Delivery Systems

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.

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Tennis Lessons

I was a tennis teaching professional for 35 years giving private lessons — first at a private club just outside of Chicago and then in the Summers while I was teaching full-time in philosophy at the university — running tennis camps, and coaching for 15 years, both men and women. My approach to private lessons was pretty much the same: hit with the pupil for a few minutes to see what his or her strengths and weaknesses were. I didn’t have a formula which I tried to force on every player. I took what they had and tried to work with it, bending the lesson to fit the pupil. I usually saw fairly quickly what they needed to do to improve their game and I would make a few suggestions to them — avoiding criticism and making sure I didn’t say something that might undermine their confidence or make them self-conscious. If what I said failed to work, I tried to say the same thing using different words: everyone is different. Eventually something I said would seem to work and I piled on the praise and relied on repetition to help groove the stroke and make it work better for the pupil.

The year after college I taught arithmetic, history, geography, and science to boys in grades 3 through 7 at a private school. I also coached football and basketball. I learned during that year to apply the same techniques I had used on the tennis court: listen carefully and observe; be patient and full of praise when the students got the message. And I tried to keep my sense of humor throughout — giving private lessons, in the classroom, or while coaching intercollegiate tennis players.

What I learned over the years is that teaching is not a science; it is an art. There are no “methods” that can be taught to every aspiring teacher that will work with all the students — or even the majority of them. This is why I have become so critical of the methods courses taught in education programs across the nation. They rest on the faulty assumption that teaching is a science. The best thing that could be done for our teachers is to encourage them to take an academic major in college — history, English, biology, chemistry, sociology, mathematics, whatever — and then take a year as an apprentice to a veteran teacher. The veteran can give the aspiring teacher tips on what has worked over the years for them — how to reach the quiet or subdued pupils in the class, for example, instead of teaching to the ones that always raise their hands. There are things that can be learned, but not sitting in a classroom in college working through a manual on “methods.”

I have come to believe that this is the best plan. I would note in passing that the teachers at the private school where I taught for that year all had legitimate college degrees and none of them (that’s right, none of them) was “certified” to teach. They were not driven away from teaching like so many bright, young people by having to take tedious and pointless “methods” courses. They learned on the go and, for the most part, were very good at what they did. Granted, the students were bright but the principle is the same. The best way to learn how to teach is to be patient, be aware of what is going on around you, and have adequate communication skills to make your point in a variety of ways in order to reach the largest number of pupils. These are not things that can be learned in a department of education. They must be natural or acquired on the job in a classroom teaching others what you yourself have learned, what excites you.

I realize that I am drawing on my own personal experience to make a general point, and I hasten to note that I do not regard myself as an outstanding teacher. I always taught to the brightest and loved most working with the best athletes. But I have observed over the years countless others who are either good or bad teachers and have tried to understand what made the difference.  And as Director of an Honors Program I saw many a bright, aspiring teacher turn away from teaching because of the boring methods courses they were required to take. To repeat, teaching is an art, not a science. And if we want to start attracting the best and brightest students to the teaching profession we need to admit that we cannot teach others how to teach.