September 20, 2006

Book Review -- Myth and Misconceptions about Teaching

The other night I received Myths and Misconceptions about Teaching: What Really Happens in the Classroom from Amazon.

It is excellent and a bargain at $28. It should be the first book you read if you want to really understand what is hindering education reform. Go buy it now. Then read it. If one tenth of the people read this book instead of Alfie Kohn's latest execrable screed ...

The author, Vicki Snider, has been an educator for 35 years and has worked in all types of school settings using all manner of curricula. She concludes:
Everything I have learned since I started teaching 35 years ago convinces me that student failures are not inevitable, and that educators have to change the way they think about teaching and learning. They can't continue to do things the same way and expect a different result... I have identified six myths that adversely influence teaching practice. The first four myths impact teaching practices and often result in ineffective instruction. The last two myths provide a way to explain the predictable academic failure that results from the other myths.
Needless to say, Snider's myths are spot on.

Myth #1: The myth of process emphasizes what occurs during instruction and de-emphasizes what happens as a result of instruction. When activities and projects become an end in themselves, there is little accountability for learning outcomes. Actual achievement is less important than participation.

Faulty Premises:
  • learning how to learn
  • learning is natural, aka discovery learning
Harm that is done:
  • lack of accountability
  • self promotion and self-esteem
Myth #2: The myth of fun and interesting ensures that the process is not only emphasized but is entertaining as well. This myth ignores the fact the initial learning of a skill or concept is rarely fun. It's the fluent performance and application in a new context that is enjoyable.

Faulty Premises:
  • learning should be effortless
  • entertaining activities should motivate students
  • hands-on activities should motivate learning styles
Harm that is done:
  • wasted time
  • knowing what to pay attention to
  • fewer lifelong learners
  • competence requires practice

Myth #3: The myth of eclectic instruction refers to the practice of drawing on a variety of teaching methods and materials. Teachers believe that designing patchwork lessons is creative and makes learning more interesting. This haphazard approach, however, ignores the complexity of curriculum and restricts teachers' practice to what is intuitive.

Faulty Premises:
  • student characteristics should guide instruction
  • teaching is not technical
  • no one approach works for all students
Harm that is done:
  • components from different approaches may be incompatible
  • teachers may not choose the effective parts of a program
  • isolated components may not be effective
  • skills might be taught at the wrong time
  • using multiple explanations may confuse naive learners
  • altering a well-designed curriculum may render it ineffective

Myth #4: The myth of the good teacher assigns most of the variation in teaching quality to the personal characteristics of the teacher rather than the quality of the teaching. Inspired teaching not only depends on the person doing the teaching but also on his or her level of skill and access to effective curricula.

Faulty Premises:
  • teaching is an art, not a science
  • good teachers are born, not made
Harm that is done:
  • pseudoscience and faddism
  • inadequate training models for teachers
  • generic teaching methods
Myth #5: the myth of learning styles refers to the popular idea that teaching methods should be matched to students' unique characteristics. Although individualization is desirable, learning style assumes that certain learner characteristics are intrinsic when they may in fact be the result of experiential factors that are amenable to instruction. As a result, teachers may inadvertently deny low-performing students opportunities to learn.

Faulty Premises:
  • learning styles are intrinsic
  • learning styles can be assessed
  • learning styles can be matched to instructional styles
Harm that is done:
  • The sorting hats
  • blaming the victim
Myth #6: the myth of disability refers to the low expectations that are conferred on students once they are believed to have a disability or risk factors such as low socioeconomic or minority status. Rather than view them as students in need of more and better instruction, educators may view them as uneducable.

Faulty Premises:
  • blame the student
  • blame the family
Harm that is done:
  • effect of low expectations
  • ineffective prevention and remediation
In one form or another these myths get trotted out every day in the edusphere. Snider does an excellent job explaining the myths using clear and concise language, identifying the kernel of truth that underlies many of the myths, sorting through the valid research that has shown that the myths are objectively false, and explaining the damage that has resulted by educators continuing to believe in the myths.

Snider sums up in two paragraphs exactly what is wrong with the current state of teaching:
Teachers aspire to be professionals, but without a shared scientific body of knowledge they remain bricoleur, a term borrowed from French by anthropologist Levi-Strauss (1966). There is no precise translation for bricoleur in English, but according to the translator's note, they are a "jack of all trades." not a handyman exactly, but a professional do-it-yourselfer. They cannot be called craftsmen because they work with whatever tools are at hand to solve whatever problems exist, nor do they have a specialized niche like craftsmen. They must be very intelligent and may, at times, achieve good results, but they are still constrained by their limited and finite assortment of tools and by the extent of their experiences. Contrast the bricoleur to engineers. Engineers have access to a range of tools designed for the specific job that needs to be done. They rely on the cumulative evidence for theoretical and technical knowledge, and use what is known to expand the boundaries of their professional knowledge. They rely on other professionals and specialists to help them do their job and to solve new problems. Engineers specialize--electrical, mechanical, biomedical, chemical, aerospace, naval, civil--and one type of engineer may assist the other, but would never be expected to do his or her job. An engineer is a member of a profession, but a bricoleur is just a clever person. Without a common body of knowledge about best practice, every new bricoleur teacher invents the wheel.

A profession that is guided by myths rather than empirically validated principles and practices maintains its bricoleur status. The teaching occupation will become a profession only when educators replace myth with science and raise their expectations for the success of all students.
Powerful stuff.

I agree with almost everything Snider writes in this book. I've gone through all the same evidence that Snider sets forth and independently came to the same conclusions that she did. It took me a long time to plow through and sort out the extant material on education and reach the same conclusions that Snider did. Snider gives it all to you in an easy to digest form that shouldn't take more than a few days to get through.

I had to learn all this stuff by discovery over the course of many years. You can learn it all in a couple of days by Snider directly teaching it to you. Ultimately, this is the best proof of Snider's arguments.

Highly recommended (especially to you teachers).


Anonymous said...

Faulty Premises:

learning shuld be effortless

How does this fit with your discussion of DI? My understanding there was that the DI programme was set up so learning was effortless for students. In the case of DI it was by careful organisation of when and how material was presented so students, when they learnt something new, could easily understand it.

I also understood that DI was fun for the students, if a bit boring for the initial classes for the teachers.

KDeRosa said...

That's right, Tracy.

I believe DI is supposed to be easy, though nor effortless. It also requires hard work from the student. Kids find it "fun" because they are successful.

Snider is a fan of DI, BTW, especially Reading Mastery.

Mr. McNamar said...

Though I often disagree with your criticism of teachers as a whole, I think this book will be worth reading. Many of the myths validate my own thoughts. I wonder if it also has a myth of union concern?

KDeRosa said...

Many of the myths validate my own thoughts.

When you move from many to all, then maybe we won't disagree so much. :)

Anonymous said...

There is no such thing as "great" teachers? I guess there are no "great" engineers, lawyers, scientists, or academics either. Maybe the author of this book has never encountered one, but they are out there. They are the instructors that students remember fondly as the person who got them passionately interested in their life's work or pursuits. I don't remember any teachers that helped me to obtain a passing score on a standardized test, but I do remember the ones that made me want to be an educator. To great teachers, teaching IS an art, and what they do cannot be duplicated by others. Ask Jaime Escalante or Marva Collins. Between books and institutions that express attitudes like this one, and NCLB, great teachers are going to systematically run out of the profession, and what will be left will be mediocre drones who will be closer to factory workers than scientists.

KDeRosa said...

There is no such thing as "great" teachers?

That's not what Snider is saying.

She is saying that great teaching comes from a the person doing the teaching and their superior skills AND their access to effective curricula.

Anonymous Scout said...

Thanks for the excellent review. I have linked to this post on my blog.

mjtest said...

So... it's 2010 and as I struggle with my bright kid in her kindergarten class, after having spent the last year reading about education and trying to choose a school, I came accross this book, read it in a night and will likely give copies of it to other parents who are now deciding about school options. I live in an urban center, with big achievement gaps and a huge political impetus behind many of the "myths" -- especially the English Learners as unable to meet standards. It badly needs a companion, however, in which a plan is laid out for change -- through the miasma of political interests, the managerial nightmare of personnel redirection and the outreach into the community, spelling out a new set of expectations and rights.

It made for an extremely depressing read as I'm continuing my journey into education through elementary school with my kids.

My other qualms about the book: since the author comes from a background in special education, not a word was wispered about the plight of high achievers immersed in a misguided classroom. The two options are currently : eternal boredom leading to a troubled relationship with school, or "differentiated learning" consisting of random assignments and activities that are ill adjusted to the child's strengths and achievement level; I saw it in the many schools I toured, and I'm seeing it in my daughter's classroom, and she is really struggling, despite having started following 3 years of quality Montessori education and high academic and social skills.

Even one paragraph on how a teacher can use a well established curricullum to guide such students along their own trajectory in an orderly fashion would have served immensely. I'm still liikong for a good, current reference on this.

A critique of existing curricullums in public schools, and how well organized they are for enablig a flexible approach that will serve children who start at different levels would also be really helpful.