Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Check Boxes, Real Time Reporting and the Lost Art of Teaching

A while back I wrote about Kenneth Burke’s concept of trained incapacity.  Funny story… my husband went on a cleaning kick a couple of weekends ago and surfaced from the dust with Daniel Goleman’s Working With Emotional Intelligence (flash back to the late ‘90s when business was influenced by education … 1998, the golden year).  On page 44 of this classic is once again the idea of “Trained Incapacity”… but with a twist.  Goleman uses the term to describe Computer Nerds (before being a nerd was chic) who had such specialized knowledge that all interpersonal skills were essentially trained out of them to make room for all the cognitive smarts (explaining @jdferries and his ZERO score in Feeling on the Meyer’s-Briggs Inventory).  The emphasis on the cognitive, the measurable… the right answer trains out the "soft skills" of interpersonal communication, broad scope critical thinking and analysis.

As the selfsame @jdferries and I were discussing the high level of frustration amongst students who resist open-ended, critical thinking assignments (just tell me what you want and I’ll give you the answer!)… which led us on our typical late day, coffee powered dialogue…. ending at the conclusion that we (educators/parents/legislators) inadvertently train students to be incapacitated… we’ve trained them well that there is a correct answer which in turn translates to a grade which reflects mastery of a skill.  JD’s took this further in his parallel post “On Stopwatches...We’ve Trained Them Well”.

At the same time we are training students that the world revolved on single, correct answers...the same educational system is training teachers that there is a single, correct way to teach.  I kept an eye on the Chicago Public School teacher’s strike, happening in part because of an evaluation system attempting to quantify teacher performance on a standardized evaluation.  The same week I was at a meeting of Central Indiana tech directors and PD types discussing how the RISE evaluation system was being translated into computer programs where administrators checked electronic boxes and a teacher’s value is spit out in a spreadsheet.  And then… a vendor cold called (in person, unannounced  – the nerve!) to talk to our principal about his product that promises to cut an administrators workload by 60-70%!  (I intercepted said salesperson as our principal was on retreat and I happened to be loitering at the front desk - lucky him!)

This product promises to AUTOMATE the pre-conference, post conference and teacher growth plan while providing REAL TIME data to Central Office… all while PERSONALIZING the process with rubrics they provide (emphasis theirs – and yes, it’s as ANNOYING in the flyer as it is in this post). It seems we are training teachers and administrators well… To think that there is a correct way to teach.  This correct way can be measured via a computer form, automated into a report that is directly uploaded into a data warehouse to determine teacher performance. 

I argue this insistence of the correct way to teach is creating teachers who are trained to incapacity.  Techs complain teachers won’t try a new technology… of course!  We’ve trained them to wait until some PD trainer comes by and instructs them on the proper way to use the tool.  Administrators complain teachers won’t try a new, innovative educational model…. of course!  We haven’t held a training explaining the 6 (+ 1) traits of the model and how to incorporate the model into the standardized, paced curriculum.  Students complain the class is boring…of course!  We outsourced evaluations to a vendor created rubric which has a box to check that students are “quiet and in order” so classroom practices ensure quiet and order.  We are training the art out of teaching with our insistence on objectively measuring, in the most time efficient manner, the specialized knowledge of the trained professional educator.  And we only have our data driven decision-making selves to blame.

I argue that there is no “right way” to teach.  Certainly not one that can be checked off on an electronic form (although - at least this vendor’s product was cross-platform).  Teaching is an art (and a calling – but that’s another post for another day).  It is influence by who we are as individuals and as a collective body in mission and vision.  In his keynote “When I First Went to School There Was No School” at the International Colloquium on Jesuit Secondary Education, Fr. Agbonkiangmeghe Orobator, SJ asked several times for the audience to reflect on various ideas, all starting with “What if the art of education was… 

 like shepherding and accompanying  those entrusted to us along the path of  knowledge, truth, and discovery?
about making the  impossible possible  – creating new opportunities, enabling latent capabilities, discovering wider horizons, crossing new frontiers, stimulating limitless creativity
a journey of creating community – a community of solidarity, compassion, friendship, and mutual support?”

I suggest you take the time to watch his keynote.  It will change you.  It will change your view of the purpose of education.  I will give you a hint… the purpose is not a correct answer in a box sent in real time to a data warehouse at the Central Office.

Brainstorming at a workshop "If You Could Build Your Ideal School..."

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