Elites get seminars, masses get drilled.

Having read Elizabeth Green’s NYT March 2 piece (http://nyti.ms/auN8rG), “Building a Better Teacher,” I have to say that while I admire the polish of the teaching from Doug Lemov’s Taxonomy clips (http://uncommonschools.org/usi/aboutUs/taxonomy.php), I was struck by the snap-to, military flavor of the showcased “best teachers'” methods, the utter control of attention they commanded, not from the inherent fascination of the content, but with practiced behavioral techniques.

The desire to operationalize good teaching with 49 approved techniques is very seductive, but I’m probably not the only one who was put in mind of Jonathan Kozol’s “Educational Apartheid” article from Harper’s (2005): http://www.mindfully.org/Reform/2005/American-Apartheid-Education1sep05.htm. In that article Kozol discusses “SUCCESS FOR ALL, the brand name of a scripted curriculum–better known by its acronym” SFA. Or as fourth-grade teacher “Mr. Endicott,” an exemplary practitioner of this “classroom management” technique describes it: “‘It’s a kind of “Taylorism” in the classroom.'”

Lemov’s findings are based on test scores.  He found the best teachers for students to do better at taking tests. The big promise of this emphasis on technique is that it improves students’ test scores. What about teachers who are good at helping students do other things besides taking tests?  What do they bring to the table?  Does what they bring matter in our era of accountability?  We can’t fairly compare the mass schooling that so many students are bound to with the elite schooling that Kozol compares it with, e.g., Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.  I take the point that for the majority of especially under-privileged students, these techniques may be the only means of social advancement.  I am fascinated that there are marketed and operationalized, pedagogically effective behavioral control mechanisms detailed for one group of students and Harkness table seminars for their future leaders.

We will still have the two educational worlds that Kozol complains about: The world of Harkness table seminars at elite academies and the world of operant conditioning for the rest of us.  My hunch is that this sort of dichotomy will drive more middle class folks to home school.  So then our social choices are authoritarianism or fragmented privatization.


2 thoughts on “Elites get seminars, masses get drilled.

  1. Blalor

    I haven’t read the article mentioned, but it worries me to think that the importance of school has shifted to passing tests. I would much rather have a teacher that inspires and cultivates in me a want to excel and learn in the subject of my interest; than one who pounds knowledge in to me with proven methods so I can pass a test. Granted I’ve had teachers who have had no business calling themselves such a thing. Who might benefit from a more structured step by step this how to instruct setup, but I still believe that the teachers I have learned the most from taught in a way that made me want to learn. Rather than be machine processed through tests for the sake of standards and the high hatted ideals.

  2. Anthea

    Totally agree with your hunch that operant conditioning will drive more people towards home schooling. The size of your wallet shouldn’t be what determines whether your children can parrot information on demand or critically think. It really worries me that schools are more concerned with getting good grades and passing tests rather than stimulating kids to think critically and to be inspired. But I know from friends who teach grade school that any protest that continuous testing of children isn’t a good idea are threatened with being reprimanded. Needless to say all of them are seriously considering how they can pay for the private education of their own kids. But, even then just because one is paying school fees doesn’t mean that kids are taught to pass tests…


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