He Had Me At Hello…Until I Wanted To Slap Him In The Face

Alternative title for this post – Scenes From The Chip On My Shoulder, Take Five Billion

Welcome back to my series on Education in 2030.  Thanks to these essays I discovered over at the Hoover Institute,  I’ve been spending some time thinking about how these predictions might shake out for teachers. 

And guess what?  No seriously, guess. 

Give up?  Okay.  NONE of the authors of these essays (at least so far) have ever been teachers!  Yet…they get to make predictions about our future.  You think someone out there would think up the think that maybe a teacher might have something to say about the future of education, and until that day comes, I tag myself.  I’m it.  Feel free to join me.  Sharing is caring after all.

This next essay – written by Daniel T. Willingham is entitled “Teaching in 2030.”  And honestly, the man had me at hello.  He writes that in 2010, teachers were overwhelmed by the tasks they had to perform on a daily basis, stating:

“Teachers were called on to perform…tasks that were beyond the capacity of most anyone to perform as expected.”

And just like that, I was all on the Willingham bandwagon.  UNTIL, I realized that he was really just being nice before he continues to subtly implies we’re selfish morons.

So, natch, that’s when I googled his ass.  Come to find out, just like the other essays I have read so far, Mr. Willingham (a.k.a Mr. Willing-To-Subtly-Insult-Teachers) is a cognitive psychologist who studies how to apply the knowledge of his field to that of education.  Now, am I saying that education has nothing to gain from the lessons of other disciplines?  No, I’m not.  Am I subtly implying that this man is a moron incapable of handling complex tasks?  No, no I’m not.  Am I saying, nay screaming, why the hell does this guy get a say, and an insulting one at that when he has never ever walked a day in my shoes (and no, I wouldn’t even make him wear high heels while doing it)?!?  Yes.  Yes, I am.

In a nutshell, boyfriend says that teaching pretty much looks the same with desks in rows, teachers at the front and children using computers for only one hour a day.  (My thought…dude, when was the last time you were in a classroom?  Maybe I’m wrong, but most of us no longer have desks in rows…) He then continues to say that in 2030, four obstacles that make teaching more difficult “than it needs to be” will be removed, making teaching considerably easier.

And I’m all, “Sweet!  No more stacks of paperwork, unnecessary and useless assessments, meetings that have no application to what I actually do on a daily basis or colleagues who don’t pull their weight! Cha-ching!”

Sadly, these things are so not what this dude is talking about.  He says that teachers are unnecessarily burdened by writing curriculum and lesson plans.  And not because we are given limited time or resources but because we lack the depth of knowledge to do so coherently.  Slightly insulting? Yes.  Is there any truth to this?  Yes.  I mean, let’s be real.  We have to be masters of a ton of subjects and knowing each of them deeply is HARD.  Also, there IS a difference between having a great deal of content knowledge (you know, as in, I know a lot about plants) and pedagogical content knowledge (as in, I rock at teaching children about plants). 

However, Mr. Subtly Insults The Teachers over here suggests that this might be remedied by endorsing a national curriculum.  (Propaganda, wha?)  Am I fundamentally opposed to the idea of having national standards for states to use as a guide (although they should absolutely be given the freedom to go above and beyond)?  No, not really.  Am I fundamentally opposed to national standards written without consulting actual teachers in meaningful ways that lead to future national mandates regarding how we teach in addition to a slew of national testing?  Why, yes. Yes I am.  Yet, Mr. Subtle does NOT stand side by side with teachers advocating that they have a meaningful say in such a critical aspect of their jobs.  No, no, no.  HE’s saying that it’s impossible to expect a teacher ( who is evidently only a few evolutionary steps away from an amoeba in this gentleman’s opinion) to do this well so CLEARLY the alternative is to have someone else, someone far removed from a classroom in a think tank far far away to do it for us. 


Then he throws in some bits about how in 2010 teachers were expected to deal with a wide range of student ability and behavior all in one classroom which is (duh!) totally true.  His solution? To separate our most challenging friends into separate classrooms with expert teachers (read: non-amoebas) and a smaller student to teacher ratio.  Sounds okay in theory, but I’m afraid in practice (because that seems to be where we fall down) it would turn into some sort of alternative universe/dumping ground for children who don’t fit the national mold.  All my precious naughty boys!! 

Finally, Mr. I Think Teachers Are Dumb Yet Am Unwilling To Say So Directly suggests that the ability to practice new strategies is different from accumulating years of experience.  Again, it doesn’t sound that awful at first.  Of course teachers should have the opportunity to practice their craft via student teaching or mentor relationships and what have you.  HOWEVER, our friend says the following:

“Was it fair to children to allow a novice teacher to “exercise her creativity” in lesson planning when she could use lesson plans proven to, for example, reliably teach decoding to most children? This
reasoning pitted autonomy—a cherished value among teachers—against student learning.”

Because, hey, most teachers I know are all about their own creative expression and TO HELL with the children, right?  I mean, who WOULDN’T choose doing an interpretive dance about fractions over, I don’t know, actually teaching children fractions in creative ways?

Uh, no.

God forbid we work as individuals, bring a little pizazz to our classrooms, infuse our teaching with our own genuine love of learning (which, by the way, doesn’t always follow a predictable, scientifically proven path)!  Boyfriend thinks we would all be better served by sticking to pre-written, pre-proven (whatever the hell that means….) lessons guaranteed to work in any context.  Or your money back?  Do they come with a free Sham-wow? 

The essay is brought home with this: In 2030, classrooms will be “… less chaotic” and dominated by “… instruction that follows a sensible, structured sequence within and across years, delivered via methods that have been tried and shown to work.”

Translation: Teachers will become slaves to a national mold that refuses to consider context or individual relationships because everyone getting the same means equality.

I feel a slap coming on. 

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  • Yes, Yes, let's go back to putting all the special education students in the basement so as to not interfere with the regimented national curriculum. ARRRRGGGG!

    May 25, 2010 at 5:28 pm
  • "I continue to believe that everyone who opines about education should first be required to spend several months in a public school classroom…Only that way can their writing have authenticity. It's called walking around in the other person's shoes." — Walt Gardner

    May 25, 2010 at 5:28 pm
  • Thanks very much for taking the time to read my essay and for taking the time to respond.
    Unfortunately, I seem to have left you with several misimpressions regarding what I meant to say.
    I don’t think teachers are stupid. Seriously, if I thought that, don’t you think my proposed “solution” would have been “we’ll pay more to get rid of the duds and get some smart people in there?”
    On opining about education without having been a teacher: I don’t think this line of reasoning is helpful. The logical extension is that none of us should comment on what legislators do unless we’ve held office, that teachers should not comment on what principals do unless they’ve held that position, and that when a researcher comments on how children learn in the laboratory, his or her word is final. I’m aware that I don’t know the classroom—I know the laboratory.
    More productive, I think, is to acknowledge that each person has knowledge that the others lack, and that we offer ideas (from our own perspectives) that we’re guessing others will find useful. So teachers tell me their perspectives on what kids’ minds are like, and I tell teachers what I think might work in the classroom. Each of us goes into the conversation with an open mind, feeling free to reject as naïve or wrong what the other tells us.
    Regarding what classrooms look like today (desks in rows, dominated by seatwork and teacher talk) that’s not my guesswork. That’s based on national observational studies of elementary classrooms, sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
    Regarding national curriculum: I’m leery of it myself, and maybe it was a mistake to imply that it would solve a problem. My real goal in the piece was to highlight what I see as a contemporary problem, but I was to make predictions about the future so I shoehorned the problem I wanted to describe with a “prediction” as best I could. Probably stupid. I don’t know what made you think that teachers would not be involved in writing lesson plans. The “prediction” I made was that lesson plans would, for the most part, be written by teachers and then broadly shared.
    Regarding autonomy in the classroom: yes, I think that beginning teachers should be closely observed, mentored, and guided by more experienced teachers. I think autonomy should not be automatic, I think it should be earned, with more senior teachers as the gatekeepers for their more junior colleagues. Why? Exactly because teaching is so difficult and because if schools of education can adequately prepare a teacher for his or her first year, most aren’t doing so now (at least according to surveys of first year teachers.)
    I’m not sure where the disconnect was between what I thought I wrote and what you thought you read. Some of it may have been due to the “predict the future” business. In any event, I wanted to try to clarify where I was coming from.

    May 25, 2010 at 7:10 pm
  • Mr. Willingham,
    I really appreciate you taking the time to read and respond. I don't think a lot of people would do that, especially since I am well aware that I can be…harsh.

    In regards to what you said about having the right to opine about education despite never being a classroom teacher yourself. I agree with you. To an extent. Everyone does have the right to an opinion based on their experience. I guess my issue (chip on my shoulder?) lies in the fact that I rarely feel as if the opinions of teachers are taken seriously, given the same amount of weight or are even considered in the conversations that truly matter. I think if I felt that our voices were included in meaningful ways, I would be more willing to say, "the more the merrier." We're not going to improve education by listening to teachers alone, but we're certainly not going to improve education without listening to them at all.

    I think I'm probably jaded around issues of curriculum and curricular control as well. Where you may intend that teachers are the drivers of these lesson plans and data bases (and I think the whole sharing thing is FABULOUS, believe me) I worry that in practice, it will simply become another mechanism to control what we do and say in classrooms. There is so little trust of teachers currently that I really have trouble imagining it going any other way, but I appreciate you clarifying your position.

    And YES to your point about autonomy. I have said it before and will say it again that first year teachers are given a tremendous amount of responsibility and it is impossible to expect them to a)handle it flawlessly or b) work with complete autonomy. I guess my issue is WHO is providing the support and is it truly supportive?

    I can't say how much I appreciate you being part of this dialogue. I think expanding the dialogue is exactly what we should be doing. I think some of our disconnect because of each of us bringing our own biases and understandings to the table. That and I can be a bit saucy. I can't say we see eye to eye but you are always more than welcome over here and feel free to share your opinion any time!!

    May 25, 2010 at 8:47 pm
  • You'll have to excuse us, Mr. Willingham, for being a little on the touchy side. As Mrs. Mimi pointed out, it seems like everybody and their brother knows exactly how we should be doing our job and is not at all shy about telling us. Either that or they think we should all be fired because we're just in it for the summer vacation.

    The thing is, I would never presume to tell someone how to do their job. I inform my legislator about the issues that are relevant to my life, but I would never tell him how to go about legislating. I've been to the doctor a bunch of times, but I don't go in and tell her what's wrong with me and what prescriptions she needs to write for me. My husband is a personal trainer. I exercise, although not as much as he thinks I should. Does that qualify me to tell him how to train his clients? No, it does not. Teaching is a profession and teachers are educated professionals. We would like to be treated as such. The classroom is a unique place, filled with very unique individuals. A one-size-fits-all curriculum will not work effectively, and we would like it if others outside the profession would recognize that.

    I don't think you could find a teacher who thinks that there are no problems with public education or the teaching profession. We know there are and want to work to improve both. However, most of the solutions that are being circulated at the top levels will not help, yet we're labeled as obstructionist and lazy if we don't sign onto them. And frankly, we're tired of it.

    May 26, 2010 at 1:13 pm
  • The Walt Gardner quote I entered into this discussion is, admittedly, something of a "sound bite," and I agree that people may have opinions about all manner of subjects. However, I think that the "sound bite" does have some truth to it.

    Who would expect a president to appoint a surgeon general who was not a medical professional? or an Attorney General who was not experienced in the law. Why is it, then, that we continue to have Secretaries of Education who are not professional educators?

    Granted, it's not REQUIRED, but I would feel a little better about hearing someone say "this is what teachers should do" if I knew that they had spent at least part of their professional life in a classroom. Even Rod Paige, with whom I disagreed on most issues, spoke from some experience.

    Meanwhile, the US Department of Education is being run by a man who has never taught in a classroom, never even attended a public school, and is being influenced by billionaires who are also without professional education experience.

    I believe that the current preference in this country is to belittle teachers and the public schools. Call me overly sensitive, but I think that there are people out there who just don't like teachers and the public schools…for whatever reason. The point is, however, that it's difficult for teachers, the professionals who should be at the center of the "school reform" discussion, to get a fair hearing.

    Now, to be fair, I did not read the essay…just Mrs. Mimi's response. If her response was due to a misunderstanding, then perhaps these comments aren't directed at Mr. Willingham at all, but to the vague "powers that be" who seem to want to control every aspect of public education without really understanding it.

    But the point is that we need to be heard…we're the ones who sit at the table with the children day after day, trying to help them grow. We're the ones who have to adjust the lesson plans because of some neighborhood turmoil, or some personal emotional upheaval in a child's life. We're the ones who can SEE the results of the insane focus on "testing" and lack of attention to "learning."

    Not only do we want to be heard, but we want to be taken seriously. We're the professionals. We're the ones who know. Use the expertise that we offer.

    May 26, 2010 at 1:13 pm
  • I once spent a whole afternoon reading several articles by the same man and cursing him the whole time. I finally got tired of listening to him talk about "educating through video games" that I, too, Googled him only to find out he owned the company. Plus, he cited several "credible" sources such as the American Airlines in-flight magazine. And I would be devastated to be without my more challenging students . . . they make it all worth while.

    May 28, 2010 at 3:18 am
  • D: That sounds awfully boring– I like pizazz. Pizazz is what keeps the kids going. Take away our pizazz and we'll turn into little petrified blobs of sadness. Don't do it. P.S. Creativity is a very good thing.

    May 29, 2010 at 12:56 am

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