Our education problem, and we have a problem, probably follows directly from the two main characteristics of our educational system. One is that our best and brightest young men and women do not go into teaching but instead enter what were always more remunerative and are now more prestigious professions and occupations, including law, medicine, scientific research, and business, to name just a few that come immediately to mind. The achievement of our students in the schools has certainly suffered from their absence, although no less certainly has the active, entrepreneurial life of our country, benefited from their presence. (See Linda Darling-Hammond’s, A Marshall Plan for Teaching)
The other characteristic, no less destructive of learning and school success, is that we have continued to group children together by age and inexperience, with the result that they have little to learn from one another. And this situation is exacerbated 1000 times by the fact that the neighborhoods that feed the schools are themselves segregated by race, ethnic background, and socioeconomic class, meaning that the students from these neighborhoods who attend school together have even less to learn from one another when all together in the same classroom.
The new meaning of the common school, which originally meant that widely different children, including the children of immigrants, would come together and learn much in classrooms in common, now means that the kids with the most in common now attend school together and learn little from one another.
Helas! that our best and brightest are not the teachers of our young, and helas! that our young are placed together in groups, the make-up of which is probably detrimental to any real learning that ought to be going on.
I have written in earlier posts that grouping of students mostly by age for learning purposes is a terribly destructive compromise with learning itself. In my own life, and I suspect this to be true for most, real learning is pretty much a solitary experience. Even when we seem to be sharing work with others, such as finding by an apparent group effort the solution to a problem, each member’s understanding is probably his or her own individual understanding, not the same as that of anyone else.
This is why there should always be as many lessons as there are students in the class. The good teacher has to have each of her students in mind, both when crafting and presenting the lesson. Yes, it does seem like an impossible task, teaching the whole group when each one in the group has unique needs and unique responses to what one says and does. This is why teaching is such a demanding profession, probably much more demanding that that of the doctor who only exceptionally faces a difficult medical problem.
Every student is a daunting challenge for the teacher if she would have the student acquire some new understanding, and not just coast by, as in our large classrooms so many do, on previously acquired knowledge. Transmitting knowledge should never be the first order of business for the teacher, although this is probably what mostly goes on in class or in other large group situations in school.
Most of what the medical doctor does is routine, such as transmitting knowledge of his illness to the patient, and this is good given the nature of medical practice, which is just that, the knowledgeable expert enlightening the relatively ignorant patient. What a good teacher does should rarely be this, rarely be the routine transmission of knowledge, if she would truly bring about her student’s learning, which is best described as acquiring mostly by his or her own efforts new skills and new understandings.
The educator, Ted Sizer, knew these sorts of things about teaching and learning. He was not, however, able to bring it about that the best and brightest of our young people enter the teaching profession nationwide. Who might have done so?
Our president might have chosen to single out the volunteer teaching profession for planned action on his part but within our own country, rather than settling as he has on the volunteer army and marine corps for planned action in Iraq. But he didn’t, and although he now wants to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act he probably won’t by doing this lead the best and brightest into teaching, let alone leave by the law’s reauthorization no child behind.
Ted Sizer did lead a good number of our best and brightest into the many Essential Schools that he founded or helped create throughout the country. And, although he wasn’t able to change the way we group children by age, nor change the way our neighborhoods are segregated by race, ethnic background and socioeconomic class, he was able to bring it about that individual highschool teachers saw fewer students on a daily basis, that which enabled them to provide their now 80 rather than 125 students with a bit more individual attention. Not enough, but some movement if only a tiny step in the right direction.