Sunday, February 24, 2013

What is Teaching?

Chris at A Blog About School has been asking the question "What is Teaching?"

Here's what teaching seems to mean to too many of the teachers I've encountered.  I'll express it as a loop (for non-programmers, the steps in the loop will be repeated as long as the condition after "while" remains true):
while (the sun rises in the East) {
make the kids do something;
judge their performance.
Of these two steps, "judge their performance" is the most important. A teacher's job is to grade the students' performance; a student's job is to acquire good grades.

One of the causes of Older Daughter's depression is the constant grading at Friends Omphalos. For instance, Older Daughter's English teacher wants the kids to bring the book they're discussing to class, so he compels the behavior by giving the kids a grade, worth as much as a quiz, depending on whether they remembered to bring the book. Older Daughter, of course, forgets to bring her book and loses a quiz grade. As a "generous" gesture, the teacher says she can get most of the points back if she remembers her book next time.

Last year, her Science teacher had the kids make a web page as a project. He designed an elaborate rubric giving points for every aspect of the project; one that I remember is the kids could get a certain number of points for having a good picture on the page. This teaches neither science nor web design, but it does generate grades.

The constant grading ensures that the student experiences school as an unrelenting stream of demands made by those in authority over her, followed by constant judgement of how well she fulfilled their demands by their often opaque and unpredictable standards.

It's as if your boss told you to dance the tango and then docked your pay when you flubbed it.

What does any of this have to do with learning?


  1. I like your blog!

    And I hate, hate, hate rubrics.

  2. Too depressing for words. I guess I'll be homeschooling my grandkids, eh? When that day comes in the distant future...

  3. "The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents but instead rely on the evaluation of certified officials." From Dumbing us Down by John Taylor Gatto

    I am becoming more and more convinced that grading and tracking and judging is damaging to kids. It causes them to subjugate their own sense of accomplishment and instead only value the opinions of others. Eventually, they either don’t trust their own judgement, or it’s been beaten it to death and they couldn't find their true feelings they wanted to.

    I find "what is teaching" to be less important of a question than "what is learning?"

    We must trust our children as THE LEARNERS. Let them decide what is important to know, what questions to ask, how to find the answers.

    "...stop asking questions, stop constantly trying to find out how much people understood. We have to let learners decide when they want to ask questions. It often takes them a long time even to find out what questions they want to ask. It is not the teacher’s proper task to be constantly testing and checking the understanding of the learner. That is the learner’s task, and only the learner can do it. The teacher’s job is to answer the questions when the learners ask them, or to try to help learners understand better when they ask for that help." How Children Fail by John Holt

    Not to be an obnoxious know-it-all, but it alarms me a little when you speak of your daughter's depression. Free her from the prison of school. You can do it.

  4. @Cheryl Ursin -- thanks for stopping by!

    @Deb -- believe me, you're not half as alarmed as I am about my daughter's depression. We are working hard to help her, but I don't want to go into too many details.

  5. The sad thing is many many high schoolers are depressed.