in Education

You don’t ‘build’ better teachers.

Teachers are not robots. You can’t add new modules, reprogram them, or expect them to work regardless of context. These seem to be facts completely alien to Elizabeth Green, writing in an article for the New York Times which appeared in March 2010. It genuinely surprised me that she’d actually set foot in a classroom, never mind being a ‘fellow of education’ at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Whatever that means.

It’s far from a logically-structured article. But an article doesn’t have to be logical to be dangerous – the Daily Mail is proof of that. To summarise, Green seems to be advocating, through a clumsy juxtaposition of quotations and roundabout argumentation that:

  1. Teaching is a science that can be taught.
  2. We need ‘better’ teachers (and the only way to measure this is through student test scores)
  3. Doug Lemov is awesome because he published a book highlighting basic teaching techniques.
  4. Money is probably the most important factor in recruiting better teachers.
  5. Classroom management and specialist knowledge are key to teaching.

Number five is obvious and the other four are obviously wrong: teaching is more art than science, teaching and learning are about much more than examinations, Lemov is just another author, and no-one goes into (nor would go into) teaching for the money.

Simply writing a misguided article isn’t dangerous. It’s dangerous when the author confuses and conflates several different issues to create an ambiguity in the sixth way defined by William Empson:

An ambiguity of the sixth type occurs when a statement says nothing, by tautology, by contradiction, or by irrelevant statements; so that the reader is forced to invent statements of his own and they are liable to conflict with one another. (Seven Types of Ambiguity, p.176)

By neglecting to state explicitly what makes a ‘good’ teacher, Green fosters an ambiguity that, by the end of the article, she seemingly wants you to resolve by believing in the following howlers:

  • She criticises “proponents of No Child Left Behind” for seeing “standardised testing as the solution” but later quotes with approval findings that show “the top 5 percent of teachers” being able to “impart a year and a half’s worth of learning to students in one year, as judged by standardised tests.” (my emphasis)
  • By constructing a narrative (through the juxtaposition of third-party quotations) the article seems to show that paying teachers more leads to an improved ‘calibre’ of teacher. Measured by? “Standardised test scores”. These quotations, it becomes evident by the end of the article, merely mask the author’s opinion.
  • Green snipes at constructivism, “a theory of learning that emphasises the importance of students’ taking ownership of their own work above all else”. No it doesn’t. Do your homework.
  • She assumes that there is one way to be a ‘good’ teacher, that this is unchanging, and that it is independent of context. Quoting with approval Lemov’s assertion that classroom management is as “learnable as playing a guitar”, Green turns on the hyperbole (in what quickly turns into a puff-piece for Lemov and his book) with phrases such as “he pointed to the screen, their eyes raced after his finger.”

Usually I would ignore this as just another article written by another just another American in just another country. However, it would seem that the even-more-dangerous Michael Gove, a man against whom I tactically voted, is determined to bring the education system in the UK to its knees by a slavish aping of the worst parts of the American education system.

I despair.

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  1. When a country like the States insist that students are to be corralled behind ridiculous seats with swivel lids, it’s difficult to take their educatonalists seriously. Lemov’s 49 steps to College include some quite absurd suggestions, like training teachers in stop watch techniques. Teachers like all humans are born, bred, inspired, educated and inculcated and become in due course (we all hope) adults to bring forth the next generation. Question – who’s going to take the blame for Gove, because he does seem to be from another planet, and if we are to dismantle the new GCSE system (lord forgive me as I am no supporter of this latest change) he will wreak yet more change in, that will mean yet more change management needed as we switch back the clock to 1986.

  2. Fawlty Towers had very flat reviews when it first came out; it’s always worth digging a little deeper!

    While I wouldn’t advocate every single one of the techniques proposed (single-seat rows, anyone?!), there are some superb ideas, thoughts and reviews of skills which can be adapted to suit. There are for example some excellent strategies for assessment and differentiation which I hadn’t ever seen or considered, and a very interesting section on the nature of questioning. I’m happy to lend it out, or you can read some sample chapters on Google Books. I’d hate to think any teaching book had to have 100% success to be published!

    • Every sentence either uttered or spoken has both its actual and symbolic
      meaning. There is an unspoken dimension to everything. I’m guessing that
      Lemov’s book doesn’t open with a questioning of the whole notion of
      schooling? If not, it’s rearranging deckchairs.