Saturday, January 22, 2011

Barry Schwartz: Using our practical wisdom

If it is true that doctors should see patients not as organ systems and diseases but as people - people with lives, then it is equally as true that teachers should see students not as test scores but as people - people with most of their lives ahead of them!

Doctors want this.

Teachers want this.

We should all want this.

However, the rules and incentives that are driving education policies today are squeezing the life out of classrooms. Standardized curriculums and high stakes testing are demoralizing both the practice and practitioners - that is, the teachers, along with entire education system, are being demoralized and deprofessionalized by policy makers' incessant demand to rule and incentivize everything in education.

Just as mandatory sentencing laws take judgement out of judging, so do content-bloated, standardized curriculums and high stakes tests rob teachers of teaching (and students from real learning).

So how do we fix this?

Firstly, we need to understand what Barry Schwartz means when he says:

There is no set of rules, no matter how detailed, no matter how specific, no matter how carefully monitored and enforced - there is no set of rules that will get us what we need.
If we can see the truth in such a statement, then we can start to see how grossly wrong-headed today's test and punish accountability movement truly is. In it's current context, accountability is simply a code word meaning more control for people outside the classroom over those who are inside the classroom.

We can not externally impose our way to a better education system.

Teachers are not technicians, and any policy that attempts to turn teachers into technicians is reckless and ultimately harmful to children.

Most teachers understand this.

Most teachers have the moral skills to figure out the right thing; however, for the most part, teachers lack the moral will to do the right thing collectively. We don't lack the research and logic to oppose scripted curriculum and standardized testing - rather, we lack the courage to do so.

While it is true that a "system dodger" can work inside of a highly prescribed and ultimately deprofessionalized work environment that demands rule-following and enacts manipulative incentives, they simply can not and will not be able to sustain such subversion over a lengthy period of time. It is inevitable that these teachers will either be found out or burned out; the system will either root them out or grind them down.

Squirreling away little chunks of real learning inside of an oppressively scripted, mistrustful and manipulative education system is not good enough.

Like Barry Schwartz, I suggest we need less "system dodgers" and more "system changers". That is, we need more teachers to not just bend the rules in isolation, but to change the rules collaboratively and publicly.

This is why teachers need to define their collaboration as both a union and a professional association. This would require the union and its teachers to still focus on salary, benefits, pensions and other financial matters while also focusing on the professionalism and pedagogy of their practice.

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