The columnist humanizes the argument by finding a
Earlier this year, Sarah had a disquieting teaching experience. She taught the latest in "direct phonics" lessons to a group of secondary school students in Melbourne who were deemed to need remedial help.
The passive voice -- the lazy columnist's best friend.
So here we have high school students who apparently can't read well because they lack decoding skills. The school appears to have placed them in a "direct phonics" course to remediate these skills. I assume that direct phonics (in scare quotes naturally) means that the students will be taught synthetic phonics (i.e., sounds are taught how to be blended rapidly) in a direct systematic and intensive manner. The reason, no doubt,is because this is the only kind of phonics that is effective with struggling readers, like these high school kids.
One can assume that if these kids are in high school and are still read poorly however they were taught to read in the lower grades, probably not a direct phonics, didn't work.
The lesson was completely scripted for Sarah. In a foretaste of what is in store for students in the centralised curriculum model currently described by neoconservative politicians and media pundits, it was a one-size-fits-all lesson that could be taught anywhere across the nation, at any time.A truly impressive string of cliches.
I suspect that automobile manufacturers used to say the same sort of nonsense about Henry Ford when he standardized the manufacture of automobiles. Then they either adapted or went out of business, so we don't hear about such complaints much any more.
One reason to standardize the curriculum is to improve quality control, the sort of quality control that might have prevented kids from reaching the high school level not knowing how to read well. "A supervisor entering a classroom can quickly determine what is happening and compare this with what should be occurring. The supervisor, therefore, is better equipped
to provide direct, practical demonstrations or suggestions to the teacher or aide. By standardizing the teaching program in this way, it is also easier to monitor the progress of the
children with criterion-referenced tests that children should pass if they have completed lessons at a specified level."
Then we have the "scripted lesson" critique. We are lead to believe that novice teacher Sarah, fresh out of school will magically turn out to be a master teacher. Perhaps, she'll be mentored by the schools current crop of expert teachers-- you know, the ones that weren't able to teach our hapless high schoolers. Scripted lessons are a hot button topic for educators. So why do many successful curricula use them -- because they work:
The scripts permit the selection and testing of sequences of examples that produce efficient learning if followed. Most teachers simply do not have time to find appropriate words and examples or to sequence skill hierarchies in the most efficient possible manner. When teachers phrase their own questions, they may choose terms unknown to lower-performing children or may include unnecessary verbiage. In choosing examples, moreover, they may teach incorrect rules because the positive examples have some irrelevant feature in common. In sequencing, it is easy to omit those skills critical for later, more complex tasks.It's all about quality control. Back to the column.
In one 35-minute period of "teaching", every word that Sarah spoke, the precise time at which she delivered these words, and even the hand signals to accompany the words, were all tightly scripted.
Now we have "teach" in scare quotes. I wonder if the columnist would put scare quotes around his description of the failed teaching that preceded this?
We also learn that signals are bad when used as a cue for students to respond together. When students respond in unison, the teacher can determine which ones understand what is being taught (the ones who responded) and the ones who don't (the ones that didn't respond or incorrectly responded). This permits the teacher to provide a remedy to the students who still need more instruction. Another way of saying this is that signals permit the teacher to differentiate the instruction by targeting students who need more instruction and determining when they have learned. So much for one size fits all.
According to educators, signals are apparently good for choir and band practice, but bad when teaching reading, even though the effective use of signals obviates the problem of having the slower kids imitate the faster kids when responding. Without signals, it becomes difficult to determine who has learned the material and who is merely parroting what the smarter kids are saying.
When Sarah talked with me (her English education lecturer) some time after this experience, she had mixed emotions. After an exhausting week of planning, teaching, marking, staff meetings, in-service activities and much more, this scripted curriculum seemed a welcome relief. "I didn't have to think," she said.
She laughed, although it was clear she was still ambivalent about the experience. Then she asked: "But what sort of teaching is it when I'm not required to think?"
Presumably better that the instruction the kids received previously which forced the state (the entity running the schools) to intervene against the wishes of the educators, who were failing to do perform their job adequately.
The only time teaching a scripted lesson requires little thinking is when all the students are responding correctly. Students who are responding correctly are learning the material. Then the script, really is like the lines delivered by an actress and all the teacher has to do is read the lines, making sure that the students are responding correctly. This is a job most people would kill for.
However, invariably, there will come a time when some students will not respond correctly when they are supposed to. This is where the teaching comes into play. At this point the teacher has to first recognize that the students have responded incorrectly and then to provide a remedy. This requires the teacher to deviate from the script and follow the specified correction procedure, fix the mistake in learning, and then resume with the lesson. In this case the script is more like a flow chart and the teacher is required to make all the difficult decisions to know when to provide remedies when students aren't learning in addition to presenting the scripted material inn a lively and brisk manner that keeps the students on task and engaged.
This remains an exceeding difficult job than requires much training and classroom ability for teachers to get right. The experience is that teachers need at least two years of training to know how to teach the scripts correctly with low performing children so that these children are actually learning instead of being passed through the system as they are currently. This job requires a lot of thinking, otherwise we'd hire monkeys to read the scripts to children-- they work for bananas.
Now you should be able to answer the columnist's rhetorical question.
Indeed. At a time when neo-conservative commentators and politicians are touting the benefits of an efficient, centrally controlled curriculum, where decision making at the local level is taken out of the hands of teachers and schools, Sarah's story should give us cause to reflect.
Parents might well ask: Is this the sort of curriculum we want for our children? Do we want our children taught by a teacher who is not required to think?
No, we want them to continue to fail to learn how to read, write, and do math as they currently are. Idiot.