Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sacred Words -- commentary

School board members must take six hours of continuing education each year, so there I was at the annual school board members’ conference where once again I heard those currently in vogue, sacred words being intoned by the then Commissioner of Education Dr. Ken James: “research based.”

I’m cynical about these words in that the educational landscape is cluttered by research based programs that didn’t live up to their promise; so much so, that many veteran teachers, when a new program is announced, just roll their eyes and think, “here we go again.” What happens between the research and the promise is a guess, but here’s mine.

Research works well in the hard sciences. You set up your experiment and repeat it many times. If you keep getting the same results, you have proved your hypothesis. It does not work so well in the soft sciences. When doing research on human behavior, there are too many variables that can change between the research and the real classroom. Is it even possible to set up exactly the same experiment time after time?

The educational experts doing research in our graduate schools of education are the people to whom law makers turn when making decisions about our public schools, but does their research really tell them more about what needs to be done and how to do it than classroom teachers who work daily with a given set of students?

I’ve never studied in a school of education so I’m going to validate my opinion with the insights of one who has and who teaches in such a school. Here are some notes from “The Classroom Crucible,” by Edward Pauly of Yale University. He’s quoting his colleague Harvey Averch of the Florida International University: “The literature contains numerous examples of educational practices that seem to have affected students’ outcomes. The problem is that there are invariably studies … that find the same educational practices ineffective. … Research has found nothing that consistently and unambiguously makes a difference in students’ outcomes.”

Pauly writes, “When a prescriptive policy tells teachers and students what to do and how to do it, the important differences among classrooms are ignored and even suppressed.”

He gives the following as the First Law of Education Policy: “Policies that prescribe teachers’ and students’ classroom activities do not produce sustain improvements in students’ achievement. To be effective education policies must give up the attempt to prescribe teachers’ and students’ actions.”

His second law states, “Policies applied to classroom activities are thoroughly reformulated by the actions of teachers and students in each classroom.”

Finally he writes, “Prescriptive policies record of failure suggests the need for a Third Law of Education Policy: Education policies should be designed to achieve their effects despite being changed by the choices and responses of teachers and students.”

So, if research doesn’t guarantee much, what are we to do? Years ago, I read an article on psychological counseling and what modality was most appropriate. The writer said that when you subtract the amount of harm done in counseling from the good done, you are lucky if you wind up with at least a zero.

However, he said without these three don’t even begin: total integrity, accurate empathy, and non-possessive warmth. He concluded that if counselors have these three attributes, their modality won’t make much difference.

I suspect the same is true with teaching. Students appreciate and respect a teacher who has total integrity and they trust her. Trust between the teacher and student is essential to learning.

Accurate empathy is also a critical aspect of teacher and student respect. Empathy plays a role in how a teacher relates to students from day to day. Many times I have had teachers tell me that when they saw what a student’s home life was like, it changed how they related to that student. They did not let the student get away with more, but if the student came to school grouchy, for instance, they would understand and maybe avoid a confrontation or respond with some understanding.

Finally, non-possessive warmth means you have nothing personally at stake in your students’ success so you are warm toward them when they are doing well and when they are doing poorly. A student who knows he is cared for will respond more positively than one who feels the teacher would rather he weren’t there or only cares for him when he is doing what she wants.

If a teacher possesses these attributes, it will not make much difference whether her methods are research based or not. Her classroom will be a secure environment where students will learn. Without these three, the teacher’s style or the program used will make little difference.

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