Sunday, December 17, 2006

Core Beliefs: 1

I spent 27 years as a teacher in the Canton, MA public schools. During the last several years of my tenure there, the school system hosted a fundraiser called the Academic Olympics. Local businesses and civic organizations were invited to send teams—each team had to make a donation the the CHS scholarship fund—to participate in the Olympics. The teams sat at tables on the stage of the Canton High School auditorium—there was a microphone on each table—and competed to answer questions in several categories including world geography, current events, and vocabulary. Each correct answer gave teh team a certain number of points. If a team missed an answer, the next team to the left was given an opportunity to answer and receive partial points.

On one of these nights, long about the year 1995, the team representing the Town Library flubbed the answers to the first three or four questions. As guardians of the local repository of knowledge, were a little embarrassed to be unable to come up with the goods. When it came to be their turn again, they were asked "What's the name of the longest river in Paraguay?" The members of the team conferred with their hand over the mike, with much whispering and gesticulation and rolling of eyes. Finally, the head librarian leaned into the mike and said, "Well, we don't know the answer to that question. But we know where to find the answer to that question."

That got a big laugh from the crowd. But the reason it stuck in my head is that it confirmed me in something I have believed for some time, and believe even strongly even more today. Education is not, or should not be, about instilling information. Students today don't have to go to library, or even to a book, to find information. Information is here at the tip of my fingers as I type on this screen. Google and the Wikipedia and the New York Time are one click away. Thousands upon thousands of other resources are there for ready reference. MIT is in the process of making ALL of its curricula available on the web.

I've been thinking about basic principles, about what my core beliefs are after almost 40 years in the classroom. So here goes. Core Belief Number One: Real education is not about content. It's about process. If I'm teaching history, my goal should not be to teach students facts about history. My goal should be to teach my students how to think—and act—like historians. If I'm teaching science, my goal should not be to teach students facts about science. It should be to teach my students how to think—and act—like scientists. And if I'm try to teach students how to write, I should be teaching my students how to think—and act—like writers.

In the late 1970's I was teaching middle school English and became acquainted with the work of Donald Graves, one of the central figures in the process writing movement and its often-maligned and even-more-often misunderstood love child, the whole-language movement. I read everything he wrote, heard him speak (brilliantly) on a number of occasions, and completely reshaped my classroom practice based on what he had to say. I remember one presentation I attended where he said, "You can do all the technical things right as a teacher, and if students don't believe that you care about them and are interested in what they have to say, they will underachieve. Conversely, you can do all the mistakes in the world and if the students know you care about them and are interested in what they have to say, they will go way beyond your expectations." I'm paraphrasing, of course, but that was the message. It's a message that makes both intuitive and experiential sense to me, and nothing that has happened in my classrooms in the twenty-five years since I first heard him say it has made me think he was wrong.

That's the problem that I have with the whole standards-based high-stakes state testing model that has come to dominate the marketplace of educational ideas in the last ten years. As I said in a recent post, the problem with the tests is precisely because they are content-driven. And when teachers know that they and their students are going to be judged by how the students perform on the test, everything else that a teacher might want to go after—like listening to students, like establishing relationships based on the how rather than the what of learning, like leaving room for exploration rather than regurgitation—gets pushed right off the table. There's just not enough time. It's a kind of Gresham's Law of education, with bad practice and bad ideas driving out good. It has even, sadly but utterly predictably, led to abuses like teachers and administrators changing answers on the tests to bring up the scores.

B. F. Skinner once said "Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten." He was right about that. We all forget stuff. We all forget most of the stuff we have learned and experienced in our lifetimes. But, if we are lucky, we emerge from our education with a set of habits of mind and a set of processing skills that allow us to read the situation and react. The Marines teach their recruits to "do your oodaloops," (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act: Repeat). That's a set of processing skills. I teach my students to ask themselves "Where am I now? Where I am I trying to get to? How can I get there?" That's a set of processing skills. (One of many.)

What's the longest river in Paraguay?

I have no idea. But I know where to find the answer to that question. It's a processing skill I've picked up.


John Ettorre said...

Hi Bruce. I enjoy your blog. And I'm honored that you've somehow stumbled over my Working With Words site and chosen to add a link to it. Many thanks.

George Farrell said...

Hi Boss,

As it turns out, it was a trick question of sorts. The longest river is the Paraguay River - along the same lines as Oklahoma City, Panama City, and other such original names.

Great blog. You're still the greatest teacher I never had...

Bruce Schauble said...

Thanks, George, for giving me the chance to make a confession: I made that question up, for purposes of narrative coherence. I don't remember what the real question they stumbled on was, but I remember the answer.

But I did, after the fact, take the trouble to look up the longest river in Paraguay. It's actually, and inadvertently, a double-trick question, because the ParanĂ¡ is a longer River than the Paraguay, but has less actual mileage within the borders of Paraguay. So the correct answer to the question would depend upon what we mean by "in." If we mean what river has the longest segment within the borders of Paraguay, the answer is the Paraguay River. If we mean what's the longest river that has a segment in Paraguay, it's the Parana.

Aren't (isn't?) semantics fun?

- B