The Inanity Of Teacher Training
August 24, 2009, 05:47 AM
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The main positive finding of the comprehensive Coleman Report of 1966 (funded by LBJ`s the 1964 Civil Rights Act) was that after all the differences in student backgrounds were accounted for, the one thing that schools could do to help students was give them higher IQ teachers. (Coleman, as he admitted in 1991, downplayed this finding in his report because black teachers averaged lower IQs than white teachers.)

Unfortunately, the teacher training establishment works assiduously to drive intelligent would-be teachers away screaming at the mind-destroying stupidity of Ed School courses. Here`s part of a 1998 City Journal article by Heather Mac Donald, "Why Johnny`s Teacher Can`t Teach:"

Ed schools purvey multicultural sensitivity, metacognition, community-building—anything but knowledge.

Americans’ nearly last place finish in the Third International Mathematics and Sciences Study of student achievement caused widespread consternation this February, except in the one place it should have mattered most: the nation’s teacher education schools. Those schools have far more important things to do than worrying about test scores—things like stamping out racism in aspiring teachers. "Let’s be honest," darkly commanded Professor Valerie Henning-Piedmont to a lecture hall of education students at Columbia University’s Teachers College last February. "What labels do you place on young people based on your biases?" It would be difficult to imagine a less likely group of bigots than these idealistic young people, happily toting around their Handbooks of Multicultural Education and their exposés of sexism in the classroom. But Teachers College knows better. It knows that most of its students, by virtue of being white, are complicitous in an unjust power structure.

The crusade against racism is just the latest irrelevancy to seize the nation’s teacher education schools. For over 80 years, teacher education in America has been in the grip of an immutable dogma, responsible for endless educational nonsense. That dogma may be summed up in the phrase: Anything But Knowledge. Schools are about many things, teacher educators say (depending on the decade)—self-actualization, following one’s joy, social adjustment, or multicultural sensitivity—but the one thing they are not about is knowledge. Oh sure, educators will occasionally allow the word to pass their lips, but it is always in a compromised position, as in "constructing one’s own knowledge," or "contextualized knowledge." Plain old knowledge, the kind passed down in books, the kind for which Faust sold his soul, that is out.

...The course in "Curriculum and Teaching in Elementary Education" that Professor Anne Nelson (a pseudonym) teaches at the City College of New York is a good place to start. Dressed in a tailored brown suit with close-cropped hair, Nelson is a charismatic teacher, with a commanding repertoire of voices and personae. And yet, for all her obvious experience and common sense, her course is a remarkable exercise in vacuousness.

As with most education classes, the title of Professor Nelson’s course doesn’t give a clear sense of what it is about. Unfortunately, Professor Nelson doesn’t either. The semester began, she said in a pre-class interview, by "building a community, rich of talk, in which students look at what they themselves are doing by in-class writing." On this, the third meeting of the semester, Professor Nelson said that she would be "getting the students to develop the subtext of what they’re doing." I would soon discover why Professor Nelson was so vague.

"Developing the subtext" turns out to involve a chain reaction of solipsistic moments. ... Professor Nelson begins the main work of the day: generating feather-light "texts," both written and oral, for immediate group analysis. She asks the students to write for seven minutes on each of three questions: "What excites me about teaching?" "What concerns me about teaching?" and then, the moment that brands this class as hopelessly steeped in the Anything But Knowledge credo: "What was it like to do this writing?"

This last question triggers a quickening volley of self-reflexive turns. After the students read aloud their predictable reflections on teaching, Professor Nelson asks: "What are you hearing?" A young man states the obvious: "Everyone seems to be reflecting on what their anxieties are." This is too straightforward an answer. Professor Nelson translates into ed-speak: "So writing gave you permission to think on paper about what’s there." Ed-speak dresses up the most mundane processes in dramatic terminology—one doesn’t just write, one is "given permission to think on the paper"; one doesn’t converse, one "negotiates meaning." Then, like a champion tennis player finishing off a set, Nelson reaches for the ultimate level of self-reflexivity and drives it home: "What was it like to listen to each other’s responses?"

The self-reflection isn’t over yet, however. The class next moves into small groups—along with in-class writing, the most pervasive gimmick in progressive classrooms today—to discuss a set of student-teaching guidelines. After ten minutes, Nelson interrupts the by-now lively and largely off-topic conversations, and asks: "Let’s talk about how you felt in these small groups." The students are picking up ed-speak. "It shifted the comfort zone," reveals one. "It was just acceptance; I felt the vibe going through the group." Another adds: "I felt really comfortable; I had trust there." Nelson senses a "teachable moment." "Let’s talk about that," she interjects. "We are building trust in this class; we are learning how to work with each other."

Now, let us note what this class was not: it was not about how to keep the attention of eight-year-olds or plan a lesson or make the Pilgrims real to first-graders. It did not, in other words, contain any material (with the exception of the student-teacher guidelines) from the outside world. Instead, it continuously spun its own subject matter out of itself. Like a relationship that consists of obsessively analyzing the relationship, the only content of the course was the course itself.

How did such navel-gazing come to be central to teacher education? It is the almost inevitable consequence of the Anything But Knowledge doctrine, born in a burst of quintessentially American anti-intellectual fervor in the wake of World War I. Educators within the federal government and at Columbia’s Teachers College issued a clarion call to schools: cast off the traditional academic curriculum and start preparing young people for the demands of modern life. America is a forward-looking country, they boasted; what need have we for such impractical disciplines as Greek, Latin, and higher math? Instead, let the students then flooding the schools take such useful courses as family membership, hygiene, and the worthy use of leisure time. "Life adjustment," not wisdom or learning, was to be the goal of education.

The early decades of this century forged the central educational fallacy of our time: that one can think without having anything to think about. Knowledge is changing too fast to be transmitted usefully to students, argued William Heard Kilpatrick of Teachers College, the most influential American educator of the century; instead of teaching children dead facts and figures, schools should teach them "critical thinking," he wrote in 1925. What matters is not what you know, but whether you know how to look it up, so that you can be a "lifelong learner."

Heather`s exactly right that progressive education wasn`t an invention of the 1960s. This pre-Sputnik style of Life Adjustment education fashionable in fashionable high schools was satirized in a couple of novels published in America in 1958: Nabokov`s Lolita and Heinlein`s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. I`ll leave as an exercise for the reader working out which author wrote which of the following excerpts:

I felt shocked. "Why, Dad, Center is a swell school." I remembered things they had told us in P.T.A. Auxiliary. "It`s run along the latest, most scientific lines, approved by psychologists and —"

"— and paying excellent salaries," he interrupted, "for a staff highly trained in modern pedagogy. Study projects emphasize practical human problems to orient the child in democratic social living, to fit him for the vital meaningful tests of adult life in our complex modern culture. Excuse me, son; I`ve talked with Mr. Hanley. Mr. Hanley is sincere — and to achieve these noble purposes we are spending more per student than is any other state save California and New York."

"Well ... what`s wrong with that?"

"What`s a dangling participle?"

I didn`t answer. He went on, "Why did Van Buren fail of re-election? How do you extract the cube root of eighty-seven?"

Van Buren had been a president; that was all I remembered. But I could answer the other one. "If you want a cube root, you look in a table in the back of the book."

Similarly:

At my first interview with headmistress Pratt, ... she wrinkled her brow in a kind of recuillement and said:

"We are not so much concerned, Mr. Humbird, with having our students become bookworms or be able to reel off all the capitals off Europe which nobody knows anyway, or learn by heart the dates of forgotten battles. What we are concerned with is the adjustment of the child to group life. That is why we stress the four D`s: Dramatics, Dance, Debating, and Dating. ... We are still groping perhaps, but we grope intelligently, like a gynecologist feeling a tumor. We think, Dr. Humburg, in organismal and organizational terms. We have done away with mass of irrelevant topics that have traditionally been presented young girls, leaving no place, in former days, for the knowledges and the skills, and the attitudes they will need in managing their lives and — as the cynic might add — the lives of their husbands."

And here`s a recent blog post by Jay Matthews of the Washington Post about how the Stanford Education school relentlessly persecuted one of their few students who really is good at "critical thinking" (especially with test data), Michele Kerr, known around the Internet as "Cal Lanier." (An old boyfriend who was a fan of 1960s utility infielder Hal Lanier gave her that pseudonym.)