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Topic: The right - and wrong role - for teachers
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
The right - and wrong role - for teachers
Posted: Apr 15, 2013 6:28 PM
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From The Washington Post [The Answer Sheet / Valerie Strauss],
Monday, April 15, 2013, See
The right - and wrong role - for teachers

[Posted by Valerie Strauss on her blog, The Answer Sheet]

Valerie Strauss: What makes an effective teacher? Here is a post on
the issue from veteran educator Marion Brady, a classroom teacher for
years who has written history and world culture textbooks
(Prentice-Hall), professional books, numerous nationally
distributed columns (many are available here), and courses of study.
His 2011 book, "What's Worth Learning," asks and answer this
question: What knowledge is absolutely essential for every learner?
] His course of study for secondary-level students, called
Connections: Investigating Reality, is free for downloading here.
Brady's website is .

By Marion Brady

Bill Gates spent$45 million trying to find out what makes a school
teacher effective. I've studied his Measures of Effective Teaching
(MET) project, and think it ignores a matter of fundamental

Consider: What makes an effective lawyer, carpenter, baseball player, surgeon?

The answer is that it depends-depends on what they're being asked to
do. An effective divorce lawyer isn't necessarily an effective
criminal defense lawyer. A good framing carpenter isn't necessarily a
good finish carpenter. A good baseball catcher isn't necessarily a
good third baseman. A good heart surgeon isn't necessarily a good
hip-replacement surgeon.

Put lawyers, carpenters, baseball players, and surgeons in wrong
roles, test them, and a likely conclusion will be that they're not
particularly effective. So it is with teachers. Put them in wrong
roles, and they probably won't be particularly effective.

Gates' faith in test scores as indicators of effectiveness makes it
clear that he buys the conventional wisdom that the teacher's role is
to "deliver information." But what if the conventional wisdom is

Here's an American history teacher playing the "delivering information" role:

"What were the Puritans like? Many of the things they did-and didn't
do-grew out of their religion. For example, they thought that all
people were basically evil, and that the only way to keep this evil
under control was to follow God's laws given in the Bible. Anyone who
didn't follow those laws would spend eternity in Hell."

Later-a few minutes, hours, days, or weeks-it's the learners' turn to
play their role. They take a test to show how much of the delivered
information they remember. If it's a lot, the teacher is labeled
"effective." If most of it has been forgotten, he or she is

Let's call this "Teacher Role X."

Now, suppose the teacher doesn't play that role-delivers no
information at all about Puritan beliefs and values or anything
else-instead says, "I'm handing you copies of several pages from The
New England Primer [ ], the
little book the Puritans used to teach the alphabet. Get with your
team, and for the next couple of days try to think like a little
Puritan kid studying the pages. What do you think you'd grow up
believing or feeling that's like or not like your present beliefs and

That's it. The teacher may be an expert on Puritan worldview, but
offers no opinion, just wanders around the room listening to kids
argue their assumptions, defend their hypotheses, elaborate their
theories and generalizations, getting ready to later make their case
to the other teams.

Let's call this "Teacher Role Y."

Which teacher -the one delivering information (X), or the one
requiring kids to construct information for themselves (Y)-is more

Here's Bill Gates, chief architect of the present education reform
movement, giving his answer to that question: "If you look at
something like class sizes going from 22 to 27, and paying that
teacher a third of the savings, and you make sure it's the effective
teachers you're retaining, by any measure, you're raising the quality
of education."

Clearly, when Gates says it's just as easy to deliver information to
27 kids as it is to deliver it to 22, he's taking the
teacher-as-deliverer-of-information role for granted. Just by talking
a little louder, Role X teachers can deliver information to the
additional five students. Give them bullhorns, and they can deliver
to 127. Give them television transmitters or the Internet, and class
size is irrelevant. Salman Khan's [ ] math
tutorials reach millions.

For Role Y teachers, however, every additional learner after the
first makes the job harder. They're trying to gauge the nature and
quality of learners' thought processes; assess depth of
understanding; set and maintain a proper pace; decide whether to move
on, go back, or go around a learning difficulty; determine learner
attitudes toward and appreciation of the subject; trace the evolution
of communication, collaboration, and other skills; and note honesty,
tenacity, and other character traits that a good education is
expected to develop.

Role X teachers may care about those matters, but if they're standing
behind a podium in a lecture auditorium, talking to a television
camera, or teaching a class via the internet, caring is the most they
can do. Real learning is a relationship-based experience. The
effectiveness of Role X teachers won't change significantly unless
somebody invents technology that's capable of, say, delivering a kiss
remotely that has the same effect as the real thing.

Notwithstanding the assumption that Teach For America recruits or
others who know a subject well can teach it, teaching-real
teaching-is exceedingly complex, difficult work. That Role Y history
teacher in my example had to decide that understanding a group's
worldview is important enough to warrant devoting two or three days
to it, and be able to explain, if challenged, why the study of
worldview is relevant and important. He or she then had to find a
vehicle (in this case, The New England Primer) that was
intellectually manageable by adolescents of varying ability levels,
dealt with the required content, required use of a full range of
thought processes, and engaged kids sufficiently to be intrinsically

Then the real work began-"reading" kids' minds-analyzing their
dialogue, interpreting facial expressions and body language, and
sensing other cues so subtle they're often below ordinary levels of
awareness-cues that may relate to the learner's mood, ethnicity,
prior experience, peer and family relationships, social class, and so
on-the whole of the challenge further complicated by the fact that no
two kids in any class will be alike.

It takes years for those skills to develop and become "second nature."

Teacher Roles X and Y are played not just in the teaching of history
but in every subject, and the roles are poles apart. Indeed, so
distinctive are the two approaches they create two entirely different
classroom cultures, each with enough consequences-expected and
unexpected-to warrant at least a half-dozen chapters in a book.

The performance of students taught by Role X teachers can be
evaluated by machine-scored standardized tests. Machines can't come
even close to evaluating the performance complexities of Role Y
teachers. That's why the testing fad and everything that relates to
it-the Common Core State Standards, student ranking, school grades,
timed standardized tests, merit pay, pre-set test failure rates, and
so on-drive Role Y teachers up a wall.

Failure to distinguish between teacher-centered and student-centered
approaches to educating makes the conclusions of Gates' Measures of
Effective Teaching project of limited usefulness at best, misleading
at worst. That failure also generates problems within the ranks of
teachers, creating a chasm of misunderstanding that more than a
century of professional dialogue has thus far been unable to bridge.

Decades of firsthand experience with both Roles X and Y in my own
teaching and that of teachers for whom I've been responsible leave me
without the slightest doubt that, notwithstanding its continued use,
much Role X instruction amounts to little more than ritual.
Unfortunately, Role X is what No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top,
and other policies being forced on teachers by corporate interests
and politicians are reinforcing.

Given the wealth and power behind those misguided efforts, the
refusal of their advocates to listen to experienced teachers or
respect research, and the assumption by the likes of Rupert Murdock
that current reforms will build a money machine for investors, it
seems likely that present X-based education "reform" efforts will be
the only game in town.

I can think of only one sure-fire way to take control of public
education away from Washington and state capitols, return it to
educators and local community control, and open the door to broad
dialogue and genuine reform. The young hold a wrench which, dropped
into the standardizing gears, will bring them to a near-instant stop.
If even a relatively small minority agree (as some already have) to
either refuse to take any test not created or approved by their
teachers, or else take the tests but "Christmas-tree" the ovals on
their answer sheets, the data the tests produce will be useless.

Conscience-driven students who do that will be owed the gratitude of
a nation. They'll have put the brakes on a secretive, destructive
reform effort based on a simplistic, teacher-centered,
learner-neglecting conception of educating.

I can anticipate some of the conventional-wisdom reaction to what I'm
advocating-that it's irresponsible, that kids are too immature to
evaluate the quality of their schooling, that I'm undermining the
authority structure that holds the institution together.

Before hanging negative labels on me, ask yourself: Is a system of
education that limits intellectual performance to the thought
processes that machines can evaluate, adequately equipping the young
to cope with the future they're inheriting?

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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