Wednesday, January 29, 2014

High Fructose Corn Syrup

"They're calling this the Bible of effective instruction!" my former principal excitedly announced four years ago in front of his entire teaching staff at the beginning of the school year. He was talking about Doug Lemov's book, Teach Like a ChampionIn my five years of teaching, four have always started with school leadership enthusiastically distributing copies of this book. In short, Teach Like a Champion outlines 49 techniques for inexperienced teachers to become "master teachers." Before I take a shit on the movement this book has created, I'll say this: Teach Like a Champion does aptly summarize what any teacher should do at the minimum. It's by no means a recipe for championship teaching, but rather a list of tools all teachers should be comfortable using when appropriate. The "championship" teaching happens when those 49 techniques are coupled with passion, personality, grit, intuition, and improvisation skills. 

My "beef" isn't with Teach Like a Champion or Doug Lemov. It's with principals, school networks, education consultants, private education companies, Teach for America, and other influential presences in education who have decided that reading this book will transform energetic and inexperienced 22-year old first-year teachers into Jaime Escalante (see also here). It's gotten so popular with everyone (except teachers, of course), that some principals are even using specific language from this book to evaluate teachers. So instead of being evaluated on presence, content delivery, execution, and technique, some unlucky bastards are being evaluated by shit like Technique #8-Post It (be sure your students know your objective for the day by posting it on the board). No shit, Sherlock.

Imagine a doctor wrote Treat Like a Champion, in which rookie doctors are advised to "diagnose the patient" and "check vital signs." All straight-forward and routine, but repackaged and presented as revolutionary. Real doctors and anyone else significant in medicine wouldn't allow that book to take off. The entire situation sounds ridiculous, but it's happening in education and it's devaluing the teaching profession. Teach Like a Champion (and other books like it) are trying to whittle down the major ingredients of a master teacher into a "you can do this too" checklist. They then dangle this list in front of unfulfilled, bleeding-heart types who eat this shit up and believe they can be great and change the world if they only embrace these golden techniques. 

Sadly, these suckers learn much too late that greatness can't be broken down to small, digestible parts and sold to the masses. As a species, human beings have this tendency to want to break everything that's great or perfect down into a science. "How can we scale this?" Fuck you. Scale that. I don't believe everything can be quantified. What baffles my mind is that even the big swinging dicks on Wall Street agree with me: they have a term for something they can't completely quantify: synergy. Investment bankers typically deem synergy as the primary reason for a corporate merger, i.e. the combined company (the whole) is greater than the two separate companies (the sum of the parts).

Other industries have also learned a lesson similar to what education hasn't. Just about a year before Doug Lemov wrote Teach Like a Champion, Michael Pollan wrote In Defense of Food, a book that blew the lid on food science. In his book, Pollan juxtaposes America's nutrition obsession with our nation's increasing obesity rate. This nutrition obsession created a desire to answer the question, "what really makes food great?" As a result, we funded scientific studies to deconstruct food in order to understand its vital components and ultimately, figure out what makes that particular food "healthy." The findings of those studies drove food producers and processors to begin replacing real food with "food-like substances" fortified with vitamins and minerals. These processed foods were marketed as healthier but most importantly, they were cheaper to make.

As a consequence of fortifying processed foods with the "good" components of healthy food, Pollan notes that America's health got worse. As it turns out, nutrition in foods is optimal when the whole food is consumed, not simply its individual components (e.g. eating an orange vs. taking vitamin-C supplements). The conclusion being there's synergy in eating real, natural food that you'll never obtain from eating crap injected with vitamins. The same goes for teaching.

If America demands "champion" teachers for its students, then we need to completely overhaul the teacher certification process. It's too fucking easy to become a teacher in this country, which makes it difficult to ween out people who would be ineffective teachers in the classroom. Teacher certification programs should develop the whole teacher with content knowledge, apprenticeship, and teacher techniques. If however, America wants to settle for cheap ineffective sheep, then we're doing the right thing by treating Teach Like a Champion as the supreme teaching doctrine. For my sake and our nation's sake, I hope we choose to revamp teacher certification because I'm really tired of working with teachers who try to quantify everything because that's the only thing they took away from their three-month Teach for America summer training.


Anonymous said...

Wow - excellent connection made between food science and teacher prep programs. Never thought about it that way. We need whole apples, not just vitamin A

Anonymous said...

"In Defense of Real Teaching" - your next book?