Saturday, September 6, 2008

Who Becomes a Teacher?

In Nancy Flanagan's latest post, she argues that Dan Willingham's debunking of learning styles and other educational theories is not as practically significant as it may seem, arguing that

The greatest pedagogical mistake is not, as Willingham asserts, trying to teach all students and subjects in their preferred modality—nobody does that anyway. The biggest misconception is assuming that other people learn the way you do, or valuing your particular strengths and preferences over your students’.
And she reminded me of a question that I've been wondering about for a long time: do teachers have different learning preferences, on average, than students?

In other words, do teachers (including professors) have different views on what constitutes successful teaching than the average student? Only about a quarter of our students go on to complete a 4-year college degree, but all teachers must have at least that. Similarly, only about 5% of undergrads go on to earn a PhD -- something that almost all professors have at most institutions. In other words, teachers are not a representative sample of the population.

And it makes me wonder if teachers have different experiences in and impressions of school while they're students than does the average student. More specifically, since teachers had more success in school than the average student I wonder if people who become teachers are the ones who found school more enjoyable and the pedagogy more interesting.

During my undergrad years I served on a committee to revise the course evaluations that are given at the end of each semester. I pushed for the surveys to include more questions about how engaging the teaching and assignments of the professor were, while many of the faculty on the committee pushed to ask more questions about how much time and effort students had put into the course. I resented the implication that if students weren't getting what they wanted out of a class that it was their fault. And then I started teaching. Students complained that classes and assignments were boring, and I was shocked at student behavior and blamed them for not working hard enough (as did, I think I think it's fair to say, most teachers at the school).

Part of the reason for my reaction (and that of the faculty and other teachers) is simple defensiveness -- if the problem with a class is that it's not engaging enough or that the right assignments aren't given, then it becomes the fault of the teacher. But I think the larger reason is a lack of understanding. I'd leave class and incredulous and saying something to the effect of "when I was in 6th grade, I listened to the teacher and did my homework; why can't they?" And I've heard people on the college level say or imply that they sat down and read the hundreds of pages of poorly-written, dry academic literature each week and they don't understand why a student wouldn't be able to do that.

In short, I wonder if teachers and professors are the ones for whom our current system of education worked. They're the ones who not only succeeded in school, but went on to voluntarily attend more. And I wonder if that means that teachers have difficulty understanding those who struggle or would rather learn a different way (generally speaking, of course).


ms-teacher said...

I worked with a colleague who really struggled with math in school who turned out to be one of our best math teachers. The reason is that she understood the struggle that many of her students went through when it came to math.

Imho, some of the worst teachers that I have seen in the classroom are those with Ph.D attached to their names. This is because they get frustrated with students in which learning does not come easy.

While some ed-policy pundits may think that teacher are somehow less qualified to teach if they don't graduate from the top of their class, I don't agree. I think those at the top who get "traditional schooling" aren't very sympathetic towards those who don't.

EHT said...

I think you are absolutely right regarding most teachers were sucessful in school because we understood the system....the business of school. This is why as teachers we need to admit the system doesn't work for everyone, and we need to be willing to tweak it here and there to motivate and assist students towards success. Education should not be a cookie cutter process.

Anonymous said...

When I taught in California, some of my more successful colleagues were those who had NOT done very well in school themselves.

I found that colleagues who could say, "Yeah, I understand kids who don't want to do homework over the weekend/ get up early for school/ read the entire assignment," could relate to their students. As a consquence, they had more empathy for the students, and didn't get aggravated very often by typical teenage behaviors.

Regarding MS-TEACHER's comment, I remember a physics teacher (with a Ph.D) in my own high school. He did very well with the very bright students. All other students were hopelessly lost in his class. He honestly couldn't understand their confusion over what seemed to him to be obvious physics concepts. As a result, in spite of his Ph.D, he really was not a very effective teacher on the whole. He probably would have been a much better college professor.

Anonymous said...

Hi Corey.
Thanks for visiting Teacher in a Strange Land and joining the "learning styles" debate. Since Dan Willingham says learning styles don't really exist (although learning preferences and strengths do), the question is: do teachers fall back on a limited number of traditional, preferred pedagogical methods, even when their students might learn more using other methods?

One of the things that drives the Kitchen Table Math folks batty is "constructivist" math curricula that have kids bouncing balls and manipulating cubes, etc. Some people greatly prefer pencil-paper work with math symbols and memorized algorithms. We say those people are "good at math"--but different kinds of kids turn out to be good at math when it's taught differently.

I'm not sure those kids are "kinesthetic learners" (and I know what Willingham would say about that)--but I do know that kids who are not traditionally strong students will produce some amazing things when given alternative paths for absorbing and remixing knowledge.

In my doctoral proseminar on Foundations, the professor staged a role-play where we were assigned seminal historical and contemporary education philosophers and thinkers. (Everyone wanted to be Dewey of course--and pity the poor guy who got stuck being Thorndike.) We then role-played conversations on key issues.

Some of the people in the seminar found the exercise silly and undignified--something you'd do in junior high. Others were angry because we "didn't learn anything" and "wasted time" that could have been spent pontificating or entering more data into Endnote, I guess. I thought it was great, even though many participants were very stiff and found it hard to adapt viewpoints that they didn't agree with, or think up dialogue on the spot without referring to their notes.

And, of course, these folks are the quintessential "good students" whose success in school at all levels brought them to highly advanced scholarship in education.

I do believe we have a very narrow pedagogical focus, and tend to reproduce our own learning preferences almost without thinking.