Wednesday, March 20, 2013

New Ways vs Old Ways

I've been teaching long enough now that I'm of the "hey you kids, get offa my lawn!" mode.  I believe that no one in my math classes knows more math than I do, and the best, most efficient method for my students to learn the math that I know is for me to teach it.

Not everyone thinks that way, of course.  We've all heard the "new methods" which extol the "guide on the side", not the "sage on the stage".

Here's a question for you:  why would my school district pay me more if I get a master's in math?  How would that make me a better "guide on the side"?

Anyway, some of our younger teachers are all gung-ho about Common Core standards and how we're finally going to get kids to think instead of just memorize (if we even got them to memorize).  The old ways didn't work, don't work, won't ever work, and we must use new and improved methods (that were tried, to dismal results, in the 1990s, but that's a different story).

The human brain hasn't changed much in the past few thousand years.  What worked millenia, centuries, decades ago still works today.  Oh, today's American culture may not value education as much as it did 50 years ago, but that culture isn't going to foster thinking any more than it's going to foster memorizing.

The old methods work just fine.  Direct instruction is still an extremely valuable way to impart knowledge.

When we decide we need something new, it's often fashionable to get rid of what some consider extremely important--as a lesson that there's a new sheriff in town, and this is the way things are going to be nowIs that perhaps why we don't teach grammar or geometric proofs anymore?
Everyone goes nuts, holding professional development days and sinking money into seminars, technology, and new curricula, in a rather silly quest to teach “critical thinking”. What you see in the quest for critical thinking is a recognition that something has been lost.

It has been lost. To a great degree. It used to be formalized and structured… And now we cast about for it haphazardly. I am not saying that we should use ancient texts and teach with handwritten codexes. The method can be modernized, and taught using modern technique. But it must be taught or it… won’t be. (There’s some logic for you.)
It won't be long before memorizing the multiplication tables goes out of fashion again.


Ellen K said...

Common Core, Essential Questions, BYOT, Digital Natives....just more of the same stuff educational businesses have been selling to gullible administrators for decades. They promise higher scores, better graduation rates, but has that been demonstrated anywhere in the last ten to twenty years? We are told in faculty meetings that we have to compete with video games and movies, that we must be more entertaining. Here's an idea-how about we stop treating education like a game and realize it has far more in common with training for a marathon. Such training takes dedication. You can't do it one day a week and be successful. But we have a generation of parents and children who were raised on microwave pop corn and who expect immediate results if not sooner. They thing all children are inherently capable of all things. That's the message they've been given since birth. But it's simply not true. I will never be a marathoner no matter how hard I train. But then again, maybe I could be a sprinter or even just a competent jogger. It's time we take the elitism out of education. It's time to stop insisting that all kids should be fitted out for college when many of them have no business wasting time or often taxpayers' money doing so. We need competent mechanics and plumbers and electricians and machinists. What we do not need is some reluctant lower half of the class medical student or a glazed eyed computer tech who has no interest in what they are doing. It is time to take the power to impose these dumb programs away from administrators who evidently can be bought for a few cheap drinks and a mediocre dinner.

allen (in Michigan) said...

The reason your school district would pay you more if you got a master's, even though there's no correlation between that master's and greater teaching skill, is because teaching skill is irrelevant. I'd be interested in other explanations but the indifference of the public education system to teaching doesn't just explain a pay bump for a useless degree, it explains much else.

Why does the teaching profession, given the cost and time necessary to get a teaching certificate, have such a horrendous turnover rate? That indifference to teaching skill explains that turnover quite nicely.

How many kids go after a teaching certificate with the knowledge that the skill they're supposedly developing is without professional merit? That when, and if, they land a teaching slot no one, except people who don't matter like parents and kids, will care one whit whether they're a good teacher or not? Care to guess what the reaction is when the realization hits home?

That indifference to teaching skill is the natural outcome of an indifference to whether the kids are learning which is also a structural element of the public education system.

And kids, while they may be poorly-educated, are not necessarily incapable of picking up on that indifference to education. There's the source of your student motivation problem. If the grownups don't care why should the kids?

The edu-crats who tirelessly turn out edu-crap have adapted.

Sure there are some edu-crats who are tiresomely supportive of methods that simply work but where's the potential for exciting new breakthroughs in that? There is none so edu-crats offer the appearance of boldly going where no pedagogue has gone before without the substance. For many school board members and administrators that appearance of cutting edge modernity is a more important then whether the edu-crap actually does what it's purported to do.

So there you are.

maxutils said...

Apples and bicycle tires. I absolutely agree with you that direct instruction is the best way to teach math. The reason why they are in your class is because they don't know it yet-- how on earth could you expect them to learn it themselves. But, that doesn't preclude you from letting the students interact in the direct instruction. Lecture and examples probably sends it home for most kids ... but do they really understand what they are doing? Because if they don't, the y won't be able to apply what they know to a situation that's even slightly different. Critical thinking IS important in math: but it does require a strong foundation coming in and it does require a little bit more than a straight presentation of the material. Certainly, there are times for rote memorization: long division algorithm, multiplication tables, unit circle, etc. But those times are meant for convenience and speed. The winning teacher is the one whose student can perform well AND know why they did.

mmazenko said...

I became a much better teacher after I earned my MA in English. I simply knew more and had much greater insight in language and literature. That led to more thoughtful teaching with more rigor which has undoubtedly benefited my students. In fact, my MA so informed my teaching that I've become much more of a believer that the teaching profession itself should move toward an expectation of master's degrees in content before teaching. I've seen similar effects among many teachers - though only for content-area MA's, not flimsy education degrees.

maxutils said...

allen ... you make some interesting points ... I'm going to absolutely disagree with you on a couple, and for the rest, just let me offer a pretty competent teacher with a Master's in a subject he teachers' perspective. There are several reasons for the high rate of turnover, particularly in the early years: first, it has been well documented that the majority of teachers finish in the bottom third of their graduating classes in college. Not the best crop to pick from, especially in math and science. Why? salaries are not competitive. Second, tenure is typically granted after two or three years ... If an administrator has any question about a teacher's potential, the first couple of years is when to get rid of them. Finally, there are those who thought they couldn't do it, but can't. None of these are signs that we don't value a teacher's skill level; it's a sign that we DO.

maxutils said...

As to the teacher's certificate? I found my credential classes to be utterly pointless. It's nice to be exposed to different theories, I guess, but almost nothing that I 'learned' in those classes ever made it into my classroom. Ultimately, it is the teacher's personality that is going to mold how lessons are taught. The quickest way to alienate your students is to try to pretend to be, or believe in, something you aren't, or won't. My classroom and Darren's are very different places. Both get the job done.

maxutils said...

About the Master's ... Darren is taking an MA in stats, a subject he teaches. My master's is in econ, a subject I teach. Having a higher degree of knowledge in your subject automatically makes you better at explaining things ... because you have a deeper understanding of where this stuff came from. So, districts should, and do, recognize these degrees with extra pay ... although, not much. I got $1500/yr extra, or about 2% of my salary at the top of the salary schedule..The real problem here is -- you'll love me for this, allen-- the unions. Due to the fact that most of the people who get masters' degrees do so solely for the salary bump, most choose the easiest route: an 'education' masters, which tends to just be more of the same useless theory and technique that we were exposed to in credentialing; most do not even require a thesis or significant final project. But, their votes count the same as mine, and there are more of them. Were it up to me, the stipend would be bigger, but only if it were in an academic subject directly related to what you teach. On the plus side? You get the handful of teachers, like Darren and myself, who want to further their knowledge in a subject they enjoy for relatively little.

maxutils said...

As to the educrats? No argument here. I have a background in English and economics ... which bled in to math. But math was never my strong suit in high school. One of the current educrat things to do is to pepper the class with questions directed to random students, to keep them alert, attentive, and responsible. I always took the opposite stance: as a math teacher, I'm teaching them something they don't know already -- so why would I ask a student a question he or she likely doesn't know the answer to and put them on the spot? (English is different: if I assign a reading, and you can't answer an opinion question about it -- tough luck). I began the year by telling my students I would NEVER call on them unless they had their hand up ... and that I would always wait for them to think about an answer. And that if someone who had never raised their hand before did ... they coould almost be guaranteed of being called on. The result was a relaxed classroom where people felt safe, asked questions, took risks and did well. But ... several successive years, the educrat responsible for evaluating me would give me glowing reviews except for the fact that I didn't randomly call on my students. It is very true that those overseeing teachers think that theory trumps success.

Anonymous said...

I am 75 - went to a 2-room country grade school in rural Kansas and recently found out that my 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade teacher was not credentialed. She was a great teacher. She had the multiplication tables on the
blackboard and we memorized them. I can still see that blackboard in my mind with the correct answer to this day.

mmazenko said...

My sentiments exactly, Max.

allen (in Michigan) said...

Max, my central assertion is that education is systemically unimportant to the public education system and that all that's wrong with the public education system flows from that fact. But that's an observation on the system as a whole. There's nothing about that systemic indifference to education that precludes the existence of good teachers or good schools. Even of good districts. It's just that the system isn't biased in their favor which means where "good" anything exists it's in a constant struggle against reversion to the mean.

So your, and Darren's, degree is valued no more highly by your employer then those educationally worthless EdDs a truth with which you are already familiar. Your error comes in blaming unions. That "plus side" you see is what I see as a sad reminder of the professional unimportance of teaching skill - if you don't, personally, value your professional skills there's no one of professional consequence who does.

Unions are, of course, also indifferent to teaching skill. But unions are parasitic organizations and while they can certainly have political influence they are still utterly dependent on factors over which their control waxes and wanes. Wisconsin, and more recently Michigan, are prime examples of that uncertain control. The parasitic nature of unions further means they depend on pre-existing conditions which allow them to come into existence. After all, parasites don't create the host upon which to prey. They just evolve to take advantage of a situation which arose previous to their existence.

Where the unions bear on this particular issue, the artificial inflation of the value of advanced degrees, is in the use of those degrees to provide a rationale for a pay increases.

Seniority's the most common rationale the assumption being that a more experienced worker can do a better, more valuable job. But since a union has no other purpose then to get its membership that "more" as so brilliantly and tersely put by Walter Reuther any rationale, no matter how frivolous or transparent, will serve. So EdDs result in pay bumps even though they increase the value of the employee to the employer not one whit. The flip side of that situation is that your Econ degree and Darren's stats degree are no more professionally valuable then those EdDs.

Notice though one of the results of that indifference to education - the vitiation of worthwhile degrees and the elevation of worthless degrees. That widespread, systemic indifference to education starts to worm its way up the education ladder to higher ed via teachers looking for pay increases at the same time less well-prepared students increasingly become the norm entering college for the first time.

The problem for the edu-crats who run those schools of education is to present the facade of an ever-expanding understanding of how to educate kids where there's no interest in educating kids and no reward for doing so. The result is what I refer to as "edu-crap" - specious nonsense which exists to present the appearance of an advancement in understanding without the measurable and worthwhile improvements that typically result from an advance in understanding. Edu-crap is valuable because education isn't.

Being an inveterate optimist I see the gradually building consensus against the traditional, district-based public education system as the awakening of the public to the problems inherent in the district system. While that may, or may not, impact Darren and yourself depending on how far you are from retirement and how fast that evolution occurrs it will impact teachers more and more as time goes on because nature's abhorrence of a vacuum means that the authority previously enjoyed by school board elective officials will devolve to parents and parents, the scoffing of those wedded to the current system not withstanding, do value teaching skill.

maxutils said...

I think that if you looked, allen, that the vast majority of actual teachers are not indifferent to education -- even those who aren't very good. At the administrative level, they don't care as much -- if they did, they'd be teaching. At that level, I agree that the majority are much more interested in maintaining the facade and embracing every new fad that makes them look like they are doing something rather than actually working to educate the kids. Personally, I am upset that my useful MA is worth the same as a MAster's of Education ...but, that's the way the union's negotiated it , and while I would have voted against that provision (I would also vote for smaller English vlasses and stipends for teachers is needed areas) I still believe I'm making more than if I didn't have a union. As for giving teachers raises for years taught? Every year you teach, you get better at it. This DOES make sense ... true, at some point you reach a point of diminishing returns -- but salary schedules reflect that. At some point, you 'top out'. And true, many teachers stop caring as much late in their careers, and their skills atrophy ... that's why there are golden parachutes offered.

mmazenko said...

My school and district still focus on grammar and multiplication tables. In fact, I am head of our grammar program, which is a department wide, non-negotiable unit.

Darren said...

I am not making this up--many of the English teachers at my school refuse to teach grammar. It amazes me.

The new push now is for all content areas to teach "literacy". Why the heck should I teach literacy when the language teachers refuse to teach language???

mmazenko said...

Agreed. That is frustrating. I was at a school ten years ago where teachers had to teach grammar "on the stealth" because the district literacy coordinator had declared she "better not walk through the halls and hear grammar drilling being taught."

Sadly, she became district literacy director after her years in the classroom ... as a fifth grade math teacher.

MikeAT said...


In previous discussions I've mentioned in field training younger rookies, it amazes me how poorly these (most times) college graduates write. The simple ability to write a direct sentence is often times lacking.

This is your field Darren an Mike, but is a term paper required for all students these days to graduate high school?

maxutils said...

I don't know exactly what the standards are, but when I was in junior high, grammar was done regularly in English classes ... In high school, there was ver little done: it was expected that we had been taught the rules, and our papers were graded accordingly ... with mini-lessons being done to address common problems such as comma splices, over use of passive voice, sentence fragments, etc. It was very much like when we expect students in Alg 2 to be competent in Alg 1...

Anonymous said...

Darren, if you don't teach grammar to these students, where will they learn it!? ;)

All kidding aside, not knowing enough gramar to teach it would be one of my reasons not to home school my kids.

PeggyU said...

Arne Duncan doesn't know grammar basics. Look where his illiteracy got him. :)

Ellen K said...

Darren, it's not just grammar that is being ignored, but the simple act of handwriting. Cursive writing was removed from curricula when some bright administrator decided it was "too hard" for everyone to read. So kids, who previously had had to concentrate and coordinate what they wrote with what they were thinking, simply dashed off any scribble. The irony is that when these children want to get drivers' licenses, they have to have a signature. Printing is not acceptable in my state. So they have to learn how to write their names in cursive at the ripe age of 16. You may think I exaggerate, but the reason many Asian and Middle Eastern students trump our kids is that they early education has a foundation in learning to recreate very precise and complex characters. When we dumb down something as basic as writing because a few kids cannot or will not practice enough to learn the skill, then why should we be shocked that they don't persevere with other skills? I say this in all respect as a former middle school teacher who taught diagramming sentences and managed to get all my private school students into elite prep schools. Even as an art teacher, I tutor Language Arts, and I do it using diagramming-an archaic graphic way of explaining language. PS. Foreign language teachers wish that LA teachers would do this.

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