kitchen table math, the sequel: on fear

Thursday, March 15, 2007

on fear

I want to talk about fear. Here are some things I am not afraid of: storms, flying, snakes, the dark, spiders, fire, panhandlers at street corners, unfamiliar animals, credit card debt, blood, needles.

Here is what I am afraid of: low-water crossings. There’s a good reason for this.

In Texas, sudden rain means flash flooding. When I was young every entrance and exit to our neighborhood required passing through a low-water crossing. Once, my father decided he was going to brave one with my mother and me in the vehicle. We stalled mid-way. We were pushed by the current, the truck fishtailing from side-to-side. Water came in the doors. If not for a lone emergency truck which happened to be coming the other way, we may have been swept over. The truck pulled to our side, diverting the water around us, and we drove on. In high school, two of the girls who were in my group when we went to prom (casual friends, all piled into cars because we couldn't afford a limo) later tried to cross during a flash flood and one of them drowned. I’ve gone white-water rafting and been thrown out of the boat, and wasn’t afraid. It’s being trapped in a car that scares me.

So that’s a fear.

Recently I’ve talked about things that have changed my assumptions as a teacher, have made me question the established rhetoric, have made me look more deeply at what I’ve been told, especially when it comes to what is purported to work, and what doesn’t.

Dennis Fermoyle, and TMAO (via D-Ed Reckoning) have me thinking again. Dammit, you guys, I’m supposed to be on Spring Break! (Didn’t stop me from going up to school for three hours today, though. And I’ve been writing lesson plans for next year like crazy this week.)

TMAO's post says, "As I read these endless teacher accounts of being subjected to controlled curriculum, I grow tired rather than invigored, and think shut up rather than right on."

I’m not quite at the shut up stage, but I do wonder. I’ve talked about some colleagues who did not know what DI was, but they’d heard about it, and based their opinions of it on that. I’ve talked about how I was indoctrinated to be suspicious of DI through the subterfuge of calling it "teacher-centered" direction. My purpose here is not to expound on the merits of DI. Except for reading the Englemann book and some other resources found online, I’ve never seen it in action, nor have I seen any model for high school. (Though I do have one of the Englemann books on order to see for myself.)

I often question the idea of teacher autonomy coming, as I did, from several industries where there was no autonomy whatsoever. I’ve seen the argument time and again, and for a very brief time (while being subtly influenced to believe that DI was EVIL), was swayed by it.

Now, I like to think I can be graceful when the occasion demands (I do try not to feed the trolls), but let me just be blunt: Is it fear?

What I question is whether the debate doesn't sometimes stem from teachers' concern that with stricter accountability they may have to question whether a) they are experts in their subject matter, b) they have the skills to effectively teach subject matter they may be experts in, or c) the methods they believed to be effective actually are. Any of those is an easy fix, in my opinion, but it requires accepting responsibility, which is more difficult, especially if the acceptance of responsibility on the teacher’s part might mean the loss of a job due to ineffective measures to train teachers to mastery (or a preference for dumping low performers in favor of high performers for the sake of cost efficiency).

Somehow, I just cannot bring myself to believe that a more rigorously designed curriculum is the thing-under-the-stairs that will jeopardize teacher creativity. Truly, in my mind, it isn’t the play, it’s the way the actor delivers the lines. At the same time, I believe there is a deeper question of dignity to be addressed - devoted teachers do put themselves on the front line every single day, and we know that they sometimes come to harm at the hands of their students, and we know that they are often trivialized despite their efforts, and we know that they take care of children who are not their own, even though, by professional obligation, they should only be held responsible for the material (but that doesn’t stop them).

So, my question is: is it fear? Or is there a concrete argument against minimally standardized practices in education besides the loss of teacher autonomy? Are there assurances which might be made which could help maintain the dignity and enthusiasm of teachers while transitioning to something perceived as being restrictive and career-threatening? Can we get there from here, and how so?


Catherine Johnson said...

Haven't read yet - (stuff going on around here...) but I think this post by Ken might be germaine:

Why Is Scripting Used in DI?

Catherine Johnson said...


Catherine Johnson said...

ok, now I've read!

What a great post.

Since I'm not a "policy brain," I don't have an immediate answer, or even a sketch of an answer.

What did pop into my mind was the 3-strikes-and-you're-out legislation that was passed several years ago.

Most folks seemed to think it was disastrous precisely because of the ironclad, no exceptions allowed, nature of the thing.

A judge needs discretion & flexibility.

The overall principle was similar; the public was frustrated by judges they felt were being overly lenient.

I have no idea what the reality was. But the analogy holds, I think. The wider public felt judges weren't doing their job. So rigid, no-exceptions-allowed legislation was passed to correct the perceived situation. immediate reaction is that scripting is probably great, but teachers are going to need the flexibility to adapt as circumstances demand.

I'm sure there's a way to have scripted instruction that would work to increase teacher professionalism & standing rather than decrease it.

I suspect that teachers would assume, as I think Ken said, a managerial role in addition to an instructional role. Teachers would be continually looking at assessment data, making adjustments, making recommendations about revisions to the program, etc.

College professors, btw, often have "scripted" lectures that they deliver every year. Probably most professors -- this was true of me when I taught college -- avoid reading a lecture, because a read lecture isn't optimal.

Instead you speak from notes, but you know the notes by heart, and you always have certain lines and phrases that you don't change.

So...the idea of always delivering the same material in the same manner probably wouldn't sound so demeaning when you think about it as what professors do.

Professors and folks on the lecture circuit.

Professional speakers get paid small fortunes to deliver the exact same speech every time.

Catherine Johnson said...

Check out the Gambill method.

This is what I imagine scripted instruction in high school would be (assuming you used scripted instruction).

Actually, I suspect that in high school you'd want to use something like the Keller method.

SteveH said...

TMAO's post says, "As I read these endless teacher accounts of being subjected to controlled curriculum, I grow tired rather than invigored, and think shut up rather than right on."

I would hope that teachers would say "right on!" when they see great results, no matter what the technique. This is about the student, not the teacher.

Besides, this is not a subtle question in math. KTM deals with issues of basic competency and curriculum. It much more than how the subject is taught. It has to do with content and mastery. We have fuzzy math programs that tell teachers that kids really don't need to learn how to divide fractions, let alone caring about mastery.

Besides, who EVER said that DI-like techniques require every second of every class? I find these discussions way too vague and general.

It's like your mother said. You have to get hard work done before you can do the fun stuff. Modern progressive educationalists somehow think that education should be fun for both students and teachers however the heck you define it.

KDeRosa said...

I honestly don't think that a script is a necessity at the high school level to employ DI-like techniques.

At the lower elementary levels scripts are useful because children have low language skills and it is often difficult to explain concepts clearly using language the child understands. (Have you ever tried defining a word for a child and were unable to put it into words the child knows?)

Even for higher performing children in the younger grades, scripts aren't as necessary. I teach my first grader using DI and do not have to follow the script that closely at all.

Let's boil DI down to its essence.

You start with a clear presentation that breaks each lesson down into small incremental instructional units. You do this so you can correct student errors.

You assess immediately to determine if the student has learned. If the student makes an error, you immediately provide a remedy/correction. Then you retest. Repeat until the student has learned.

You provide the student with a sufficient amount of distributed practice to achieve mastery.

You provide delayed tests to assess mastery. Provide remedies/corrections and retests to remediate.

The traditional curriculum is this minus the elaborate error correction, quality control measures, and sufficient distributed practice. Your A and B students make few enough errors that the need for such measures are reduced or eliminated.

What the scripts do for the teacher is condense the years of development work needed to make the sophisticated curriculum needed to keep the C and D students (and the A and B students looking to race through the curriculum) on track.

Catherine Johnson said...

Well, a script might be necessary if you're accelerating kids -- if you really are speeding through math with kids who have limited preparation. (I'm thinking of Carol Gambill.)

Otherwise, I don't think a script is necessary -- BUT I would want the kids to have access to programmed instruction at that point.

Which, of course, they don't because that was another highly effective form of instruction that was killed off.

My first job out of college was for a tiny little start-up that wrote programmed instruction for pharmaceutical salesmen.

It was cool.

Catherine Johnson said...

I would like to offer my advice on low-water crossings.

Bad idea.