majority of students to choose what they want to learn will lead to engagement and a love of learning, we marginalize our own voices in discussions regarding the advancement of education. If teachers don’t know the answers to these questions, who does?!? By allowing various “visions” to be espoused and mindlessly adopted, like that of Inspiring Education here in Alberta, we relegate ourselves to the periphery; educrats and those with economic interests take center stage and push their fads, where any interpretation of these “visions” can be justified, depending on the ebb and flow of the ideological tide.
Evidence supporting the most effective approaches to curriculum design and development, teaching methods, and assessment, exists. As teachers, it is our responsibility to be aware of and to make ourselves familiar with this research. Don’t get me wrong – all good teachers employ various methods at various times, to achieve various goals. I’ve mentioned that I, too, elicit student participation in class discussions. I, too, assign small-scale projects in an effort to diversify the teaching and learning experience. I, too, have formative assessment embedded in my teaching practice. We must get beyond the false dichotomy of teachers as stand-and-deliver drill sergeants or teachers as guides-on-the-side who never explain anything directly. Good teaching has always been somewhere in the middle, involving a wide range of methodologies. But the fact is that teachers are trained in a given subject area; they are the experts, having earned their designation as the “sage on the stage.” If that doesn’t manifest itself in the classroom as the standard, there’s a problem.
I narrowly avoided a bit of a Twitter-war yesterday in this regard, because I chose not to engage, albeit reluctantly; I sometimes must force myself to bite my tongue (or Twitter-finger, in this case) because I can get myself into trouble. I was part of a thread where two teachers, one of whom is pursuing a PhD in education, dismissively admitted that they’ve never hear of Project Follow Through. Wow. How can you so vehemently oppose direct instruction if you’ve never heard of the largest-scale longitudinal study, replicated on a smaller scale in 2004, which unequivocally supports the efficacy of direct instruction?!? Later, in the same thread, another person asked me to define constructivism, since I clearly didn’t understand its superiority to traditional teaching methods. That’s when I tapped out; it was late and I had neither the time nor the inclination to start the debate from square one.
This reborn “progressive” ideology has permeated Alberta Education, among many other systems in the world, it seems. We need to respond with logic, reason, research, and evidence. Schools are institutions that should serve as strong foundations in an ever-changing world. They cannot be ideological transients subject to whatever fads and trends come and go, or we’ll never get anywhere. Incidentally, look how far we have come as a civilization over the past 200 years – under a traditional model of schooling and education. In fact, many of those traditional methods now have research in the fields of cognitive science and psychology to support their efficacy. Schools are the bedrock of our contemporary civilization and while they should change with the times to some extent, those changes should be motivated by clearly articulated reasons and goals, not by fuzzy and intangible “visions” that lack clarity and definition, let alone the ability to be meaningfully measured. Further, they should be incremental; sweeping changes for no good reason, as we see happening in Alberta, compromise our balance as we stand on the shoulders of giants.