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What's Wrong With Our Schools? Part II

True teaching talent reveals itself when the teacher struggles to engage students in the process, when he refuses to give up until he finds a way to bring about understanding and competence in the student.
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How We Teach

If (as was the contention in Part I of this series) the content of the high school curriculum is becoming obsolete, the methods we use to teach it are near fossils.

What was high school like when you were there? How were your classes taught? Thirty-two years ago, I sat in a chair attached to the desk with a shiny silver tube. The trouble with these chairs is that you could not lean back in them, although some boys tried. There was a wire basket attached to the back to put our books in, but nobody ever used it for that. Some kids threw paper balls at the baskets, trying to score points. The desks were set up in rows, or sometimes, if the teacher was cool, in a semicircle. Most classes used a fat textbook that
weighed between two and three pounds. I had between four and six classes a day, and each one of them assigned some kind of homework, usually an end-of-chapter series of problems that we were supposed to solve and turn in the next day. My classmates and I knew that the teacher never read the homework problems; she just walked up and down the aisle scratching a check next to our names in her grade book if she saw that we completed the work sheet. Some kids didn't really complete the homework; they just wrote some answers on the page so it looked as if they did. The teachers never really looked closely, so the kids got away with it. I thought this was awful until I became a teacher and learned that some teachers don't really keep track of the homework; they just pretend to mark a check in the book so students think they have to do the homework.

Thirty years later, classrooms look pretty much the same as they did then, except instead of green chalkboards, many classrooms now have white dry erase boards. The basic configuration of the room is still the same -- desks in rows or semicircles. Some classrooms have everyone sit-
ting at a seminar table. Fat textbooks still abound, at least for math and science . . . and history . . . and literature . . . and foreign languages.

I always thought textbooks for literature were such a shame. How often do people pop a textbook in their bag and head off to the beach? How many people do you see reading textbooks on the train on the way to work? Reading habits begin early, and books can seem luscious and inviting to children, arousing their interest in reading. Textbooks? Not so much.

The schedules in today's schools are similar to the ones we had thirty years ago: discrete courses divided into separate time blocks. And the homework routine is pretty much the same: complete the problems at the end of the chapter; turn in to the teacher the next day.

Most elementary schools have a variety of hands-on, creative, and group activities. Students are encouraged to explore the classroom and the work actively with other students. By the time students get to middle school, these methods are used more infrequently, and by the time kids are in high school, it is rare to find a class in which the teacher is not standing in front of the room directing all the learning. If class discussions occur, the teacher is usually the one in total control of the questions and answers rather than students conversing with one another.

The majority of high school classrooms require that students absorb rather than interact with
the information provided by the teacher. Learning is assessed with small quizzes that are followed by tests. Most questions on the quizzes and tests are recall questions, which test students' short-term memory rather than their knowledge or understanding of how to work with a subject. This is why a television show like Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? can become successful. Most Americans cannot recall the simple facts they learned back in fifth grade, not because they are stupid but because our minds are not programmed to retain and instantly recall information we do not need to know in order to work or survive.

These methods do not engage children in true learning. And they certainly don't help them discover their potential or point them in the direction of their talents. When the focus is on whether a child can regurgitate content, it is off the child's thoughts or his or her true opportunities for learning.

Most teachers instruct in the style in which they learned best and teach the subjects they enjoyed learning. Few teachers were not naturally passionate about and talented in the subject they teach. Counterintuitively, this often makes them the worst teachers, for they cannot imagine what it must be like to struggle with a subject that came naturally to them and they therefore learned with ease. In their classes, they praise and reward students who learn in the same manner as they do.

As a society, we accept and perpetuate a hierarchy of learning styles. We consider the methods used in today's traditional classrooms to be the pinnacle of the hierarchy. We have concluded, without any scientific evidence, that the right way, the best way, for the majority of learners to learn is the traditional method. How are we so certain that is so?

In some respects, what we label as weakness in children is not a weakness at all -- it is simply that the child doesn't come into the classroom sharing the talent, passion, and learning style of the teacher. The teacher's job is certainly made easier if the student comes in already loving the subject and is able to learn it as easily as the teacher did. This, however, does not make a great teacher.

I once heard an educational consultant talk about independent school classrooms as the easiest teaching jobs around. He claimed that the children are preselected for success in the traditional system. He was fond of saying, "If you are going to sit on eagles' eggs, you better darn well hatch eagles."

There are as many teaching styles as there are learning styles, and this presents exciting adventure -- rather than a complicated burden -- for teachers and parents. True teaching talent reveals itself when the teacher struggles to engage students in the process, not giving up until he finds a way to bring about understanding and competence in the student. I think everyone should read that last sentence a few times.

It says every child can and wants to learn and that it is the teacher's and the parents' responsibility to discover how to make that happen. Too often, we place the entire responsibility for learning on the child. When learning is difficult, we assume the child, rather than the teacher or the parent, has the problem. Parents are also important teachers in every child's life, and they are often unaware of the ways in which their own style prejudices the way they view their child's approach to tasks and to learning.

What do you think about the style in which teachers teach classes today? What do you remember about your own teachers-- the content they taught or their personality quirks? What is good teaching and how can we ensure it in our schools?