Teaching Lessons

By

Joseph A. Willis

 

 

When I started to write this book, my initial thought was to write a memoir about my teaching life. Students and faculty would be discussed. The trials and joys of the teaching profession would be explored. The purpose of that book would be to inspire and to entertain readers with interesting stories about my thirty seven years in the classroom.

 

However, I have chosen to do something different. It is my intention to distill my teaching experience and my study of the profession into key principles that teachers, students, and other stakeholders can use to improve our schools. My goal is to challenge your thinking about how schools really work. My objective is to identify problems and offer solutions. There are many dedicated and caring teachers and administrators in our country. These professionals are working hard to teach students. I have nothing but respect for them. I am one of them. The system in which they work is profoundly flawed. My goal is to recreate the system in a way that honors their efforts.

 

Students are not learning. A few examples will suffice to illustrate our present failure. “25% of college bound students could not name the ocean between California and Asia. 37% of these students could not find China on a map. 89% of these college bound students did not know that India is the largest democracy. They were ranked next to last in their knowledge of Foreign Affairs.” (Stewart page136) International tests document our weakness as well. “Over the years during which No Child Left Behind has been in force, US scores on the PISA has plummeted. We are 21st out of 30 countries in Science. Reading scores place us 18th out of 30. Math scores have declined to 25th out of 30.” (Stewart page 136) “Our Black and Hispanic students score even worse than these averages.” (Brill, page 27) This trend is a long standing problem. “US students once again scored well below those in other developed countries on tests of reading, math, and science. These mediocre results followed similar scores from previous rounds of the PISA in 2000, 2003, and 2006.” (Stewart, page 2) Our schools focus on rote memorization to score well on standardized tests, while our competitors are teaching their children to be innovators and problem solvers. “75% of jobs require specialized knowledge today compared to 5% in the 20th century.” (Hammond, page 2) Our public schools are in profound trouble.

 

The problem is simple. We are not addressing the real issue. Most conversations about improving education revolve around the political and the social environment surrounding the schools. For example, what is better a charter school or a public school? Is a private school best? Pundits discuss the pros and the cons of each type of school. Some argue that the teacher unions are the villains. Others argue that legislators are not providing enough resources. While the political organization of the school is important, it is not critical. What matters most is the teacher/student interaction. There is not a significant difference between academic success when comparing a union and a non-union school. “Unions do not cause low performance or high performance; they give teachers a collective voice in negotiations about working conditions in their schools.” (Ravitch page 256). The point here is that the type of governance in the school is not central to its success. Steven Brill, an outspoken critic of unions in education, supports this notion. “Eliminating every union contract will not solve the problem. That would give the freedom to try. It’s a prerequisite, that’s all. Then, you would have to train 70,000 to 80,000 teachers for the charter schools and 3 million teachers for the public schools.” It still comes down to teachers in the classroom, working with students every day. While governance is important, the quality of the teachers and their ability to interact in a classroom is key to the improvement that everyone wants for our schools.

 

The teacher/student relationship is given a mention but is never a primary focus. The thesis of “Teaching Lessons” is that the teacher/student interaction is the central issue in improving student learning.

 

We should analyze the interaction between teacher and students in the classroom. For example, we should use videotape to study how teachers and students interact. Their interaction should be analyzed to identify behaviors that encourage learning. These are good tools, if used appropriately to evaluate teacher performance and student learning. It may not tell us, if students are learning but will tell us how engaged they are in the learning process. Both student and teacher behaviors need intense study to understand better how students learn. In addition, we need to study which teacher behaviors work best. We know a great deal about how learning happens. We need to get much closer to identifying how learning happens and how we can organize classroom to improve learning. We need to know a great deal more about the learning process.

 

Learning Definition

 

Learning, in its purest sense, is not measurable. We put students into a classroom with a teacher and expect the learning to happen. Teachers are responsible to help students absorb information and perform skills. The process of encouraging students to learn is a complex process. “What is important is not what can be taught but rather what is learned.” (Glasser, 1998) His argument is simple. Students learn. Teachers are guides that do the push/pull to bring students to the point of learning. It is not a linear process. Teacher action does not always equal student learning. Each student learns in a unique manner. No two students learn in exactly the same way. “Teachers must be able to accommodate a variety of cognitive styles and learning rates, with activities that broaden rather than reducing the range of ways that students are taught.” (Hammond page 210) Professor Hammond is right. Each student learns in their own unique way. No teacher teaches the same way, every time. They must account for the academic level of the class, the personality of the class and the rapport they hope to build with that class. Teaching is a complicated, messy process. It is not rocket science, it is much more difficult.

 

The complexity increases even more when we are tying to teach higher level skills. One of the key differences between American schools and foreign schools is that we focus on rote learning and ignore higher levels of learning. The global economy is changing the job market in a profound way. “Skill jobs are quickly replacing manufacturing jobs. These jobs require problem solving, creativity and communication skills, foreign language, cultural understanding and innovation.” (Stewart, page 11) High stakes testing is destroying our ability to teach higher level knowledge because they make that type of learning unimportant. High stakes tests exert strong pressure to teach subjects only tested on a multiple choice tests at the expense of complex reasoning and performance. Teachers spend the majority of their class time, teaching to the test. The type of measurement has made higher learning invisible. On the other hand, high achieving nations model their measurement after international benchmarks like the PISA. “PISA defines literacy in math, science, and reading as students’ ability to apply what they know to solve new problems.” (Hammond page 11) It is no wonder that we are being out achieved by other countries when we have defined our goal in such a narrow way. The PISA test assess the ability of students to apply knowledge not just recite the data. We must rethink how we define learning.

 

Instead of focusing on the learning process, we spend millions building facilities, in hope, that students will learn more. That is not to say that buildings are unimportant. They are but the impact is over rated. The thinking is that facilities impact learning significantly. Experience and research finds little support for that idea.

 

What happens in those classrooms make all the difference in the amount of learning that occurs in schools? We must create an environment for learning that focuses on problem solving and innovation not rote repetition. “In today’s interconnected world, our students are not competing with students from the state or city, next door but with Singapore, Shanghai, and Stockholm. (Stewart, page 3) We are in a battle for economic lives. Our students deserve better preparation for the contest and we are not providing them with the tools. “The competition for high-skilled jobs and high income jobs is indeed escalating, and the US can not maintain its standard of living unless in provides its citizens with a world class education.” (Stewart, page 2) Where does that battle start? It starts in classrooms in which excellent teachers challenge students to achieve at a high level. The focus needs to on what happens in classrooms, especially with the quality of our teachers.

 

I learned Junior English from an excellent teacher, Lois Jones. She had a remarkable sense of how to connect with us. She demanded excellence and we worked hard to please her. My senior year, the district moved us into a new building. Mrs. Jones was still excellent. It did not matter where she taught. She was amazing. If we had class in the parking lot, she would have been no less brilliant. What made the difference was her ability to motivate us to care about her class. No one can replicate her techniques. Teaching is more art than science. Each teacher brings their individual approach to the teaching. We have to train teachers properly and turn them loose to inspire our children.

 

Teaching Lessons is about unleashing teachers to do their job.

 

Learning is a complicated process that can’t be reduced to a pen and a paper test. We need to discover which procedures and or behaviors encourage student learning. What training do teachers need? How can we setup the classroom to encourage learning? What attitudes should students bring to the interaction? How does the teacher’s ability to communicate affect the learning process? We need to focus on the interaction that occurs within the classroom.

 

Distractions

 

We spend too much time focused on minor issues. They affect the learning process but not in a significant way. As an educator, it is immaterial to me, if the school private, public, and charter. What matters most is how my students relate to me as a teacher. Students come to the classroom with a set of attitudes, beliefs, and values that limit or enhance their learning potential. George Will, in a July 5, 2012 column published in the Washington Post identifies some of these variables. “Abundant data demonstrate that the vast majority of the differences in school performance can be explained by the qualities of the families from which they come to school: amount of homework done at home, quantity and quality of reading done at home, amount of television watched at home, and the number of parents in the home.” The kind of connection the teacher builds depends to a large degree on the students’ background. If the teacher’s background is profoundly different than their students, it is going to be harder to make those connections with students. That is not an excuse but a fact. Do these potential demographic differences mean that teachers don’t have an obligation to teach? Of course, they do not.

 

“Learning depends upon students have some priori knowledge or experience.” (Soltis, 1991) Building a positive working relationship with students is the first step in teaching success. Their field of experience may be different than mine but that is not an excuse for failing to teach. We can not allow people to teach that do not have the proper training. “California, Florida, Texas, and North Carolina provide “alternative certification, which allows teacher with a few weeks training to teach students. These teachers end up in our weakest schools, increasing the achievement gap in the poorer schools.” (Hammond, page 81) Teachers can’t bridge those demographic differences without real training. These programs speak the message “that anyone can teach.” It’s not true. Teachers like Mrs. Jones did the proper training and through many years of experience learned how to reach students. Getting top students to teach has to our number one priority.

 

We need to start with the student/teacher interaction and build outward from there. Presently, we start from the outside and work toward the student/teacher interaction. These tangential issues distract us the classroom interaction. The fundamental discussion about the classroom never happens. The point of this book is to refocus our attention on what really matters, the classroom.

 

Measuring Learning

 

I reject the idea that a single test can measure learning. There has been a great deal of discussion about these tests. We need accountability based on research not political paradigms. (Ravitch, page 152) “The problem with using tests to make important decisions about people’s lives is that standardized tests are not precise instruments. Most elected officials do not realize this, nor does the public. The public thinks the tests have scientific validity, like that of a barometer, and that they are objective, not tainted by human judgment. The tests do not have the precision of a doctor’s scale or a yardstick.” These tests are a result of a political desire to place a measurement on the educational process. (Ravitch, page 29) “No Child Left Behind ignored the importance of knowledge. It promoted a cramped, mechanistic, profoundly anti-intellectual definition of education. In the age of NCLB, knowledge was irrelevant.” Using the tests seemed an objective and a precise way to measure learning. It is a simple and completely incorrect definition of learning.

 

The tests lack the specificity to tease out what part of the increasing or dropping test score are the teacher’s responsibility. If a student failed the test, what part of that failure belonged to the teacher? No one thought to ask those questions. Test scores are down, therefore, students did not learn. Learning is a much more complicated than a single test. (Ravitch, page 150) “The problem was the misuse of testing for high stakes purposes; the belief that tests could identify with certainty which students should be held back, which teachers and principals should be fired, and which schools should be closed and the idea that these changes would inevitably produce better education.”

 

These tests are not useful. Multiple measures are required. Educators need to look at a school and make reasoned judgments about how a particular teacher or cohort of students is doing. “Test scores matter, but they are an indicator, not the definition of learning.” (Ravitch, page 90). These tests do transfer to the real world. “Our schools must therefore, prepare our students for a world where the opportunities for success require the ability to compete, connect, and cooperate on a global scale. Our students will need to be able to relate effectively to citizens of other nations and other cultures.” (Stewart page 136) Standardized tests focus on none of these attributes and reduce learning to rote recitation of facts on a test. The real world is not so black and white. “Multiple measures of student learning, school practices, and school performance are need to assess progress and to determine the investments needed to serve students at all levels.” (Hammond, page 280) Multiple choice tests popular in the US today are too narrow a measure of what students learn. We need measures that actually reflect the skills and knowledge students need to compete in the world economy.

 

We will discuss more about measuring learning and teaching later. It is futile, as the above discussion illustrates, to use a linear measurement for such a complex process as learning and teaching. We must not allow political and cultural pressure to force unrealistic measurements on the learning process. We need a comprehensive solution to improving education for all students. It is destructive to put a measurement tool at the end of the teaching process, without considering how using that evaluation tool will effect how teachers teach. The test defines learning as your best guess on a multiple choice test. It narrows the curriculum to the subjects tested and motivates teachers and administrators to move do whatever it takes to pass a test that they know is flawed.

 

We must define what learning is and develop multiple ways to measure such a complex concept. Learning has many levels and a measure must have multiple levels to better reflect real learning. Our definition must reflect the reality of the learning process. For too long, we have defined learning and teaching in a political context as opposed to an educational context. Testing, as it is presently done, is political measurement not an educational measure. Our first step is to define what it means to learn and to teach students.

 

Purpose

 

The book’s purpose is to expose what makes an excellent classroom. We must start at the beginning. The current discussion is focused on issues that are not central to the learning process. I want to change the agenda to focus on the internal processes of the classroom. For example, the attack on teacher unions is more about political ideology than about learning improvement. Politics must stop at the schoolhouse door. We must look rationally at how to make schools more effective.

 

Each classroom, school and district is unique. A successful technique in one classroom may not work in the class next door. Much time and effort has been wasted on trying to find “best practices” that will apply to every classroom. While there are some things that all good teachers have in common, each teacher applies these techniques uniquely in each classroom. Therefore, it is not possible to have teachers all do the same thing at the same time in a school. It is in the application that makes teaching complex and difficult.

 

Once, we understand what makes a successful classroom; we can begin to restructure the political and social expectations to maximize student achievement. “Other countries are demonstrating that large scale acceleration is possible, even as our performance has been flat for decades.” (Stewart, page 4) Many countries around the world have learned the lesson. We will examine successful teaching systems around the world to learn from their success. Give teachers the autonomy to teach and hold them accountable for the results.

 

The first part of the book describes how the schools are presently structured and how that organization affects learning. Once we have completed that analysis, we will propose solutions to improve the schools from the classroom to the larger school and the community as well. We must evaluate all we do in the context of how our actions affect the learning process inside the classroom. We can not impose our will on the classroom process but we must respect the classroom interaction as it naturally occurs.

 

We can have great schools in America. Are we willing to do the tough things to make all of our schools excellent? Teaching Lessons is about discovering exactly what it will take to have great schools.

 

 

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