If you look at the trends in education these days, it’s hard to believe that public schools will continue to need professional teachers in the future.
First of all, there’s the movement toward scripted curriculum. Not only is the content provided, but the exact lessons are dictated in excruciating detail: here is the question to ask and the kind of answers you can expect, here is where you should pause and for how long, here is the activity to do and the results you should expect to see.
Of course every scripted curriculum demands that you present it with fidelity. That’s become one of my least favorite words.
All of this is driven, of course by the research-based education movement. Someone did research somewhere to demonstrate the effectiveness of this particular curriculum program but ONLY if it is done the exact same way as it was done in the research test. If you, the lowly teacher in the classroom, do it a slightly different way, then all bets are off. There is no guarantee that your presentation will be “research-based.” And we can’t have that.
So who needs the lowly teacher? All we need is someone who can read. And follow directions. And smile for the camera. Because really all we need in front of the classroom is a talking head, just reading off a prompter.
When I first got my teaching credential, I spent a semester substituting. I sat in smoke-filled teacher lunchrooms and listened to veteran teachers complain about Sesame Street. “That show has kids expecting to be entertained!”
I didn’t say anything. I was brand new, and a substitute. But I thought, “If you were sitting in a room for six hours, wouldn’t you want to be entertained? If there wasn’t something going on that was interesting and exciting and engaging and fun, wouldn’t you—as an adult—raise Cain? Riot? Walk out? Complain to the board? So how can you expect more from kids?”
I decided early on that teaching wasn’t just a skill to learn. It was also a performance art. I needed to pay attention to my audience, to read their reactions and be responsive to them.
That attitude makes following a scripted curriculum remarkably difficult. I ask the first question and get all kinds of answers. If I wait a moment, I get more. With a longer pause, I can usually tease out even more. The answers I get usually include the ones the curriculum says I can expect, but I may have other interesting ideas to pursue. At this point I haven’t even gotten past step one and I’m already apt to go off into divergent thinking with my group.
Telling me how long to pause? At times I have followed the directions and watched the class’s attention drift. So I cut the pause short. That seems obvious to me, that I would use my judgment. Sometimes I can give a longer pause, sometimes shorter. It won’t be the same from one year to the next. It depends on the students, the day, and even the time of day.
I will give every curriculum activity a try. But I’ve started an activity and had it clearly not be suitable in my classroom with my particular students. I make sure I have alternative activities on hand that I can pull out as needed. I’ve taught gifted classes since 1983, so I am used to having to supply differentiated curriculum for my students.
Now, of course, if I pull out alternate activities, that means I’m going off-script and not teaching the curriculum with fidelity.
True. I’m just doing a better, more appropriate job. After all, meeting the needs of my students is more important than reading every word in the script.
Second, there’s the movement toward online education. Two of my fifth grade students are taking high school algebra this year through PEAK online. You can find everything from Khan Academy to MIT Open Courseware on your computer. Washington state offers a variety of digital learning opportunities for our students. (You can go to the teacher resources page on my web site and scroll down to the links section for even more.)
If students can learn everything on their computers, won’t they just stay home in the future and do all their studies online?
Well, first you have to read Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Fun They Had.”
The check out a research brief by the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The study compared the effects of an online Algebra I makeup course to a typical classroom course. The researchers found that the students performed better in the standard in-person course. Students who took the course online rated the course as harder and indicated more negative attitudes about math after taking the course.
My two guys are doing fine in their online course. Of course, they adore math, they live and breathe math, and they are already extremely skilled in math. They represent a very small slice of humanity. And they are taking sitting side by side the online class together so they aren’t working at a computer alone. I hear them giggling conspiratorially occasionally.
Why is it that the students in the study did better in a typical classroom than taking an online course?
I can tell you that as a general rule my students need me because I pay attention to them. I respond to them. I adjust my instruction to meet their needs on a moment-by-moment basis.
So take that, scripted curriculum. Take that, online curriculum.
You’re not taking my job away from me any time soon.