Monday, October 12, 2009

Teaching, farming, and the American Way

Let me be clear on this--teaching requires skills and commitment that a few of us do not have, and the few of us that do not have both skill and commitment need to be shown the door. (I am excepting, of course, the steep learning curve for beginning teachers--new docs kill a few patients, new teachers kill a few NCLB scores--it's all part of the social contract.)

Judging teachers by their students' test scores, however, shows a misunderstanding of metrics.

In our culture of binary thinking ("you're either with us or against us"), useful conversation has gone the way of the Princess telephone. Oh, we can namber on about the Super Bowl, the don't-call-it-swine flu, and stocks we don't own, but any discussion involving thought violates the binary social code.

When practicing medicine, docs and nurses knew who the good ones were ("I would send my mother to her"), and who to avoid ("I wouldn't send my dog to him). In between lies a huge class of decent docs doing a reasonable job in a very difficult profession. We had boards to pass, but they were a minor (if expensive) inconvenience that did not reflect our clinical abilities.

Here's a quote from Wendell Berry, a farmer and a writer--it is a long one in our world of sound bites and binary battles:
The fact is that farming is not a laboratory science, but a science of practice. It would be, I think, a good deal more accurate to call it an art, for it grows not only out of factual knowledge, but out of cultural tradition; it is learned not only by precept but by example, by apprenticeship; and it requires not merely a competent knowledge of its facts and processes, but also a complex set of attitudes, a certain culturally evolved stance, in the face of the unexpected and the unknown. That is to say, it requires style in the highest and richest sense of that term.

Change "farming" to "teaching" and read it again.

A farm today is judged by its output, its profit margin. Farming has become industrialized for a few good reasons, and a few bad ones. If you want to eat a good apple, a good tomato, a good eggplant, you'd best find a farmer who has abandoned industrial farming (and a few exist), or grow it yourself.

Do we want industrialized teaching, measured by tests that quantify a child's factual knowledge without assessing her lifetime value as a citizen in our American experiment? Do we want to judge teachers by their ability to produce such a child?

Historically, public education's priority has been to create a functioning citizenry; the current trend is to produce careerists. The two have critical, but subtle, distinctions. A citizenry that cannot grasp subtle but critical distinctions will ultimately fail as a republic.

Or you can take the easy way out--call me a union-bashing right-wing nut job, or call me a namby-pamby anti-capitalist left-wing flake. It's becoming the American Way.

I may have made up the word namber.


Barry Bachenheimer said...

Thinking about the "purpose" of schooling through the years. Were schools in the 1700's succesful if they produced a child who could run a plantation or quote scripture? Were school in early 1900's successful if they simply got kids to read and write? Were schools in the 1930's successful if they prepared students to work well in factories? Were schools in the 1940's -1960's successful if we prepared our students for factories or battlefields? Today the metrics are passing tests or getting into college?

Should the metrics be societal or the unmeasurable individual metric?

Unknown said...

The world's greatest teachers have always used farm metaphors to describe learning. What's interesting is how the emergence of agri-business and edu-business occurred at the same time.

Unknown said...

This is one of my favorite posts of yours. No one seems to understand the professions that are arts: lawyers, doctors, teachers. I wonder how much respect any of them get these days and we need to be really careful about what we value. We are obviously reaping the rewards from valuing the wrong things - too many people don't just see it yet. I fear where we are headed.

From your non-union, anti-establishment, anti-capitalist, environment loving, nerd and hippie.

Joe R. said...

I agree with your premise but I am unsure what the correct American metric of Success should be. Are we teachers to help students learn to become critical thinkers which then leads to an intelligent thoughtful citizenry which can be successful in whatever endeavor they try. Or are we teachers so that we can produce the best test takers in the world? As a product of an inner city school system who has returned to that system to teach I find myself conflicted. Far too many of my current former students end up in horrible situations; too many of them face challenges that most of the teachers who are not from this area cannot understand; too many of them feel like they are destine to fail. When they ask me why science is important I tell them that the critical thinking skills can be used later in life; I tell them that understanding the how the world works helps us to understand ourselves.
But if I teach critical thinking and students still fail to think critically have I failed to teach?

This Brazen Teacher said...

I read an article quoting Karl Polanyi:

"fascism, like socialism, was rooted in a market society that refused to function."

He warned that a financial system always devolved, without heavy government control, into a Mafia capitalism-and a Mafia political system-which is a good description of the American government under George W. Bush. Polanyi wrote that a self-regulating market, the kind bequeathed to us since Ronald Reagan, turned human beings and the natural environment into commodities, a situation that ensures the destruction of both society and the natural environment."

I don't know why I felt like cut/pasting this. Making unlikely connections from your post I guess. Thought you might like to know that renowned Austrian philosophers were proclaiming injustices about this stuff 70 years ago.

Do I teach children to acquiesce to a system that commmodifes everything... including our young. A system that quite literally is turning students into products. Conforming might ensure some level of security for their lives.

Or do I teach children to think critically... likely causing them to reject the insane model we live in currently? Likely causing them to demand freedom from a consumerist downward spiral that provides more profit for more waste. Which may or may not cause them many battles, great rejections and frustration in their lives?

What is the goal here?

It gives me comfort that other teachers think about this.

doyle said...

Dear Barry,

Should the metrics be societal or the unmeasurable individual metric?

Ah, the rub, though not necessarily mutually exclusive. Individual "metrics" (already a trap) are, I think, measurable, but not within less than a lifetime, so useless as far as today's bean-counters are concerned.

I can even live with "societal" as long as we come to some consensus as to what matters--seems we've forgotten.

Dear John,

Good point--and you might add industrial-military complex as well. Eisenhower was prescient.

Dear Louise,

You warm my heart--I love your type. I married a non-union, anti-establishment, anti-capitalist, environment loving, nerd and hippie woman. We need more like you and Leslie.

Dear Joe,

I worked for years in the projects and homeless shelters in Newark and Elizabeth, NJ--I'm not naive.

I suspect we'd agree on the answer to your question--what choice do we have if we ever hope to end a system that traps so many children in the circumstances that you describe?

Dear Brazen,

We know what our goals are, and we will keep trying until we're fired, burn out, die, or retire.

It's what we do. =)

Kathryn J said...

Joe R. makes some interesting points. Sometimes I think the critical thinking, problem solving skills are all that is important. Nobody will remember most of the other facts and figures unless they use them regularly.

I am a huge fan of Wendell Berry. I think systems that are more art than science are the complex systems where nothing can be held constant - knowledge, experience, and sometimes luck are what helps with success in those areas.

doyle said...

Dear Judy,

Ah, yes, the ol' throw them some snow, then plug a website.

I deleted the post but will save the email.

I'll give you credit for this much--you have inspired me to develop a list of educational websites that deserve scorn for underhanded advertising tactics.