What You Thought You Knew About Teaching, But Don’t

Posted on February 1, 2014


As we start a new teaching semester, I thought I’d revisit what it’s all about. You may still be thinking reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. But, let’s get up to date.

Do you know what a “learning outcomes and assessment matrix” is? I didn’t until a few years ago when I got curious about all these terms floating around the world of teaching I inhabited for most of my career.

How about this one? Teaching is no longer about teaching. We teachers now inhabit “learning-centered” environments where teachers are largely “facilitators” to the learning process.

How about “outcome-based” education? That, as near as I can figure it, is a test score one receives.

How about this principle driving education these days: outcome-based education is based on the assumption that all students can master tasks and materials if given enough time. That sounds to me Pavlonian, like teaching lab animals to press the bar for food on certain cues. They will, indeed, all learn.

The practical reality of the above assumption is that no one fails. In some colleges and universities, you cannot fail freshman English. You just keep retaking it until you pass. No one receives an F.

Then there’s “performance-based testing” which tries to determine what a student has actually learned, presumably in social studies, math, science, etc., and I guess shop as well, which I had to take in high school.

I especially liked this description of an alternative to test taking from a web site called teachnology: “For academic subjects that are more fact based such as science or mathematics, an oral defense technique is commonly used. The format for the defense can vary, with the required topics formalized with pre-defined criteria based on lesson plan topics or the defense being more of an informal discussion.”

I like that since I had to take calculus twice in college, and that is not because I liked math. I would have preferred an “informal discussion” with my instructor occasionally, perhaps over a cup of coffee about math and the world and where I fit in. Since today I could not fail, I could just continue talking with the instructor until she finally ran out of coffee or patience, and passed me.

The basic premise of the new “learning centered” world is that it is better than the old system. We now have “accountability” built into the system. Teachers have to determine what “outcomes” they wish to produce in the students, then develop a curriculum to produce those outcomes, and then assess the students to see if they have met the goals or outcomes determined before the exercise began.

This all can take place on line, off line, synchronously, asynchronously, face to face, no face, at a distance, or, even occasionally, in a classroom.

Now all opinions are sought and I see classrooms rearranged with small groups of chairs put together so some lively active and collaborative learning can take place where students can talk to and learn from each other, presumably.

Now, return to a few paragraphs above. The “new” learning-centered system is based on the supposition that it is better than the “old” system. That was largely a teacher lecturing to students, usually described as drone-like, passive observers, simply memorizing and repeating, and not really “learning” much of anything.

But, while I have no quantitative, or even qualitative (I’ve read too much pedagogical literature) data to support my observations, let me suggest that high school graduates of half a century ago were better educated than college graduates of today.

And, actually, if one compares U. S. students to those across the world, we have been slipping so far on the charts as to almost disappear.

What’s happening here?

Instead of instilling excellence as the standard, we have insisted on equality, moving everyone down to a common denominator. Instead of promoting the best and the brightest, and recognizing that not all are high achievers, we promote all in the name of fairness and equality.

But failure is reality. Some will rise to the challenges; others will fail; some just don’t give a darn.

The modern world, changed forever by the computer, is fascinating, and we have always occupied the frontiers of knowledge. But today we have abandoned excellence for equality, and achieved mediocrity.

We need to identify those pockets of excellence in our country and culture and focus our light on them, find out why how and why they have achieved excellence, and study them for the principles of excellence.

I am not into sports analogies, but we could do worse than to look at successful teams. Do they get to the top by making everyone feel good about themselves? I think not. There are some good lessons there.

Published in my column The Port Rail as Learn a Little Something About Teaching in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Jan. 25, 2014.

Posted in: Life in America