Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Navigating ed school

A reader asked me how I was able to navigate ed school considering the dominance of the constructivist creed and my instructivist views. I tried to voice my criticisms in my papers and discussions without being overly abrasive, and was able to get through the experience. It also helps to pay some lip service to the creed.

I am posting here my teaching philosophy that I wrote at the time. Writing a teaching philosophy was a requirement. The paper is an illustration of my approach. It was a time full of optimism, as yet unmarred by the reality of the classroom. If ed school had concentrated less on theory and more on what's actually going on in an inner city classroom, it could have had some value.

My Teaching Philosophy

My fundamental belief as a prospective teacher is that learning need not be drudgery. As a teacher I would like to inspire my pupils to see learning and the discovery of new things as a joyous activity. Teaching is as much a science as an art. An effective teacher must not only master the subject matter he/she is teaching and be conversant with educational psychology and the latest learning theories, but must also inspire through strength of personality. Having a good sense of humor, a well-modulated voice and some acting ability is a conditio sine qua non for an effective teacher. A good and effective teacher must also teach how to think critically and how to discover connections. Facts in isolation are useless and easily forgotten. They become meaningful when placed in context with the proper background to fit into a framework or a whole.

In my view an effective teacher must choose the best methods and techniques traditional and innovative approaches to teaching have to offer. An effective teacher must be an open-minded hybrid guided by constant reality checks. An enthusiasm for innovative approaches must not displace the ability to learn from experience. An effective teacher must be armed with the analytical skills to make him/her an intelligent consumer of research and practitioner of educational theories. All too often educational theories are misunderstood and become a travesty of the original intent. Some of these misunderstood or misapplied notions, techniques and theories are developmentalism, child-centered education, constructivism and multiple intelligences.

Developmentalism is a romantic view of the child best illustrated in Rousseau's Emile. Rousseau sees the child as natural and good. The child must be shielded from the corrupting influence of the adult world. This view creates a dichotomy between what is "natural" (and therefore good) and the accomplishments of civilization that could include book learning that are regarded as artificial. The child must follow his natural inclinations and discover the world for himself at his own pace. All too often that inclination doesn't materialize and the child falls behind in academic achievement. Closely related to this romantic view of the child is the notion of developmentally appropriate instruction. While sensible on its face, the danger of this notion is that it can easily slide into low expectations. Low expectations are particularly harmful to disadvantaged children and tend to reinforce the status quo and perpetuate the stratification of society. Parents enjoying a high socioeconomic status can always hire a tutor for their offspring if schooling fails.

Constructivism is based on the belief that students learn best when they construct their own knowledge. Students are not passive vessels to be filled but must be active participants to retain and integrate knowledge. This insight derived from memory research is often misunderstood to mean that students should not have external input and be the beneficiaries of knowledge accumulated over thousands of years; that they must reinvent the wheel so to speak. This particular form of constructivism that privileges and finds expression in discovery learning disregards the fact that all learning activity, including listening to expository instruction, is constructivist, i.e. requires active engagement.

Misunderstandings of a similar nature apply to Gardner's multiple intelligences. By labeling skills, abilities, aptitudes and talents "intelligences," Gardner managed to create great excitement among educators who suddenly saw a way to spread the aura and prestige of "intelligence" to hitherto undreamed of areas. Thus hopping around and being a good gossip became forms of intelligence. Moreover, educators felt the need to wrap the many forms of intelligence around a specific educational task like teaching fractions, in order to stimulate each individual intelligence. Cognitive scientists have shown that children learn best when subjects are taught in the content's best modality.

It is important to keep in mind as a teacher that teaching is a great responsibility. It is a responsibility to the pupils, to the parents and to the citizenry that makes enormous financial sacrifices in the form of taxes. All too often, teachers and the educational establishment feel that they have complete license to indulge in wild experimentation with untested and unproven theories that waste the pupils' time, and then feel resentful if they are held accountable. Often these theories are proven failures but are adhered to in quasi-religious fashion. After all, religion is usually impervious to experience and evidence.

It is a responsibility to the pupils since after all they are the primary beneficiaries of education. At the lower levels, education must ensure that the pupils are proficient in reading, writing and arithmetic. These skills are fundamental to enable the pupils to succeed as they continue through elementary and secondary schools and later on through college. Too many entering college students lack basic writing skills and must spend time in remedial education. Even remedial education is often unable to correct deficiencies and ingrained bad habits.

Basic writing skills include the ability to spell correctly, the use of proper grammar, the use of punctuation marks in a logical fashion and the ability to write coherent sentences. It is also crucial that pupils learn how to identify parts of speech. Many spelling mistakes are due to the inability to distinguish between a verb and a noun, i.e. make up and makeup. Common mistakes like a confusion between "your" and "you're," "its" and "it's" are due to ignorance about basic grammar. Other examples are "there," "their" and "they're." It is shameful that students spend twelve years in school without mastering such a simple task. It would be a tiny part of my teaching philosophy to make sure that these simple tasks are mastered.

Another grave concern of mine is the de-emphasis of history and geography in the curriculum. As a result of curricular reform in the beginning decades of the 20th century spearheaded by such luminaries as Harold O. Rugg, history and geography became subsumed under the nebulous category of social studies. The danger of not specifically naming subject areas such as history and geography in the curriculum is that these subjects might then very well receive only a fragmentary and cursory treatment as evidenced by widespread ignorance in these areas. For example, many high school graduates believe Austria is Australia and are baffled when shown a map and asked to identify countries.

Much can be learned from educational psychology. For example, it has been shown that relevant prior knowledge is indispensable for learning new material (Beck et al., 1991). Often students lack useful background knowledge to understand text that takes this background knowledge for granted. A good teacher must be aware of this lack of background knowledge. Extraordinary insights can be gained from experiences with artificial intelligence and even computer programs designed to translate from one language to another. For example, one AI program started to build a small tower in mid air because it lacked the real-world knowledge of gravity. Computer translation programs cannot grasp textual and extra-textual context to evaluate and interpret the meaning of words to make sound judgments.

In math instruction, educational psychology has shown that a number sense and the concept of the mental number line are an indispensable prerequisite for math learning (Case & Okamoto, 1996). Teachers must be familiar with effective ways employed to correct such deficiencies.

The teaching profession is an exciting field for anyone who enjoys learning and has the capacity to inspire students to experience and share this enjoyment. Education is not only important to economic survival but it also immensely enriching.


Ed Student said...

That teaching philosophy is dynamite! I wish I had written that. My school has vague language that if a student exhibits “attitudes, beliefs, values, or behavior” not consistent with the “dispositions”, it can be grounds for dismissal. And we all know the dispositions are psychobabble, therefore very easy to violate. Often I try to say as little as possible, in the most equivocal manner possible to avoid 1984 style scrutiny. But your approach, Mr. Instructivist, is indeed helpful—you advocate pragmatism, yet without a total sell-out. Thanks for the post.

John Dewey said...

Vomiting suppression skills are paramount for anyone wanting to go the ed school route.