Saturday, February 1, 2014

Once Again, Jay Matthews

A TFA teacher asks for lesson plans and guidance on how to run a classroom. "How are they supposed to know what works when they have so little experience? Couldn’t the experts get together and give us the best possible guide?"
An excellent question. Education theory runs rampant with this idea that experience taking classes is equivalent to experience teaching them.

So why not tell the new teacher what to do? The answer is, of course, that the new teacher's creativity might be stifled.
"He learned that many teachers, and the organizations that represent them, don’t want ready-made lesson plans. They feel it limits their creativity and turns them into robots doing whatever their department head or the district curriculum chief wants."
AnyQs? Not sucky.
I personally think this is utter crap. Robots? Hardly. When you don't tell people anything and barely train them, you get wishy-washy or useless garbage or dull and dreary. You get barely remembered tactics ("Don't smile before Christmas.") or silly uber-liberal dreck that doesn't work.  You get KIPP drill teams and 10-hours days.  You get "Learning Styles" and Small School Initiatives. You get cooperative learning that never results in learning and assessments that never measure anything. You get "fresh, new ideas" that upend a US History II course to the point that it only covers 1870-1960 for the course. "But they made a wiki" is not an answer.

Normal teacher prep programs give a lot of instruction on how to run a classroom, set up things, deal with students. Despite the fact that I think they're focused on the wrong things, at least they try. There's the six-month student-teaching with an experienced teacher to help sort many of those things out. It's not great but it's better than TFA's 6 weeks in the summer.

You need to help out the new teachers, give them materials and ideas, and essentially walk them through the course.  You can't just HOPE they can come up with good stuff.

A commenter on a previous post said "Questions that fascinate and practice that doesn't suck? You sound like the typical math reformer who holds procedures in disdain, and wants kids to understand what math is REALLY about. How about starting beginning piano students with the Moonlight Sonata?"

When you don't read carefully, you can make the same mistake that "J.D. Salinder" made.(Other than being too clever choosing his "name".)

I believe in practice that doesn't suck ... but I still believe in practice. Drill is useful and valuable, in soccer, music, math, art, handwriting and pretty much any field. Mindless repetition is just that, but practice to the point of correct automaticity is priceless.

Learning is not practice, but practice helps learning. Learning can't begin with Moonlight Sonata because the Moonlight Sonata isn't happening without learning which keys are which, i.e. scales, and learning rhythm and timing, and learning to read music.

You can't start by dropping the TFAer into the deep end of the pool with no training -- sure, some people learned to swim that way, but others simply drowned and their students got crap.

Questions that fascinate are an equally important resource. If they fascinated students last year and the year before, they will probably do so again. They may be pure, raw math and still fascinate. Those UVM problems are not ones that I created, but it sure would have been nice if I had had them early in my career.

I've hated psuedo-context since high-school and so my math classes had tremendous amounts of chemistry and physics in them (I'm a mechanical engineer), but again needed someone like Dan Meyer to clarify and put it into words. Dan Willingham studies and teaches neuro-science. Listening to him has meant that I now have a better sense of why I hated learning styles.

Now we get to the paragraph that got me started. Jay Matthews (right there, you know this isn't going to end well) says in this article,"If you are like me, and preferred learning your job by doing it rather than being told what do to, you wonder why Friedrich didn’t appreciate the freedom of making his own choices."

Why? Why shouldn't the teacher "learn on the job" like the education writer for the Washington Post did? Because the Post won't go bankrupt or fail if Jay writes a crappy column or if he espouses wrong-headed reform or if he promotes KIPP to the exclusion of systems that would actually work for all public school students. Rather, the Post probably loves Jay for his idiocy. It brings more comment, more notoriety, and more readers.

"Maybe Bruce Friedrich raised the lesson plan issue because he was so out of sync with the recent college graduates who were the other Teach for America instructors at his Baltimore high school. He was 40." Maybe, he raised the issue because his preparation was lousy but unlike the other TFAs, he realized it. This, for me, is the true indictment of the program.  TFA preparation is considered perfect unless you've got maturity and knowledge. It's just that the rest of them don't realize how bad it sucks to learn on the job without real help.

Why shouldn't I learn to be a teacher on the job?

Because they're not my kids. This is their only chance of getting high school right.

Forget that at your students peril.


  1. On your first point, having teachers get lesson plans and guidance, there are lots of teachers (even experienced ones) who would love to have more material and feedback. There also lots who take the "not invented here" attitude and insist on doing everything themselves.

    This guy tries really hard, and probably does a good job, but I'm not sure I understand his logic on creating his own stuff all the time:

    On learning on the job - everyone does it. It can't be helped. You did it. I did it. You have a do a job to learn how to do it. Whether you want to call student teaching learning on the job or not, that's what it is. Everyone, in every occupation, learns on the job. That's life.

    Still, the way we do things now - throw a new teacher in a room with a bunch of kids and close the door - seems just like throwing kids into the water hoping they don't drown while they try to learn to swim.

  2. I don't think it was TFA people who came up with "learning styles" and similar pablum. It was highly-educated people with plenty of experience in the education field.

    And they *still* came up with crap.

  3. Wanting to invent all your own methods and materials amounts to proclaiming that the successful teachers that preceded you have nothing to contribute to your practice. It's HIGHLY arrogant for a beginning teacher to say this, or for her/his professors to hold that opinion. And it also amounts to saying that alignment between grade levels is useless, and that your desire to invent everything over again trumps the students' need to have access to a tested curriculum.

    Of course, experienced teachers start with solid curricula (hopefully with the cooperation of their school districts) and then add their personal expertise and knowledge of what has worked well in the past.

    I would have sunk like a stone as a first grade teacher without a highly structured reading program with good materials.