Tag Archives: Deskilling of Teaching Profession

Elements of Successful Teaching: I Got Nothin’

Ben Bernanke finally being honest.

Welcome back to school New York City teachers. I hope everyone had a good first day yesterday. It also marked the start of a new season of blogging for me here. I needed the time to myself over the past few months after my mother’s passing. Now I aim to update this place once daily at least. My prior clip of twice-a-day rants probably will not be reached until much later, for I might need to find a place to live in the coming weeks. Once I get my feet under me again, blogging will be much easier.

So yesterday was filled with the same first-day-of-school rituals we are used to at my humble Manhattan high school. The staff milled in between 8:00 and 8:30 and did some catching up, then we had a morning full of meetings and then we had the afternoon to prepare our rooms. Preparing my room gave me time to think about the morning meetings. I finally learned, after it was taught to me a million times throughout my life, that I know absolutely nothing about teaching.

Last year was not my best teaching year. I think most veteran teachers can look at individual school years and say “I was really on my game” or “boy, I stunk up the joint”.  For example, the 2009-2010 school year was really good for me overall. I was ahead of my workload, tried many new and successful strategies, read a ton of books and developed a great rapport with my students. That was the year 100% of my 11th graders passed the U.S. History Regents, with around 65% getting a grade of 85 or higher.

I thought it made sense that all of my students would do well on the Regents since that was really the first year I brought my decade-plus experience to bear in the classroom.

Well, fast forward to yesterday morning and it all goes out the window.

We were looking at the passing rates for the previous school year’s Regents exams. Since the end of that school year passed by in such a depressing haze for me, I never had time to marvel at the fact that 93% of my students passed the U.S. History Regents. Now, of course, if we were going by the ludicrous idea of “value-added”, that means I lost 7 percentage points over the previous two years and suck as a teacher. We all know though that value-added is a joke, a voodoo social theory backed up by nonsensical equations, much like Reaganomics was voodoo economics.

I sucked last year. The entire school year from September to June was nothing but personal turmoil. Colleagues were under investigation, a long-term relationship I was in failed around New Year’s Day and, most painfully, my mother was very sick in the days after that.

As a professional, it should be my line that “those things did not affect my work”. However, one would have to be near robotic to not have personal tragedy impact daily personal performance in some way. I did not have time to write great lessons, I fell way behind on grading and I was, at times, very uncomfortable with being in front of a room full of teenaged people. One day, I even wrote the wrong aim on the board and was around 5 minutes into the lesson before I realized it, causing me to erase and start everything over again. I felt I was stumbling towards the finish line, and the finish line was still 4 months away.

My students, for the most part, seemed understanding of my shortcomings. As every year I have ever taught, the vast majority of my students were nice people with whom I found common ground. I could make a million mistakes and laugh it off and they would not hold it against me. Last year that group of students was really tested, because I probably did literally make a million mistakes.

And, throughout it all, I was thinking to myself “darn, these kids are going to absolutely BOMB the Regents in June.” It was not their fault. It was the fault of the distracted teacher who not only wrote the wrong aim on the board, but who was also absent for the last month of the school year.

I reflected back to my 2009-2010 slam dunk year. That year, I had a group of very well-motivated students whom I considered very bright. On top of that, I was “on” most of the time. It was a perfect storm of teaching and learning. I compared that with this past school year, where my classes needed a little more guidance and I felt that I was not there to provide it. If I broke a 70% pass rate, I would be floored.

When we started grading the Regents in June, I was confirmed in my fears. When I came across an essay a student of mine wrote, I said “I should have taught them (fill in factoid or complete idea here).” It seemed that all my crummy teaching was coming home to roost.

Then, after we scanned everything and the results came back, 93% of my students passed. It was not an easy Regents, and there was no way to scrub the results even if we wanted to, but they still ended up passing at a 93% clip. Granted, this is not the 100% of two years ago, but it beat my previous year’s results when I was certainly more “on” as a teacher. Why did 93% of them pass? I have not a clue. I am glad that they did. I do not say the word “proud” since that means I would be taking some sort of credit for their success, which I certainly do not.

So, I can safely say that I have no idea of the dynamic between what I present as a teacher and what filters into my students’ brains. Furthermore, I have no idea how standardized exams measure that dynamic and highly doubt they can measure that dynamic at all. I remember when I was a student at Brooklyn Tech, there was an Advanced Placement math teacher who taught nothing all year. Instead, he regaled the class with tales of his personal life. Practically everyone in his class got 4s and 5s on the AP exam anyway.

There is a reason why no civilized nation on earth uses standardized exams to penalize or judge their students and teachers. It is because they mean nothing. They measure a narrow set of concepts in a narrow space of time. It is a snapshot of a few hours. It is the height of madness to use them to judge the quality of the students who take it and it is downright Lewis Carol trippy to use them to judge the teachers who teach those students. Yet, the president of this supposedly most civilized of nations pushes testing on us like a grand elixir, and he supposedly represents the most civilized and humane political party in this civilized nation.

Teaching is a great unknown. When it works, something happens in that classroom that cannot be expressed in numbers and can barely be expressed in words. That is why it takes professionals to teach, not automated robots or cookie-cutter fast-food workers. They cannot be trained at so-called colleges funded by charters who claim that the key to teaching is having students wave fingers of good energy at each other, or for the teacher to humiliate students by putting them on the spot for a question that requires a one-word answer.

Unfortunately, this is what testing and all of the other programs of “education reform” aim at. It is imperative for the “reformers” first to demean and then deskill the teaching force so that we will be powerless to speak out in criticism against them. They do not want professionals. Anybody arrogant enough to think they can lecture the nation on what good teaching or good learning looks like is a demagogue. Me and many other “good” teachers are good because it is in their hearts. After a decade or so, it becomes something like muscle memory. Within that category of good teachers there are all types of different people with all types of different styles and beliefs.

Why are they good? I cannot tell you that. I got nothin’. Anybody who is honest about what makes a quality teacher should make that their stock answer.

Khan Academy: If You Don’t Like It, You Don’t Get It


This comment was left by someone in response to my post Putting It All On The Table About The Khan Academy. I was saving it because I think it’s a good discussion piece:

Peter Berger

You say “What innovation does Sal Khan offer in American education besides a pause button?” and, disturbingly, you say that as if it’s a small thing. This shows that you’re missing the point. A pause button is a huge leap in pedagogy. A pause button is world-changing.

First, a pause button is an enabler. It gives the student a degree of agency that they simply don’t have in a brick and mortar classroom. Yes, a student CAN interrupt a class and say “Excuse me, Mr. Smith, but I still don’t understand why x raised a negative exponent is the same as 1/x to some positive exponent.” He can do that once a class. Or twice a class. But at some point – and students learn this very quickly – their doing this interrupts the class, interrupts the lesson, and interferes with the other students. The teacher who, quite understandable, has to strike a balance, has to decide between this one student and the rest of the class.

I want a teacher who I can pause. Just for me. I want a teacher who I can rewind. Just for me. I want a teacher who I can ask to repeat a lesson SIXTY TIMES without feeling embarrassed or stupid. THAT is what Khan Academy is offering students. And THAT is all because of the pause button. The pause button is gigantic, humongous, and hugely important, and if you don’t see that it’s because you’re looking in the wrong direction.

The second thing is that the pause button is a user interface enhancement that makes the lesson itself more enjoyable. This leads directly to people wanting to take the lessons, instead of viewing them as annoying. Ask yourself how many times you would use your DVD player, after perhaps bring it once, if it had no pause button. The answer is self-evident: zero.

Lastly, you’re completely ignoring the exercise components of Khan Academy, so that you can focus on the videos. In my experience, young students find the following attributes of the exercise components extremely beguiling: immediate feedback as to whether they are right or wrong, non-judgmental feedback (as in, they don’t feel embarrassed to make mistakes, but rather are motivated to figure out how to do it better), and completely unbounded amounts of practice. KA is always willing to throw more problems at you, for as long as you want to do them.

Does all of this mean that we should throw away brick and mortar schools, or throw away teachers? Of course not. As someone interested in pedagogy, what I want is to improve all schools, and all teachers. You say it’s “difficult to find people willing to say one negative thing about Khan”. To the contrary, the internet is full of articles from defensive teachers who feel threatened by the publicity KA has received. Your criticisms are par for the course. Unfortunately, I think you will find that it is impossible to construct an accurate criticism of a topic until you understand it. You may understand pedagogy, but you clearly don’t understand what it is that KA has brought to the table. Instead of lashing out defensively, perhaps you ought to try harder to understand what it is that KA is doing right, rather than just assuming that it must be doing everything wrong.

Perhaps — just perhaps — you’d learn something. It’s never too late to learn.

I am not going to speak on the tone in which Mr. Berger writes. Instead, I’d rather let you draw your own conclusions about that.

The fact that people believe a pause button is an educational innovation says a lot about how they see teaching. Sure, you can pause and rewind a video however many times you want. What do you get? The same thing over and over, repeated in the same way.

I know that when students ask me to clarify something, I present the information in a different way than I did originally. That is part of thinking on your feet as a teacher. Every question and comment that a student shares is indirectly a commentary on the lesson. It shows me which information or skills are getting across and which are not, which then informs the manner in which I deliver the rest of the lesson.

There is a reflexive loop between teacher and student, each one guiding the other on what they require. There is no such thing in the Khan Academy. It is a process that requires two human beings.

I can understand students being afraid to ask questions. Teachers have to make students comfortable with asking questions. There are days when my lessons consist of nothing but students asking questions totally unsolicited by me. Through these questions, we are able to cover the content.

Guess what? A kid cannot ask the Khan Academy any questions.

And for students who really need the extra time, to the point where they need to ask a question sixty times in a row, maybe a video would be handy if the information was low-level. But if a student has to ask sixty different questions sixty different times, then they’re going to need individualized attention. I don’t know many teachers who wouldn’t be willing to provide this type of attention during an off-period or after school. I don’t know many schools that do not have tutoring programs for these types of students. In the most severe cases, I don’t know of any school besides charters that do not have special needs programs.

One thing is for certain: for students with these types of issues, the Khan Academy is pretty far down on the list of tools they might require.

I’ve never spoken on Khan Academy’s activities because I believe them to be so self-evidently flawed that I didn’t think I needed to waste the typing finger energy on them. First, they tell the student whether they are right or wrong. This might come as a surprise, but most answers students give in a real classroom are neither right nor wrong. If you as a teacher are giving assignments that elicit thought and provoke discussion, you are encouraging children to construct their own version of truth. On the other hand, if all you’re worried about is if children follow a predetermined script, then you are shutting the thought process down. This is one of the reasons why the Khan Academy has been criticized by its few detractors as promoting nothing more than simplistic, procedural factoids.

“If you know this, you can go on to this.” That is why there is such an obsession with getting kids to earn virtual badges. It reflects the obsession education reformers have with rote, the type of thing that lends itself nicely to bubble-in exams.

Learning is not about levels and factoids. It is a process that integrates factual and conceptual information and entails emotional and moral growth. Again, a good teacher knows how to integrate these things into a lesson. This type of learning is non-existent in Khan Academy world.

And when people claim that the Khan Academy does not aim to replace real teachers, they are ignoring the hype around Khan and falling in love with Salman’s assurances. The fact of the matter is Khan, as well as a slew of online learning programs, have already begun the process. Students who need credits are taking more and more online classes. Universities are offering more and more online degrees. Obama’s proposed plan to reform public universities called for slashing budgets for professors and offering more online courses.

Khan may not say he wants to replace teachers. The President, Bill Gates and those with power have clearly stated otherwise.

It is only in education where the opinions of professionals count for nothing. When someone comes with a billion dollar program to save schools, like the Khan Academy, and it rightly gets ravaged by teachers, the knee-jerk response is “you’re just afraid of losing your job.” This has become a justification to ignore the concerns of educators and go ahead with schemes conceived in the minds of businessmen, politicians and computer programmers.

Believe it or not, educators are motivated by more than self-interest. The Khan Academy deserves criticism because it is nothing new. It brings no new methods to the pedagogical table. Their videos consist of lectures, diagrams and activities that have the feel of games. While the people who push Khan’s videos usually come from outside of the education world, educators who have been teaching children for years recognize Khan for what it is: lectures on tape with a bunch of bells and whistles. None of those lectures or bells does anything any differently from a real teacher. In many cases, it does it worse than an average teacher.

So when educators ravage Khan, it comes from a place not just of self-interest, but the interests of our children. We don’t want our kids to be sat in front of a screen and told it is education. While Bill Gates and all the other reformers continue to send their children to elite private schools with old teachers and small classes, everyone else’s children gets Khan’s videos. Instead of an education that nourishes all parts of the mind and spirit, Khan offers low level knowledge.

And the final reason why educators might dislike Khan is that the people who push it show such disdain for educators and what they do. Khan himself does not have one educator on his team, preferring to use people from the computer programming world instead. The people who support Khan, like the post above shows, thinks teaching children is about drilling facts into heads. It is like they imagine Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller every time they think of teachers.

Just because someone is not impressed with the Khan Academy does not mean they do not understand it. The emperor simply has no clothes.