A recent article in American Educator makes a thorough case in favor of the Sage on the Stage method of teaching.
This is the method where a teacher directly instructs and explains content. It might include some Socratic questioning, note taking and, God forbid, a little chalk and talk. According to the article, students uninitiated to the content (i.e. most students), learn best with the Sage on the Stage.
In the topsy-turvy world of public schooling, this method has been labeled “teacher centered” or “traditional”. These are the words teachers usually hear in staff development sessions. They are used derisively as a way to discourage this type of teaching.
Instead, university education programs, administrators and staff developers encourage teachers to be “constructivist”. This includes a lot of group work and allowing students to “discover” knowledge on their own.
Any teacher who has been in the system long enough has suffered through brain washing sessions where traditional teaching is decried as “boring”, “undemocratic” and “restrictive”. For a long time I was filled with guilt that I did not implement more constructivist teaching into my lessons. What a monster I must be, I used to think. My poor children are suffering and just yearning to breathe free if only their ego-maniac teacher would step out of their way and let them fly.
One day, I took stock of the bigger picture. I always found it funny that people who exhorted me to teach like a constructivist had to lecture it to me. I found it funny that my professors in college would lecture us for 2 hours on the joys of allowing students to “discover” knowledge on their own. I found it funny how most of these people do not teach children, probably have never taught children and certainly have never taught the type of children I was teaching. I found it funny how my students never really complained about the lack of constructivist teaching. They never said to me “when are you going to allow us to discover knowledge for ourselves? Can’t you see we’re dying here?” I found it funny how most of the people exhorting me to teach constructively spoke with out of town accents and drove a car in from Long Island in order to tell me how to teach city kids.
I discovered that these people were full of it and had no idea what they were talking about. It did wonders for my sense of guilt. I felt I was free from a disease.
Many years ago, after one of these staff development brainwashing seminars, a colleague of mine said to me “how are our kids supposed to talk freely about the topic if they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about?” No doubt, if he said that out loud during the meeting, he would be met with a disapproving shake of the head from the illustrious presenter. The staff would have seen him as a close-minded curmudgeon. He would have been duly chastened and probably sent down the road to self-doubt.
And I have tried constructivist teaching, boy have I tried. I have sat my students in pairs, groups, circles, triangles and trapezoids. I gave them guided readings, discussion topics, pictures, crayons, glue, construction paper and glitter. I stood back and tried to merely “facilitate” the discovery of knowledge.
Guess what? They didn’t learn anything and they saw it for the waste of time it is.
There was nothing for them to chew on. It would be great to sit students in groups and have them conduct a roundtable discussion on the Corrupt Bargain between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. Did Adams and Clay have an arrangement? Was this the thing that led to Andrew Jackson’s election 4 years later? Was this why Henry Clay was never elected president?
Of course, if my students could have done this without much guidance from me, then they would not really need me at all. The fact is that if they don’t know about something, then they can’t talk about it. It seems like such a tautology, but it always seemed to escape the minds of the constructivists.
So instead of having students do a poster with cute little pictures of Henry Clay and John Quincy, I got comfortable with actually teaching them what happened. I asked thorough questions, challenged them to see things through many different perspectives and maybe even had them write stuff down about it. My students never complained about how much of a time waste this was either. That should count for something.
Of course, there is a place for constructivism, as the article points out. That place is after they have thoroughly learned the content. It would be great if I can spend a day or two actually teaching the Corrupt Bargain and the John Quincy Adams presidency in the traditional fashion. Then, the students can get into groups or pairs and discuss the impacts of all of this on American history. Would Andrew Jackson ever get to be president? Would Henry Clay ever live down the accusations? Did John Quincy Adams deserve to be painted as a corrupt bargainer? Maybe we can even take a trip somewhere, like the Museum of the City of New York to see how the Erie Canal, completed under Adams’ presidency, changed the country. Was this a good case for the program of internal improvements that was a hallmark of the National Republican (pre-Whig) platform?
This would be great, even ideal, in a classroom that values both direct learning as well as discovery. This would also take a very long time. As long as I have been teaching, our school years have ended with standardized exams. These exams require a certain amount of content be covered. So while I would love to spend 6 months on antebellum American history, the fact of the matter is I have to cover it in 3 if I want to make it to the election of Obama.
And in the age of education deform, where standardized exams rule all, there is absolutely no more room for discovery, thoughtful discussion, nice trips and political debate. There is no room except for what the tests demand.
Whether it is the new age reformers who want to get as much data as possible out of our students, or the old reformers who wanted to make teachers irrelevant and invisible, their visions amount to attacks on the profession of teaching.
There has always only been one right formula for teaching, and that is teaching.