What Einstein DID Say

Back once again to Sidney Hook’s Education For Modern Man, which may be the focus of several posts here. In many ways, this thought-provoking book stands as the perfect postwar counterpart to Hannah Arendt’s magisterial essay The Crisis In Education (which should be required reading in every tertiary education course).

One of Hook’s contentions is that in “scientific” areas, the study of the great historical figures and especially their works can be usefully superseded by a methodical, more-or-less ahistorical approach, dealing only with the accumulated scientific knowledge of the present day. He argues:

The historical classics in mathematics and science are often written in an outmoded notation. Works of genius as they are, they are also full of false starts, irrelevant bypaths, and blind alleys. The science of our day has already extricated the rich ore and put it in a form which facilitates more rapid comprehension and further progress.

It is hard to disagree with such a conclusion, at least in reference to the physical sciences. And it is interesting to note that Hook saw this as an argument against an overly conservative approach to education, in which the figures of the past were accorded undue reverence. Yet, ironically, vacuous activities which constitute something of a throwback to this approach (“pretend you were Leonardo Da Vinci/Marie Curie working on your theory”, etc.) are now promoted most often by educational progressivists. There is probably an element of the model figure fixation inherent in these activities as well.

To support his point, Hook adduces some comments by…Albert Einstein, with whom he had corresponded. But there’s nothing about the sacredness of the intuitive mind here, or some nonsense about fishes and trees, or even about everybody being a genius. What we have here instead is the plainest of good sense:

In my opinion there should be no compulsory reading of classical authors in the field of science. I believe also that the laboratory studies should be selected from a purely pedagogical and not historical point of view.

Very similar to Hook’s attitude as explained above, as you can see. And yet there is a small kicker: Einstein was too cultured and sophisticated a person to subscribe to a purely instrumentalist approach to the teaching of science and technical subjects. He goes on to state (emphasis mine):

On the other side, I am convinced that lectures concerning the historical development of ideas in different fields are of great value for intelligent students, for such studies are furthering very effectively the independence of judgment and independence from blind belief in temporarily accepted views. I believe that such lectures should be treated as a kind of beautiful luxury

In other words: such stories add spice, interest and occasionally moral heft to the study of technical subjects. This is a decidedly humanist approach, and one which was described very well by Benjamin Evans in a recent blog:

Teaching is similar – to make one’s subject come alive for children (at any level), one needs a massive ‘backstory’. We need anecdotes, historical context; weird, wonderful and forgotten stories; the people behind the discoveries, the lost manuscripts, the failures before the success and an ability to extend topics and stories in multiple directions.

For teachers, anecdotes are the salt in the soup, the parmesan cheese on the bolognese sauce. Whether it is a historical curiosity concerning a Newton or a Pascal (maths/science), a funny incident from the teacher’s own travels in a foreign country (languages), a relevant pun or tongue-twister (English) or a dozen other things, these small effusions from the teacher’s deep store of subject knowledge and enthusiasm are the things which distinguish dry instrumentalism from real humanism.

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Best Lesson Ever

I have a colleague who is an outstanding teacher of Japanese. Her knowledge of her subject is second to none, her classroom management skills are top-notch, she expects the best of both her students and herself, and she teaches with energy, humour and verve. Her students’ results over the past several years have been, in a word, spectacular. And like so many outstanding teachers I have known, she came to the profession relatively late in life (see my comments on such teachers in this post).

She also, not coincidentally, has no truck with fads or gimmickry in education, and has a wealth of tales of gimmickry gone wrong.

A few days ago, she told me a story about one of her own practicums which I thought was worth sharing here. Her master teacher on this particular prac was considerably younger than her, and evidently in thrall to all the current education fashions.

One afternoon, Master Teacher came to my colleague in the staffroom. “Want to come and see the best lesson ever?” she said conspiratorially. My colleague was intrigued, and followed Master Teacher to a Year 9 class in which there were bottles of shaving cream on the desks.

Shaving cream? Read on.

Master Teacher instructed the students to cover their desks with the malodorous cream before smoothing it out to a thickness of a centimetre or so. The students were then asked to use their fingers to draw, in the shaving cream, some Kanji* characters. My colleague was then asked to go around the desks and judge who had drawn the best one. The cream was then smoothed over again, with further squirts as required.

This continued throughout the “lesson”, with a good deal of mess, laughter and chaos, not to mention liberal application of paper towels. Oh, and a few Kanji characters were traced in the foam with questionable expertise by the students.

One can imagine the sort of mood the students were in by the time the bell went. (One thing is for sure, their teacher for the next period could certainly imagine it.) As they filed out, one of the students duly said to Master Teacher, “Miss, that was the best lesson ever!”.

The most tragi-comic aspect of this story, of course, is that Master Teacher evidently considered this the sole criterion of a good lesson.

* Chinese characters used to represent Japanese words; Kanji is one of the three co-existing Japanese writing systems, along with Hiragana and Katakana.

The Price of Fame

There has been plenty of, well, discussion on edutwitter recently concerning a slide from a recent talk by one of the well-known progressivist talk-circuiteers. Even the most charitable interpretation of the slide would mark it out as deeply insulting to the teaching profession. As for the less charitable interpretations, don’t get me started.

As usual, the best commentary on the issue came from Greg Ashman, and his focus on the nonsense term “futurist” is well-founded.

Not surprisingly, the exalted Mr. Price OBE found out about the twitter kerfuffle, and responded to Greg in particular with a spittle-flecked apologia which could best be described as a combination of don’t-you-know-who-I-am and what-I-really-meant-was.

There is one feature of his response which is worth commenting on at greater length. It is the disingenuous affectation of being above all the edutwitter debates:

“…seeing educators attacking each other on Twitter is too depressing a spectacle…”

This is becoming a common refrain among progressivists who are dismayed to find that they no longer have a monopoly on opinion in education circles. Similar “why can’t they be nice?” hand-wringing was expressed recently by a certain Queensland education academic, whose own previous behaviour on social media left quite a bit to be desired. Those with long memories will know that Mr. Price’s own comments had, well, tended towards the trenchant at times.

This is because now, at long last, there is genuine public debate – something that education has had far too little of over the past few decades. A flabby progressivist consensus has held sway in all the sectors that really matter: among academics, policymakers and a large proportion of the teaching profession as well. Consultants selling intellectual snake-oil have thrived on gee-whiz presentations to star-struck senior executive, with virtually no public opposition.

That is changing. And these people, who are used to unquestioning adulation, are finding criticism (including the more visceral criticism of social media) pretty hard to take.

“…you’re getting angry over a slide? Really?”

This is either disingenuous or indicative of a singular lack of understanding of where people like Greg are coming from.

The slide is merely an indication (and a very telling one, incidentally) of a much, much more widespread problem.

Teachers are angry about decades’ worth of smartly-dressed consultants peddling “futurist” drivel to the profession.

Teachers are angry about such consultants, whose experience of the classroom is either long in the past or non-existent, having real influence on education policy.

Here in Australia, teachers and especially parents are angry that the education system, thanks mainly to the 21st-century brigade, has become so devoid of proper substance that parents who want to ensure that their child receives a proper, content-rich education usually need to pay for tutoring.

The progressivist talk-circuit clique are used to adoration, and their fame rests on it. But if you can take the adoration, you have to be able to take the criticism as well.

Hooked On Languages

It is always a pleasure to come across a thoughtful book on the philosophy and purpose of education, and one of which I hadn’t heard until recently is the American philosopher Sidney Hook’s Education for Modern Man. Hook was a student and disciple of John Dewey, but the book is far from a simple paean to progressivism. Instead, Hook makes a humane and considered attempt to marry the supposed new requirements of the postwar age (the book was first written in 1946, and subsequently revised) with the principles of a liberal, humanist education. Although there are many parts of the book with which I disagree, it is a thought-provoking, worthwhile and often witty read.

There are many parts of the book which I might touch on in future blog posts (including a real Einstein quote for once, which is worth a second look), but for now I would like to focus on Hook’s comments on the study of foreign languages. Here I believe he has grasped a fundamental point which so many of those involved in contemporary education policy ignore:

The main reason why students should be requested to learn another language is that it is the most effective medium by which, when properly taught, they can acquire a sensitivity to language, to the subtle tones, undertones and overtones of words

And further:

Knowledge of different languages, and the attempts made to communicate back and forth between them in our own minds, broaden and diversify our own feelings. They…liberate us from the prejudice that…our words are the natural signs of things and events.

Similar sentiments have been expressed on this blog, and it is crucial to note that Hook adds the caveat “when properly taught”. This is why, if we really want students to obtain the maximum intellectual value from studying a language, all the songs, anime, croissant days and so forth won’t do. It is only by familiarising themselves properly with a different linguistic structure, and observing the shades of meaning which sometimes reflect a different way of perceiving the world, that students can get the most out of the exercise.

With an instrumentalist approach to education always lurking in the background in Australia, the status of foreign language study is likely to be whittled away even further in years to come. It is all the more vital, then, that language teachers and their professional organisations point out these benefits, which no other subject can offer: the exposure to new ways of structuring speech and writing, and to the subtleties of semantics in English and how they relate to similar nuances in other languages. This is, among other things, one of the best means of ensuring the care and precision in both spoken and written expression which we all want to inculcate in our students.

Hook also has some pertinent comments to make on the criminally under-valued skill of translation…but that can be dealt with in a future post.

Just a Job, Part III

To continue with the list of reasons why an overblown idea of the value of teaching is not something to be welcomed:

4. Mission Creep. The idea of “teaching as a mission” is very seductive, but often quite corrosive as well. Younger teachers, in my experience, often tend to feel that the “mission” of teaching includes not just providing classroom instruction but taking an interest in students’ lives.

There are occasional, specific cases where it may be appropriate for teachers to fulfil such a pastoral role. But in general, as experienced practitioners know, it is best for teachers to steer well and truly clear of students’ personal lives. Not just because of the obvious legal risks, but because it is far more often perceived as an intrusion rather than a friendly interest.

Watching a student endure a messy parental separation, an unexpected death in the family or an abusive home situation can be heartbreaking, and every good teacher will try to alleviate such a burden to the best of their ability, and to the extent of their professional remit. But it is not our “mission” to save children from all the calamities that the outside world can throw at them – and we can sometimes make things unnecessarily worse when we do.

5. Lack of Realism. There are some in the education community for whom “pay the teachers more!” is the answer to every problem. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that this crashingly simplistic attitude has plenty to do with the idea that teaching is such a “special” job, since such cries are often accompanied by the usual rhapsodizing about the miracles that teachers perform.

Again, teachers are not paid especially well, but they are not paid especially badly either. Some pundits, however, talk about this issue in such a way that you would think there was no such thing as a job market at all, and that there were no other jobs which don’t attract particularly good pay. My partner works in retail, which has, I suspect, helped me to keep these things in perspective over the years.

But what is wrong with having passionate advocates for increased teacher pay? Two things: firstly, passionate advocacy frequently becomes unrealistic advocacy at the drop of a hat. (Calls for increased pay, incidentally, often go hand-in-hand with the misguided calls for untrammelled teacher autonomy.) Secondly, the pretence that everything in education would be just hunky dory if teachers were paid more has come to serve as a serious distraction from the many structural issues which plague the education system in Australia and elsewhere.

6. Discouragement of Outsiders. This is the most subtle of all the downsides, but in some ways is it the most important of all.

To this day, a certain lingering suspicion attaches to those who have come to teaching late in life, often after a long stay in a different career. Couldn’t they hack it in the corporate world? Made enough money already? Slumming it in teaching because they thought it would be “easy”? We’ll show them!

Most career teachers, if they are honest with themselves, have either expressed such sentiments or heard them expressed by similarly experienced colleagues. And these sentiments are, to some extent, rooted in the idea that teaching is indeed a “calling”, not something to do as a fallback after another career has gone sour or become intolerable.

In fact, teachers who have come to the profession late in their lives after lengthy careers elsewhere should be treasured. They can bring the benefit of rich experience to bolster their subject knowledge, and they can also bring a precious sense of perspective to the sometimes insular world of a school.

And crucially, they ought not to be discouraged by the idea that teaching is only for those who feel an immediate sense of vocation. I have seen many such late starters in teaching gradually working themselves into the job, and eventually drawing great pleasure and satisfaction from their new career, as well as becoming excellent teachers. Mr. Holland’s Opus may be one of the corniest films in cinema history, but its essential premise, that even teachers-by-accident can greatly enrich the lives of their students, is sound enough.

So let’s not get too big for our boots, but let’s not devalue ourselves either. Teaching is, essentially, just a job. But it’s a perfectly respectable, useful and honest one. And like all jobs, it ought to be done as well as possible.

Just a Job, Part II

To present teaching as a “mission/calling”, or teachers as “superheroes”, or the teaching profession in general as special, unique and wonderful, can have a number of baneful effects in the real world. These effects interact and overlap and can be hard to define, but I’ve grouped them under six basic headings, the first three of which are below:

1. Workload. When young teachers are regularly told that they will be going into a profession where they will be expected to be superheroes, they are implicitly encouraged to stretch their efforts to the limit, in the very years when early burnout is an ever-present risk. Experienced teachers, of course, know which bits of “extra effort” are genuinely useful and which are simply exercises in self-flagellation, but this will not usually be apparent to those just entering the profession.

Again, a relevant memory from my neophyte years has always stayed with me: on seeing me lovingly (some might say fussily) pasting together various bits of paper to create the world’s greatest worksheet, a member of the aforementioned Irish-Catholic fraternity offered some typical Irish-Catholic advice: “What the f–k are you doin’ all dat for?” “Well, it’s my first year teaching, I thought I should be trying to get things right,” I stammered in reply. “Oh, don’t,” sighed my interlocutor. “Just troy to survoive it!”

2. Susceptibility to Snake-Oil. If teachers see themselves as superheroes, or magicians, they are all the more likely to be susceptible to the sort of magical thinking that underpins so many of the snake-oil solutions offered to educational problems. Engineers are unlikely to be impressed by people telling them that “creativity is as important as understanding the laws of motion, and we should treat it with the same status”. But teachers often fall for this sort of nonsense – partly, in my view, because of the perception of teaching as unique and quasi-mystical.

Which leads us to…

3. Head-in-the-Clouds. Needless to say, it is sometimes helpful and even fruitful to take a step back and consider the overall purpose of education, and I would recommend Ben Newmark’s outstanding blog post on the topic to all teachers. But at other times, teachers must keep their minds on the minutiae of their job; and that includes, of course, their command of their subject area (or, in the case of primary teachers, their command of the material in the curriculum).

The teachers-as-heroes, teaching-as-magic narrative can and often does encourage a lackadaisical attitude to the nuts and bolts of the job, most notably among some senior executive whose relative distance from the classroom gives them more leeway in this regard. When they come back from self-congratulatory conferences preaching fuzzy generalities which downplay the importance of the fundamentals, this can have an effect on staff…junior staff in particular.

Part III coming soon.

Just a Job, Part I

My first teaching job was at a Catholic school, although I am not a Catholic. Among other things, my three years there (which were, on the whole, enjoyable and instructive ones) gave me plenty of experience of, and appreciation for, the inimitable Irish sense of humour.

A particularly memorable example of it came when one of the priests at the school was asked by some senior students what had led him to follow such a “career”. These youngsters were perhaps expecting a heartfelt disquisition on service to God, or the search for a higher purpose in life. Instead, the cleric quickly replied, “Oh, I couldn’t get a woman and I couldn’t get a job.” Like all the best jokes, this had an element of truth to it.

Later that same year, a particularly condescending and pretentious staff development session began with a visiting nonentity unctuously asking the staff as a body, “Now, why is it that we (meaning you, of course, in typical consultant style) work at this school?”. Another of the staff humourists heckled immediately from the back row, “Because we need the money, most of us.”

It was a timely reminder that for all the trendy depictions of teaching as an almost spiritual calling, like, erm, the priesthood, in the final analysis it is just a job. And there’s nothing wrong with that, folks.

Although in some respects teaching is indeed an undervalued profession, we teachers are occasionally inclined to give ourselves airs, as they say. There are the nauseating “teachers are superheroes” memes, the references to teaching as a “mission”, the hallmark-card vapourings of certain “awwww-some!!” edutweeters, and many more.

The latest instance of the genre was an uncharacteristic over-reaction from Katharine Birbalsingh, someone for whom I have very great respect. Sure, there are some who cleave to the “those who can’t, teach” cliché. But these days, especially among the media commentariat, they are far outnumbered by those who invest teaching with an aura of semi-sanctity.

Teaching is challenging. True. But so are most professions, and some of them provide the sorts of challenges that teachers never have to face in any form. Teaching requires a relatively high level of intelligence. Also true. But to imply that those who leave the profession do so because they are deficient in this regard is simply disrespectful.

But does it really matter that some teachers, and many outside the profession, are inclined to see it as considerably more than “just a job”? After all, don’t teachers need that little gee-up after another Friday afternoon with an out-of-control Year 9 class, or another weekend slogging through wads of marking? Shouldn’t there be some extra respect granted to the profession that makes up for the unspectacular pay and the thousand natural shocks of the classroom?

The sad truth is that an inflated view of teaching carries with it many problems, which can affect the profession as a whole in a very negative way. More on that in Part II.