Saturday, September 08, 2007

Discussing education issues: Is being a teacher irrelevant?

Last February, there was a very lively discussion on this blog about what I described as the frustration teachers sometimes feel when discussing education with non-teachers. Matthew K. Tabor has had a couple of posts on this subject, but he takes it on from the opposite angle: he appears to be frustrated by being told that he is less qualified to discuss education issues because he isn't a teacher. Text Savvy also had a post on this subject. Matthew calls this a "truly excellent post on the irrelevance of being a teacher to contribute to education," and he includes Text Savvy's conclusion:

In my view, the conditions that exist in elementary and middle school education today–regardless of their exact nature or cause–serve to attract those most closely involved with it and those most directly affected by it away from inconvenient truths. So not only are non-teachers valuable to education criticism and reform, they are necessary prophets for an industry that can be frustratingly self-serving and unrepentant.

I have often argued that being a teacher gives one a feel for many education issues that others can't possibly have. I am not about to back off from that position. That does not mean, however, that I think that any argument any teacher makes is valid. And it definitely doesn't mean that the arguments and criticisms of non-teachers should be dismissed.

Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that whether or not one is a teacher does not determine how seriously I will take their views on education issues, or even on instruction methods. During the summer months, the education blog that I consistently turned to first every morning was Joanne Jacobs. Joanne is not a teacher. No book has influenced my views on education more than The Death of Common Sense by Philip K. Howard. Philip K. Howard is not a teacher. And amazingly, no one has influenced the little tweaks I've made in my teaching style over the last year more than KDerosa with his constant harping about Direct Instruction. KDerosa is definitely not a teacher. On the other side of that coin, during my career I have attended dozens of workshops put on by teachers. Some of them were worthwhile, but quite frankly, most of them were useless.

If Text Savvy, as he reports in his post, was told that he wasn't qualified for a job that he already proved that he could do simply because he lacked teaching experience, he has a right to be miffed. If anyone told Matthew K. Tabor that his views on education lacked credibility simply because he was not a teacher, he has a right to resent that. Considering their experiences, I can certainly see where they are coming from.

But my experience is different, and I think a lot of teachers feel the way I do. There are few fields in American life that have been the brunt of more criticism over the last few decades than public education. Much of that criticism has been very harsh, SOME of it has been unfair, and SOME of that criticism has clearly come from people who have no idea what it is like to run a classroom. That is very frustrating. I have witnessed panel discussions on television about public education that included media pundits, corporate leaders, politicians, and superintendents, but there hasn't been an actual classroom teacher in sight. I have watched as people on those panels made bold pronouncements about what should be done, and it has been clear to me that SOME of those pronouncements are totally impractical. That is very frustrating. Those of us in teaching have also had a number of policies imposed upon us by courts and legislatures, and some of those policies have made it more difficult for us to do our jobs. SOME of them were clearly devised by people who had no idea what it is like to run a classroom. That is very frustrating. When Text Savvy says that people in education are "frustratingly self-serving and unrepentant," I assume that he means we're defensive. He's probably right, but who wouldn't be?

I think the idea that non-teachers should not be able to participate in discussions about education issues is ridiculous, but the idea that being a teacher is irrelevant also leaves me shaking my head. Speaking as a teacher, I can honestly say that I have no desire to see teachers dominate discussions on education. But I do think our experiences are relevant, and I do think we should be included.


Anonymous Matthew K. Tabor said...


I want to make a few points to clarify my position.

The first regards resentment. It is important to note that I do not resent the marginalization of the non-educator because it's a hassle for me or any other; I don't take it personally when it happens and any personal experiences I've had are a non-factor. I would like to think it is the same for others; it just isn't about us.

What you refer to as resentment is really disapproval of marginalization because of its adverse effect on solving the problems at hand. It is simply an inefficient, illogical way to go about things. The teacher vs. non-teacher debate is ridiculous [in the literal sense] because it isn't the best way to get the job done, not because it makes an individual's efforts easier or more difficult. This is not about me or any other individual - it's about moving forward in the best way possible. If one isn't committed to optimal problem solving, I tend to disapprove.

Second, I understand your stance on this issue, especially after reading how you addressed it in your book. Though lots of teachers feel the way you do, it's important to note that the support for an argument has no bearing on the value of that argument. Simply put, an argument supported by 1 isn't any less valid than an argument supported by 1,000,000 - and, along the same lines, having mass support doesn't make a poor argument better.

'Irrelevant' and 'irrelevance' is a word that describes lack of pertinence; we both agree that teacher certification/experience is not necessarily a pertinent condition for contributing valid work to education. Joanne and Ken DeRosa are solid, appropriate examples and I'm glad that you seized on both.

The 3 points I listed on my site in the 'intellectual authority' post sum this up. It is important that we recognize that those critics, pundits and politicians that you mention are wrong because they are wrong - there is no other explanation. We have to stick to evaluating the merit [or lack of merit] with each position. There isn't another worthwhile way to go about debate.

Any time one assigns validity based on any criteria other than the merits of the argument, one hinders the process of understanding. I think we'd both agree that the last thing we need in public education is yet another hurdle.

9/08/2007 4:50 PM  
Blogger Mr. Person said...

Great post, Dennis!

9/08/2007 8:30 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mr. Person, thank you!

Matthew, thank you for responding. You are absolutely right to say that the number of people who believe something doesn't determine whether it's right or wrong. When I said that "a lot of teachers feel the way I do," in my post, I was just trying to let you know where we're coming from. There is frustration about the criticism we face and the policies imposed on us, especially when it comes from people that don't seem to understand how difficult our jobs can be. When teachers dismiss arguments, regardless of their merits, simply because the people making those arguments aren't teachers, I suspect that might be frustration talking. It's no secret that when people feel strongly about something and they speak too quickly or write too quickly, they tend to say things that they wouldn't if they took some time to think about it. I know that I've had to eat some words on comments that I've written too quickly on other people's blogs.

I have strong feelings about this subject, and I thought I sensed that you did as well when I read your post. If you don't feel resentment when someone downgrades your ideas simply because you aren't a teacher, then you are a better man than I am. But don't get cocky about that--you aren't the first.

9/09/2007 3:28 AM  
Blogger sailorman said...

Teaching is unusual among professions because of the low level of specific skills that are required. Teaching at the lower levels of more of a breadth and synthesis skillset than a specialized skillset. A skilled teacher has the proper mix and balance of abilities and knowledge to be able to manage a class. However, each INDIVIDUAL skill that the teacher possesses may not actually be especially rare.

In that vein, a normal teacher is not expected to retain expert level knowledge in every area. That would be impossible, or at least extraordinarily difficult. Adding to the perception problem is the fact that teachers do not teach "new" material. Of course, it's new to their students, but what their students are learning is generally something that is widely known among educated society.

As a result, the chances are extraordinarily high that there will be a large number of people who are more qualified in any given area of the teacher's knowledge than is the teacher himself. The less specialized the teaching subject, the greater are the chances of this happening.

Teachers are often loath to admit this--no surprise, they're human :O) It's a hard job to be a synthesizer. (I'm lucky enough to be in a profession that requires specific skill. There are people who have better writing abilities than I, but unless they are also lawyers their legal knowledge is apt to be limited.)

But that's not all. What I know of education training suggests that there is limited training in statistics, formal or applied logic, or the scientific method. Again, this is unsurprising; there's only so much one can learn in a few years. But the lack of such training makes teachers unusually difficult to converse with, as they are simultaneously convinced of the correctness of their position, and unaware of the general conventions by which to defend or challenge it.

9/09/2007 6:26 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Dennis, you give me too much credit. I've merely brought to your attention the teaching system of other real educators which aren't widely known. As a non-educator, all my education knowledge comes second hand. My skill is sifting throw all the bad edu-fads and finding the stuff that has a real research-base, i.e., stuff that has a good chance of working if done properly. Unfortunately, that stuff is is far more rare that I originally thought it would be. (I'm talking about stuff that works with the kind of kids that aren't capable of learning in a typical school setting.)

9/09/2007 6:56 PM  
Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

This is one of the better written posts in the blogosphere. I wish I could get back to thinking and writing seriously about education, but I just haven't been in the mood lately. So thanks for doing if for me.

9/10/2007 5:28 PM  
Anonymous joycemocha said...

Sailorman, I think you raise a valid point when you point out that teachers are synthesizers. We can't be specialists at the lower levels; it's only as our students acquire more specialized knowledge that the specialist knowledge comes into play.

What teaching is about and should be about is the process of task analysis--breaking down what is to be learned into smaller, developmentally appropriate steps. Not only are we teaching specific information, we also have to teach how to learn that information, analyze that information, and extrapolate from that information.

The process of simply imparting data is easy. Teaching the learning process and implementing it is the challenge. Doing so with a group of 20+ students is even more of a challenge.

9/10/2007 7:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think most comments miss a very important point about teaching - it is very much more about the kind of personality and attitude of the teacher than how much knowledge one has. Yes, knowledge is important and as sailorman writes, there are many people with more total knowledge than many good teachers I know. However, several of the biggest teacher "disasters" I have known have plenty of knowledge but little personality or maturity. I read several books a month, mostly history or current issues and several papers daily but what counts with my Group I sophomores is the narrative I can weave to make the American Revolution or the Cold War make sense, not the depth of my knowledge. The resources I can find and/or develop to help those who want to learn are much more important than any number of degrees or awards for content excellence.
Even with my Honors students, the variety of readings and other resources I provide and the depth of synthesis and analysis I expect from them are what is important. Now, my knowledge base and the current information I bring to discussions is valuable but even with my best students, it can be the 'groaner' of a bad joke, often at my own expense, that gets a class off to a good start and makes kids want to come back!

9/11/2007 1:16 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

I apologize for not responding to these comments more quickly, but it's homecoming week, and I've got some extra responsibilities, so I'm swamped. I think JoyceMocha and Anonymous addressed Sailorman's comments better than I could have.

Mr. McNamar, thank you!!

And KD, I think you're being too modest. Wait a minute--did I just say that?

9/11/2007 2:49 PM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

I don't think "irrelevant" is the word that teachers would choose to use, but there does need to be some experience in the area before you can knowledgeably speak on a subject. In terms of skill sets, I don't think something like firefighting is particularly complicated. I mean, I've put out a fire with a hose before. However, I wouldn't dream of telling a firefighter how to do their job because I haven't been there, and I don't know what they've tried already.

9/12/2007 6:58 AM  
Blogger sailorman said...

Hmm. Synthesis wasn't intended to be an insult, you know. But this thread perhaps illustrates the root of the debate.

Most teachers do their best to define their jobs in a fashion that grants them expertise, and that also excuses any (predictable and understandable) gaps in their knowledge.

Take this statement:
The process of simply imparting data is easy. Teaching the learning process and implementing it is the challenge.
That's simply not true. Imparting data is HARD, and it gets exponentially harder as the data become more complex. In fact, it can be difficult to impart data even to older students and/or professionals who have a vested interest in acquiring said data.

It's a difficult skill to develop. And it's not unique to teaching; I do it every day as a lawyer, and I frequently did it as a scientist. I'm fairly good at it, though I've met many people who are better than I.

so, why would someone try to MINIMIZE the importance of that skill?

The answer is a presumed split. If data transmission becomes irrelevant, then the teacher possesses an enormous skill that the speaker doesn't have, and which only a teacher can have: wrangling 20 kids. It is a defense mechanism in argument, pure and simple; the teacher is trying to deny the speaker's expertise and establish their own in one fell swoop.

And that is where the conversation falls apart. Because while wrangling certainly is an important skill, so is data transmission.

In fact, they play off each other. Wrangling affects how often you get the kids in "full learning mode." But your data skills affect how much they take in while in that mode. (summarized for sake of simplicity)

If I run into someone who can't see that balance, I have limited faith in their ability to have a discussion. It's as if I claimed that the only important thing in evaluating legal matters was--surprise!--something that lawyers alone possessed. That would be an immense disservice to my clients.

9/12/2007 7:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In terms of skill sets, I don't think something like firefighting is particularly complicated."

This isn't very relevant to this thread, but you think wrong :-)

I live a short walk from my city's training fire department. Additionally, my son has been "into" firetrucks/firefighting since he was 18 months old (he's six and 1/2 now, so we are going on about five years). We've spent a lot of time there and I've watched a lot more videos than I ever expected to.

Firefighting is a lot more complicated than just "putting the wet stuff on the red stuff." If you can just wait outside the building and spray it down, it might be fairly simple. Firefighters, however, are expected to *GO INSIDE* if there are people to rescue. The trick then becomes to get yourself and the other people out alive. You may not be able to see while you are doing this. The people you are trying to get out may be hiding under a bed.

Lots of bad things can happen inside a burning building, including the ceiling turning into a fireball with no warning. One non-obvious thing (among many others) firefighters learn is how to spray down a ceiling upon entering a room to prevent it from becoming a fireball. But ... you can't just spray and spray because you might be trying to find someone and time matters. Enough, but not too much, is the goal.

More ... if the fire department is responding to a hazmat situation, you may very much *not* want to put stuff on the problem.

More ... in a lot of cities (mine included), firefighters are our "first responders" for medical calls, too. Now the firefighter needs to have paramedic level training to go with finding a hiding 4 year old on the second floor of a burning building.

More ... running the pressure valves on a pumper is more complicated than using a garden hose.

My guess is that a trained firefighter is as skilled as a *SKILLED* auto-mechanic. My guess is that less than 1/3 of the population can do the job. Plus they get to do their stuff under time pressure, and occasionally under life-or-death for them pressure.

It is complicated. Not as complicated as designing a new automobile engine, but a lot more complicated than one might expect.

-Mark Roulo

9/12/2007 1:17 PM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

You're making my point for me...

9/13/2007 6:54 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Let's stick with the fireman metaphor.

First, recognize that we're not concerned with the successful fireman, the fireman that can successfully extinguish fires. We are concered with the unsuccessful firemen. The firemen that is unsuccessful in putting out a particular kind of fire. And to make it more like education, let's assume that thess particular firemen only have a problem putting out difficult fires. They're fairly adept at putting out the easy fires (ones that tend to go out by themselves or with minimal firefighting effort); but, the difficult ones (the ones requring a great deal of firefighting effort) have always presented a problem for them. Moreover, when the firemen are asked to explain why they're unable to extinguish these difficult fires they invariably answer "the fires aren't motivated to go out, unless the fire is motivated we can' put it out."

Let's further assume that these dificult to put out fires comprise a large portion of all fires and that the failure to extinguish these fires results in much property damage. As a result, the government has devoted increasingly large amounts of resources to solve the problem of unextinguished fires. Much research has been conducted, some in actual firehouses, some at firefighting academies, some by independent firemen. All of the findings have been well documented and much data has been compiled. All of this is readily available to the non-frefighting public and readily understandable by any educated member of the public who takes an interest.

Some of this research contradicts the excuses made by the unsuccessful firemen. In fact, there is a small group of actual firemen who've used this research to actually put out, on average, about half of these difficult fires, and publicizes their results. These fireman claim the fire motivation isn't relevant. What motivates fires is good firefighting techniques, techniques not commonly to the average fireman adn not commonly taught at firefighting academies. As long as the fire is not permitted to get out of control, even the difficult fires can be extinguished. It is true that teh fireman has to be especially careful and preceise with his technique,much more so than when dealing with the easy fires, but with some practice, most firemen can master the techniques and successfully put out the diffciult fires with their existing resources.

You are a non-firefighter. Would not presume to tell the unsuccessful firemen how to do their jobs based on the available evidence?


9/14/2007 10:54 AM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

I don't have a problem with attempting to help unsuccessful firemen... the issue is trying to blanket all firemen with the unsuccessful label and trying to apply across-the-board fixes to each firefighter, regardless of their personal level of success.

9/16/2007 7:40 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Ian, your point goes to the merits of a particular education issue, not to whether "non-teachers should ... be able to participate in discussions about education issues" in the first place.

9/16/2007 9:24 AM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

No, and that's fair enough - I'm not one who will say that non-teachers cannot participate... I think that teachers voices are sometimes lost in the cacophony of everyone else trying to tell us how to do our jobs...

9/16/2007 3:57 PM  

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