Teaching is Teaching

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.

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14 responses to “Teaching is Teaching

  1. Michael Fiorillo

    Thank you for this post. I too have always been made to feel needlessly defensive about the way I teach, despite the deep rapport I develop with my students. As a student, I hated group work, and found it to be a waste of time.

    I use group work and cooperative learning as a change of pace, and as a way for students who otherwise might not get to know each other to have contact. Beyond that, it is wildly overrated, especially in a language class, which I teach. How are students, in a class where up to twenty different native languages might be spoken, supposed to teach each other a language they don’t speak, based on a culture they are just beginning to learn about?

    Good teaching is good teaching and can be recognized by a experienced observer within minutes. Perhaps one reason why the Danielson checklists are being imposed is because it’s policy to hire inexperienced principals – often opportunistic martinets – for ideological reasons.

    Good teaching is also highly individualized, having far more to do with a teacher’s content knowledge, flexibility, ability to think on their feet, sensitivity, compassion and determination. Walk down the halls of my (excellent) school, and you will see students exposed to a wide range of teaching styles. That is how it should be.

    Then again, it’s now all about “rigor” (n): harsh inflexibility, temper or judgement: severity: the quality of being unyielding or inflexible: strictness: severity of life: austerity. (from Merriam-Webster)

    Hmmm, “austerity.” In a time of rising income inequality, the upward redistribution of wealth and cutbacks in public services, it’s funny how that term should crop up in regard to education.

    • Definitely.

      I think the whole push for constructivist teaching is a way to deskill the profession, much like Danielson does for principals.

      At Brooklyn Tech, most of my teachers were traditional and I ended up learning stuff, most of the times despite myself. The few that sat us in groups had nothing to offer me. I was perfectly content with letting my group mates do all of the work while I found something else to do.

  2. I remember sitting through a lecture on how lecture is the least effective form of teaching and chucking internally at the disconnect.

    I’ve tried group work and constructivist teaching as well (math) – and as you say – it takes forever to do it right because the students have to be taught the material first. There is always a lot of talk about “thinking skills.” The students must have something to think ABOUT!

    While we don’t have standardized test at the community college level – we do have content that we have to get through. CUNY has set up an interesting developmental program in which the amount of content is pared back and the classes meet 6 hours per week instead of 3. This is much more realistic.

    The paper on the CUNY program says that lecture is absent from their classes, but the description of the class sessions shows A LOT of instructor-led full class discussion.

    • Exactly. Just focusing on the process of thinking and talking with having something to think and talk about is vacuous chatter.

      I would love to teach college and might do that sooner rather than later the way standardized testing, among other things, are destroying public education.

  3. I enjoy your blog and respect your opinions very much. I think one of the questions that gets lost in turning the spectrum of how kids come to understanding into a binary of “constructivism” versus “direct instruction” is “What is the purpose of the teaching?” Anyone who purported to you, much less lectured to you, that constructivism is always right all the time for all kids in all subjects on all days was a fool, simply. Your brainwash sessions were just that – insecure “staff developers” who latch onto some idea (recipe) and attempt to share it with the ignorant masses. It’s insulting to think that the audience doesn’t have _some_ background perspective, flawed as it might be, or expert (in your case) as it might be. I think the more accurate nature of constructivism is just that: pay attention, seek out, then use the background knowledge, or lack there of (through questions), and go from there.

    I think your ultimate critique of constructivism is fair, and I think your support of direct instruction is fair, too, but I do have to say that minimizing constructivism to crayons and glitter seems beneath your level of argument. I don’t think the social and cognitive constructivists were attacking education; but I do agree that it can be used be the “deformers” as an attack. I propose we see the “enemy” clearly, though. It’s not constructivists or constructivism; it’s those who wield it for the purposes of undermining education. Direct instruction is wielded as well (See Kipp Academies).

    So back to the question, “What’s the purpose of the teaching?” Hopefully it’s to create thinkers, like yourself, who can see a sales pitch when it’s in front of them, reveal brainwash efforts when necessary, and avoid the minimalistic black or white argumentation the deformers perpetuate.

    • Constructivism I think is more a philosophy of knowledge than anything else. I think, and I might be wrong, that knowledge is “constructed” through experience. This is in opposition to a philosophy where knowledge is transmitted.

      At the root, I am a constructivist. The problem is that the paradigms set up by staff developers, professors and other so-called “experts” trivializes constructivism into a bunch of group work, art projects and saccharine journeys of self-discovery.

      At the same time, they will say the “traditional” method of teaching is a lecture where knowledge is transmitted.

      These paradigms are philosophically false. A Socratic classroom can be “constructivist” as much as a classroom with group work.

      What the real paradigms are is a matter for another post. You’re right, people use “constructivism” as tool to trivialize teaching, as much as they use “traditionalism” to demonize skilled teaching.

  4. I firmly believe in traditional teaching or lectures. I hope we never stray away from Socrates style of teaching. I think class time should be a combination of constructivism and direct lecture. I think teachers should be multifaceted when passing information on to students. I think the over all importance is that the students attain the information and then formulate their own opinion, depending on the content being taught. The part that I love about your post is the fact that you were lectured on how not to lecture!!

    • I have tried many different methods and the Socratic works best for my classes when introducing new content.

      I don’t think I’ve ever had a “constructivist” educator that practiced what they preached.

  5. My teaching style is closest to D. Guard along the Watchtower.

  6. You’re absolutely right, David, when you say that constructivism is more a of a philosophy of knowledge, a way of understanding who we know things, and more, then, an epistemological endeavor than anything else.

    Lev Vygotsky was part of a group of post-revolutionary, modernist Russian intellectuals that included Roman Jakobsen, a linguist, who ended up spending most of his career at the New School and Harvard, and Mikhail Bakhtin, a literary historian and critic whose books include “Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics,” “Rabelais and His World,” and “The Dialogic Imagination.” I encountered the entire group while doing Russian Studies at Hampshire College, and when I heard several not-particularly-bright-or-well-informed adjunct instructors (I cannot, alas, dignify them with the honorific “Professor”) invoke his name in education courses, I wondered what perverse exercise transmuted Vygotsky into an educator.

    I did read the article on teaching in the most recent “American Educator” to which you refer. While I think there is something to be said for creating opportunities for students to have meaningful experiences (trips, etc), and believe they can construct knowledge from those meaningful experiences, I would argue that the inspiration for such methods comes more from John Dewey than Lev Vygotsky.

    In any case, the Socratic method, in which students interrogate and are interrogated upon their own beliefs, is in fact a constructivist method of sorts: it constructs knowledge, just as it did for those students fortunate enough to work with Socrates and his ilk, from an understanding of one’s own ignorance and misconception.

    Man, you are prolific! Keep up the good work!

    • Thank you for your thoughtful post, Mark. You’re right in that many things labeled as “contructivist” or “progressive” comes from Dewey. I was never a big fan of his and always believed he had his head firmly up some other part of his body. I prefer his mentor William James.

      I think all knowledge, to one degree or another, is constructive. As Nieztsche said, humans invented knowledge. While this might lead down the road to relativism, it is an important thing for teachers to keep in mind and use in the classroom.

      • Other than to comment on my execrable proofreading and editing (did I really write prose that sloppy?), I can only say you’re right.

  7. Cool ideas here. For me, what is cool about your metaphor of iooplng and constructivism is not necessarily the aspect of layers, but instead of the interaction among prior and new material into a new gestalt. Yes, constructivists advocate connecting to and building upon prior knowledge (striations of layers, perhaps), but the result is a new whole a NEW understanding. For me, it’s like a mixed down stereo mp3 file as the end result, rather than the source file which keeps the layers distinct. As we learn and construct our understanding of the world, we aren’t necessarily always aware of how we came to our understandings, but our understandings reflect where we’ve been in a complex manner . like the stereo mp3 waveform. Just my $.02. -Alex

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