the thing I came for:So, I have been unemployed now for the better part of the first semester. Soon, I will be taking over classes from a teacher taking time off to have a baby (Congratulations, again!). As I am preparing to go back to the world of pencils, books, and dirty looks, and coming off of the 2014 NCTE National Convention, arguments about education are again dragging me down rabbit holes of quiet contemplation and not an inconsiderable amount of angst.
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters. - from "Diving into the Wreck" by Adrienne Rich
This morning, as I was dropping my wife's laptop off at her school, I heard a commercial from the NEA on SiriusXM. The fact that it was on a widely accessible radio station really bothered me because, as is the case with many easily digested tidbits about this complicated work we do, the message was based on incomplete and relatively unsupportable claims. After nine years of teaching, I am still shocked at the amount of anecdotal or apocryphal knowledge that seems to permeate our professional world.
To draw a parallel, let me tell you a story. An oncologist has a patient ill with leukemia. This current manifestation is the second recurrence of the disease. This time, while treating the patient, the doctor added a steady diet of only chicken, potatoes, and peas. Miraculously, the cancer goes into remission. How would the medical community react if this doctor decided to start treating all of his patients with specifically tailored nutritional plans as a means of driving cancer into remission? Unless the laboratory science was there to back it up, including numerous experiments that can be repeated with the same results, I cannot imagine many doctors who would accept this as a valid practice.
So, imagine my chagrin, when the voice of the current NEA president pours from my car speakers expounding 1) the virtues of learning styles, 2) the need for parents to identify these, and 3) the need for parents to ensure schools are teaching their individual children in ways that correspond to these learning styles. Chagrin, perhaps, is a bit of an understatement.
People who have read this blog before know my feelings on the learning styles theory. If not, click here for a prior post on learning styles. Is the work of educating students not hard enough already that teachers need numerous misleading and, largely, profit-driven curricular approaches to put distance between us and our students? That really is the bottom line. As I sit here preparing to teach again, I find it necessary to remind myself that I teach people.
That is where the world of science and the world of education part ways (in fact, that is where education departs from many disciplines): the student. Many theories that are touted as solid, foundational, and "best" practices are based on marginal changes that have more to do with the unique moment in which they happen and less to do with the children they are intended to help. This disconnect exists because children do not repeat behaviors in a predictable and systematic way that can guarantee a consistent result. As I often do when I face this particular frustration, I went back to a great article by Daniel Willingham on the AFT website. In the article, Willingham lays out some important facts about popular educational myths. I still remember reading it for the first time and thinking Oh, that is what I have been trying to say.
Cognition is at the core of what we do; moreover, cognition is a human process that relies heavily upon numerous factors. The best thing a teacher can do is view his or her students in two ways: 1) As the mass of students in need of knowledge and 2) as the individuals who make up that mass. Children have more in common when it comes to learning than we are often willing to admit; the individuality matters more in terms of environment and special circumstances than the actual acquisition of discrete information.
I guess I should thank the current president of NEA. Because of that commercial, I got an opportunity to remind myself of how vital a teachers work it--and how much vitality it provides. The wet suit is ready, the tanks are full, and I cannot wait to dive deep with the students who been entrusted to my care.