20 August 2012

Wisdom and Rules

I don't know about you, but I enjoy a good lecture once in a while. In fact, I've even lectured on lecturing. (I don't want to give too much away, but there was a powerpoint featuring a photo of Bill Gates with horns, because he is, you know, the devil) I've gone so far as to write posts on this very blog about my love of lecture. However, to be fair, that post was mostly an excuse to link to a clip of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

In recent years, lecture has become relatively fashionable again, at least outside of the classroom, through the explosion in popularity of the TED talks. I found the one below particularly enlightening. 

Several things jumped off the screen to me the first time I watched this lecture. The first was how stereotypically academic Barry Schwartz is. Seriously. The only thing he's missing is patches on the elbows of his jacket, and he may have those. For Pete's sake, he gave the whole lecture looking over his glasses like I look at a kid who won't stop muttering during class.

More importantly though was his insistence, somewhere around the 9:30 mark, that rules and incentives are ruining our wisdom. As he puts it, "rules are destroying our moral wisdom". This is especially true in education, not just for students, but also for teachers. 

Students who are constrained by too many over-specific rules are never given the opportunity to figure out their own moral compass. Instead, they are always governed by adults. Then, when they graduate, we fling them out into the world and expect them to not be miscreants. That's unreasonable. Just as schools are a place (we hope) for them to learn social and work skills (in addition to all of the REALLY IMPORTANT ACADEMIC INFORMATION) they should be a place for kids to figure out right from wrong. Teachers certainly play a huge role in that, but not by coming up with more and more rules. I think the best teachers offer very few specific rules, instead relying on a broad set of respect-based expectations. If you get to specific, kids will spend more effort looking for loopholes than they will becoming better people. There's a really great argument to be made in support of the idea that binge drinking is essentially a response to finally being given some freedom in the world. I'm not going to make it here, but I think I could.

However, I will make this argument. That since teachers are facing more and more rules and regulations for how to run their classrooms, classroom teaching is being ruined. In just my classroom I have the following things which I am required to have on the walls; Williams Act Compliance forms in English and Spanish, district mission and vision, Expected School-Wide Learning Results, the "Grizzly 5" school-wide behavior expectations, a poster about the school district, and emergency procedures. I also have a BTEOTLIWBAT sign and every day have to write a lesson objective on the board in a proscribed manner. At a higher level, I have district pacing guides, district benchmark tests, and a curriculum that I am expected to follow. It's almost as bad as the CPS example in the video! It gets worse when it comes to the Internet. Heaven should forbid that I try to show a video on youtube or a clip from the Daily Show! I get the access denied screen more quickly than a kid gets thrown out of class for spitting on the floor.

So what is the result on teachers? Well, teachers act like kids. We spend more time in inservices complaining about the rules and looking for ways around them than we do talking about learning. Further, the strict schedules and heavy emphasis on testing makes teachers less willing to experiment and try creative teaching techniques. It becomes so hard to bring in interesting and fun activities that many teachers just give up. It is just as Mr. Schwartz points out: mediocre. Sure, no one does anything really reprehensible, but no one does anything really great either. In a nation where we're grinding our teeth about being mediocre, imposing more rules on teachers doesn't seem like the way to get to greatness.

Barry says that he understands why there have to be rules, they are there to prevent disasters. I get that. I'm sure if we could show youtube, some knucklehead would show a video with a swear word in it. When you operate without curriculum guides, some people decide that playing Finding Nemo is a great lesson plan for when they're talking about oceans in Earth Science.

The way to fix that isn't to simply put more rules in place. The way you fix it is by hiring better people. Or, if you're stuck with a staff you can't trust, you get into classrooms more often. No self-respecting teacher is going to do something inappropriate if they believe their boss or a co-worker might walk through the door. People will make bad decisions. Giving them a larger set of rules to follow isn't going to stop that. However, when you give them so many rules that it feels like they don't have choices, then they won't think about the decisions they're making, because they won't feel either empowered to make good decisions or feel trusted to make good decisions (in most cases, it's both of those things). 

But I think that the imposition of rules in education goes beyond worries about misconduct and bad teaching. I think that many of the rule imposers genuinely believe that by forcing teachers to do things a certain way, test scores will go up. There is an entire industry dedicated to testing and test prep. The data crunchers who work in education (but not in classrooms) are constantly telling admin teams that there are certain things that will absolutely improve test scores. My BTEOTLIWBAT sign is one of these magic bullets. Studies show that if students know what they have to do by the end of the hour, they will have better scores. 

That's great, but it ignores a larger fact. If that student has an "effective teacher", their scores will improve as well (and by a larger factor). The problem is that we have a hard time defining "effective". You see, different teachers are effective in different ways. I work in a department with 7 other professionals. I know that none of them would teach their class the way I teach mine, and I wouldn't teach the way they teach. I also know that most of them are really effective, and that they get the most out of the kids they teach. (lest you think I'm just blowing smoke here, one of them had 73% pass rate in AP World and another did better than a 50% pass rate on the APUSH exam. They don't suck). 

But since it's hard to put "effective" in a nice neat box, we impose more and more rules on teachers. Because that's easy, and easy is easier than hard. Unfortunately, our educational leaders won't watch Barry Schwartz, because if they did, they would have to examine their own moral wisdom, and I suspect that they would find it was below our expectations for them. 

And now, because this post was far too serious, I give you one of my favorite youtube videos. Ever.

And a picture of a clown with bagpipes. Admittedly, it's no Velociraptor on a bicycle, but it's close. 

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