In responding to a comment on a recent blog I noted that in teaching our kids we have become caught up in the methods of teaching and have lost sight of the all-important question of what it is that teachers ought to do — not how they might do it more effectively. I want to expand on that for a bit.
We are talking here about what have been called “delivery systems,” the how of teaching rather than the why of teaching. In my response to the comment mentioned above I referred to them as “gimmicks and tools” — mostly gimmicks that arise from the mistaken notion that teaching is a science when, in fact, it is an art. Teacher evaluations, for example, are focused on the question “how well does your teacher teach?” This reflects the larger societal preoccupation with methods rather than substance. Science, for example, has become technology. The scientist often is so focused on the question of how to develop the theory he or she is advancing that they fail to stop and reflect on the question of why the theory was advanced in the first place. We demand better widgets forgetting to ask why we need the widgets in the first place. The study of pure science, with no monetary pay-off, is anathema today. Indeed, the study of anything for its own sake, or for the sake of the joy and/or enlightenment it might bring with it, is lost in the question: what’s in it for me? What’s the pay-off?
In teaching, methods courses are the main focus in colleges of education; the issue is how to deliver the goods. And ever since the birth of “progressive” education in this country in the late thirties of the last century the focus has been on the child who is to be taught rather than the subject matter he or she is to be taught. Curriculum development is now predicated on the question: how can we best deliver the goods to disinterested, unruly children? How can we keep their attention long enough to help them actually learn something? How can we make sure “no child is left behind”? Clearly, this is a consequence of the effects the entertainment industry’s had on this country as the teacher has for many years been measured against Mr. Rogers or Big Bird. How entertaining can you be? Can you grab and hold the child’s attention?
In any event, the central purpose of education has been lost in the shuffle. That question ought to be, at all levels, how can we help this young person expand his our her mind and become free in the process, capable of making informed, independent decisions on complex issues? This is why education has always been associated — or should have been — with the democratic system that gave birth to the notion of universal education in the first place. A democracy cannot function without a literate, informed, and thoughtful citizenry. This has been known in this country from the outset. It is why Thomas Jefferson established the University of Virginia. But it has been lost in the cloud of smoke that has expanded of late, the ofttimes incoherent discussion of the delivery systems. How can we do this better? But just what is the THIS? That’s the question we ought to be focused upon.
As I say, this problem is simply a part of a larger social issue where we have become lost in sometimes loud and unruly discussion of the tangential issues that surround us. We seldom ask why it is we are doing what we are doing. We simply ask how we can do it better — get better reviews, bigger pay checks, more “likes,” promotions, profits, approval, or applause.
Recent history, especially, has driven home the obvious point that our democratic system stands or falls with our educational system. To what extent can we honestly say our citizens are not well educated, perhaps, but well enough educated to be able to discriminate between the genuine article and a political fraud? The evidence suggests our political system is failing the test. It also suggests that education’s failure may well be any the center of this problem. Before we can hold on to the realistic hope of reparation of a political system that seems to be broken, we must first repair the education system that is supposed to be turning out citizens capable of choosing wisely. That should be our first priority.
“…the mistaken notion that teaching is a science when, in fact, it is an art.” I couldn’t have jumped higher or cheered louder in agreement. So many, too many…have lost sight of the expectations and accountability of both instructor and student. I could go on, Hugh, but my own “soap box” has worn thin….and you said it so much better.
Hop on your soap box any old time! But I have always thought those “methods” courses were a sham. Teaching, as John says below, is just something the really good teachers just know how to do.
I agree Hugh that the real purpose of public education has been lost for decades – throughout the democratic western world – not just the U.S.A. I toiled for 35 years in my history classroom here in Canada, and every new trend popular in the States made its way up here too. You used the word “gimmicks” – a good word. I lost count of the professional development days dedicated to the newest methods organized by educators who had been out of the classroom for years and were out of touch. In my experience, the really good teachers could capture and hold the attention of students by being genuine, honest, and caring individuals. Because they cared, they knew instinctively what needed to be taught in an overcrowded curriculum chock full of faddish topics. Well said, Hugh!
Great comment! It is good too get your perspective and I couldn’t agree more with your claim that the good teachers just know how to get the job done. They don’t have to be told! Indeed, they can’t be told! As I say, it is an art, not a science.
Yes, l believe that teaching is an innate talent that can’t be taught. I knew I was born to be a teacher since my early teen years. I hated administration – all I wanted to do was talk to my students about the important things in life and what I found fascinating about history.
What you do is so damned vital. Not only good teacher (as I suspect) but also teaching history which is so very important.
Hugh, preach on. How to think, ask questions, analyze research and solve problems seems to get lost. Plus, we need to teach people how to be good citizens and watchdogs for our leaders. Thanks for raising awareness, as always, Keith
Thanks, Keith. I dare say I will — spitting into the wind — along with you and Jill.
Spot on, Hugh! The thing that occurs to me is that society seems to no longer value the social sciences or humanities these days, and those are the very things that help us to understand the world (well, as best one can understand anything), the things that teach us how to THINK, how to understand, sometimes, our own minds. You mentioned people asking what’s in it for them, where’s the payoff. The mistake they are making is in assuming that payoff must be equated with money or ‘things’. The payoff is in being able to understand WHY something happened, not just that it happened. To understand what effect an action is likely to have on not only a community, but a nation and other nations.
Ahhh … there I go on my soapbox again … your posts always make me think, and I thank my ‘old-fashioned’ education that I am capable of doing so. Excellent post that I shall re-blog … yep, spitting in the wind.
It is a fact, sadly, that the Humanities and Social Sciences are struggling to keep their collective head above the waves. Given the huge costs of education these days, students and their parents insist that they get their money’s worth. This translates into the more “practical” subjects which often turn out to be a dead end. The subjects that would teach them what they really need to know are left in the dust. Uh Oh. There I go on my soap box. Sorry!!!
Don’t be sorry … I have used my soapbox so much that it is getting very rickety and I’ve fallen off of it more than once. In the market for a new one … 🙂
Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
What is the purpose of an education? It seems that more and more these days it is considered to be learning only facts and figures, only for the purpose of earning money. Have we forgotten the higher purpose of learning how to think for ourselves, how to understand how the world works? Is this why we have such ineptitude in government today? Have we come to believe that the sole purpose in education is to get a job and make a lot of money, have a lot of ‘things’? Our friend Hugh has some thoughts on this topic that I would like to share with you today, so please read on … and thank you, Hugh, for the post and permission to share!
Sounds similar to some of the concerns being raised here in the UK
From what I gather, there’re some remarkable similarities, sad to say.
The obsession with trying to have education ‘on the cheap’.