Stupid things I’m forced to read

If your school is anything like mine, you’ll frequently get handed photocopied extracts of books/articles/handouts that are represented as being important/useful/illuminating/life changing etc. After all, if someone has a particular vision of education, and the power to enforce that vision, they will find something in print to support their point of view and feel the need to share their enthusiasm with others, particularly others who may not share their particular brand of enthusiasm.

So it has come to pass that this particular book came to the attention of a staff member with enthusiasm and a role in “leading change”.

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 9.35.44 pmFirst a word about the author: Dr Nancy Sulla is president & founder of IDE Corp, a “world leader in visioning, designing, and implementing instructional and organizational models that empower all learners” that has been “providing instructional and organizational consulting services to schools since 1987“. LinkedIn tells us that in 1987 Nancy was doing an MA,  has been president of IDE Corp since 1994, when she was also completing an Ed. D in Educational Administration.

So I conclude the author is a consultant who has never taught in schools – just what we need!

This is not a book review, as I’ve only skimmed the book, but an extract (the introductory section) was handed out to me and a number of other staff, and I’d like to share the flavour:

Moving Beyond “Its Always Been That Way”

Consider this anecdote I once heard. A mother is cooking a ham dinner. She cuts off the end of the ham, places the larger piece in the pan, and begins to roast it. Her young daughter says, Mommy, why do you cut off the end of the ham” Mom responds, You know, I’m not sure but my mother always did that. Go ask grandma.” The young girl goes into the living room and asks her grandmother the same question. The response is, I don’t know my mom did that so I did too,” and she turned to her great grandmother and asked why. The elderly woman responded, Well, otherwise it wouldn’t fit in my roasting pan!”

What a wonderful anecdote for the ills of perpetuating the dominant paradigm of schooling. Teachers always stood in the front of the room when I was in school, so that must be where you stand. We always had textbooks, so they must be a necessary part of school. We’ve always had students write and solve problems on the board, so that must a necessary component of mathematics instruction. Its time to think through what schooling looks like and make some significant adjustments to past practices.

Incredibly – this anecdote and its commentary serves as a primary justification for the changes to education that the author proposes in the rest her work. The book quite possibly contains some good ideas and has useful things to say, but I am not going to take seriously a book that treats its audience and its topic with a level of contempt that puerile anecdotes are deemed a sufficient level of argument in a supposedly serious book proposing quite serious changes.

Why do I say that – well consider. An anecdote about cooking a ham is conflated with teaching in a traditional manner. Apparently myself, and anyone else who teaches in the way I do, is only doing so because we unthinkingly ape what happened in our pasts, and our teacher’s pasts, going back who knows how far. When I read that passage I can feel the contempt in the author’s tone – there is not the slightest recognition that I (or others) have ever thought about teaching, about the way I am teaching, about what works or what doesn’t work, or about what’s best for my students.

Furthermore, in a book aimed at teachers, the author considers her passage “a wonderful anecdote for the ills of perpetuating the dominant paradigm of schooling”. The anecdote has nothing to do with schooling, so in other words the author is saying  “you’re only stupid teachers reading this, you don’t need serious arguments or discussion” (which sadly has proven to be correct, or else I would not have been handed her writing to read).

The author has also made the usual argument of proponents of student-centred learning that classrooms and teaching have not changed in decades. Anyone experienced in schools knows that there may be similarities in the way classrooms were organised in the ’50s (say) and the way “traditional” teachers teach now, but they are decidedly not the same. What goes on in my classroom (where students are in rows and I’m at the front teaching) is the product of years of refinement built upon experience, knowledge of students, knowledge of pedagogy, reading, discussion, visiting other schools and classrooms and experimentation with techniques and activities. My classroom of today is not the classroom of twenty years ago when I started teaching, and is not the classroom of my teachers or my teacher’s teachers, despite the superficial resemblance. It is, however, part of a long tradition of what works in education.

In fact the world is full of things that are superficially similar to the same things of decades past, but are actually a product of refinement of what works – think of today’s cars compared to cars of the fifties. Same basic structure, still recognisably a car, but today’s model much better in every dimension.

Look back at the paragraph I quoted and imagine an engineer writing “what a wonderful anecdote for the ills of perpetuating the dominant paradigm of vehicle design” and then proposing a complete re-organisation of cars. Even if the engineer’s ideas were sound, the idea of introducing profound change in vehicle design using an anecdote as a justification is so laughable it barely needs stating.

But in education we get that sort of thing all the time, and often we just lap it up.