October 4, 2006

The Lack of Professionalism in Education

I want to follow-up on Mark's (of Textbook Evaluator) post on how the publishers of the typical textbook program are rarely concerned with the actual effectiveness of their programs in transmitting knowledge to students since their programs are rarely field tested and Mr. Person's (of Text Savvy) post on how educators aren't too concerned about the "presentation and organization of content" of the subject matter they are charged with teaching anyway.

These conditions have combined to form the perfect storm in education in which actual student learning is seen as unimportant. Publishers just want to sell books and educators only care about process, not outcomes. Educators are more interested in picking and choosing among various sources to create home-brewed curricula that is fun and interesting to students, but often ignore whether this Frankstein's monster they've created is actually effective in teaching their students. The resultant disdain for standardized testing which shines the spotlight of failure on their creation is the inevitable result.

This also dovetails nicely with the edusphere's discussion on teacher professionalism prompted by JennyD and with Mr. Person's post on Direct Instruction (DI) which is also generally disdained by educators.

You see, in DI they care very much about what the student is actually learning. As a result, DI is very successful in that regard. DI is the professional version of education. Education 2.0, if you will. A concerted effort between curriculum creators and the educators who use the curriculum to teach children. As it turns out, neither the commercial curriculum publishers nor our educators want any part of it. That's because it's a lot of hard work educating children when you actually care about what those children are learning. Better to focus on stuff that can't be measured like the process of education and other nonsense.

Zig Engelmann identified the lack of professionalism in our textbook publishers and educators back in 1992 when he described how a professional would approach the creation of a hypothetical curriculum for elementary school children and how it would be accepted by educators based on his experience developing DI:

In developing a curriculum, first you need to layout a sequence of activities for the teacher to follow. After you lay out this series for teaching the subject, you have a choice. You can either say, “We’re done. The program is completed, and it will work,” or you can try out your rough-draft product in the classroom. You’ll choose the latter alternative because you have some concern for the kids, and you’re not so arrogant enough to assume that the sequence you created in the sterile confines of your office will automatically translate into lively, effective instruction in the classroom.

So you arrange for a couple of teachers to try out your program. Being cautious, you observe what actually takes place in the classroom, rather that just letting the teachers do their thing and report back to you. After all, the teacher is going to have her hands full working with the kids. Your criteria for success will be that all the kids who have the skill levels high enough to be placed in the program should perform well—which means learn everything the teacher teaches. You realize that they may miss occasional items, but you do not want them to miss bunches of items.

Undoubtedly, you will discover errors in the program. The errors are information. If errors occur in a pattern, the pattern shows you exactly what you did that was wrong. If there are large numbers of errors on an item, you know that the “teaching” you specified that preceded the item was inadequate. In other words, the precise identification of the problem implies the solution. You correct the errors and revise the program.

Once again you select a couple of new classrooms and observe your revised program. The performance of the teacher and the kids should look a lot better. Any errors that still exist should stand out prominently. Since you're right there in the classroom watching the teacher, you’re able to give the teacher revisions the next day to take care of most of the problems you observe.

However, there are still “lumps” in your program, rough places where the teacher talks too much, where kids go off task and get confused, and where the presentation seems labored or too easy for the kids. When you finally work these lumps out, you have a good program, one that you can say with confidence will work in classrooms that have kids like the ones you’ve been working with.

In addition to having a good program, youe have a great deal of knowledge about how kids learn and how to teach well. You know how much practice it takes for the kids to master the various details of your sequence. Oddly enough, the amount of practice that you’ve had to provide to meet your goal is possibly five times the amount provided in other published programs that teach the same subject. You also learned that kids tend to “lose” information if you don’t keep it “alive” in the program. This observation had led you to activities that require kids to continually use all the important skills and concepts they’ve been taught. You’ve learned that teachers do a better job of presenting material when they move faster, and that long explanations are anathema. You’ve found out that the best way to assure that teachers don’t blow the presentation completely is to script it—write down the exact words the teacher is to say. And the pattern of interactions that work best is a short explanation followed by a series of questions that kids answer out loud. Their responses provide a good test whether they have adequately received the intended information.

Possibly the most important lesson that you’ve learned from this experience is that kids’ mistakes are just about always reasonable. The pattern of mistakes the kids make provide you with overwhelming evidence that when kids “mislearn” something, their misinterpretation is consistent with what the teacher did or said.

Although your initial goal was simply to develop an excellent program, the field-tryout process has taught you a great deal about motivation, “psychology of learning,” “communication ambiguity,” and about the subject you thought you knew. The mistakes the kids made forced you to sharpen your knowledge of the subject, look at the details far more closely, and look at the subject from the standpoint of the naïve learner.

If you developed a program in this manner, the chances are excellent that it would be received by traditional educational community not with open arms but with open mouths that delivered slanderous rhetoric. Educators would actually have the audacity to suggest that your program was “not consistent with the way kids learn.” They would say that it stifles creativity, that it was too structured, and that it was not based on understanding of the subject. Of course, the traditionalists wouldn’t have first-hand knowledge of how the program works and what it does because “educators” do not deal with the concrete. For them, issues are general; issues of specific details do not exist.

For the traditionalist, the boundaries between good and bad are marked by large categories, and therefore, by half truths. Phonics works better than sight reading. But that doesn’t imply that all phonics programs are good. It all depends on the details of the program. Traditional educators express opinions through metaphysical arguments that revolve around the categories they understand; but the real issues—those that make the difference between a program that works and one that founders—are very picky, precise, technical details. The difference between the first field-test program and the finished product you developed is simply gritty detail, not global goop.

Most commercial programs, in contrast, are not developed in the way you developed yours. You had to make decisions following your desk-top first draft. You could have said, “I’m done. The program is completed and it will work.” Although you were neither arrogant nor stupid enough to suppose that it would be done at this point, the commercial publisher (almost without exception) is. Most commercial programs used by schools for teaching reading, language, arithmetic, science, and social studies are not field-tested before publication. They are not shaped by learner and teacher problems. They are simply made up by people who typically know no more about excellent instruction than the typical copywriter or graphics designer.

The typical basal program is an experiment, and not a very noble one. The chances are just about zero percent that programs developed in this manner will work well, even if those involved in the creation are very knowledgeable about the subject matter.

I seriously believe that the reason basal publishers do not shape their products through field tryouts is that they don’t know how to do it and they don’t really care. They are in the business of making money. If school districts are naïve enough to buy a particular basal in sufficient numbers to make the product profitable, publishers feel they are successful. They don’t have to answer to any consumer-advocacy group. They are not inspected by the Feds. Their programs are not reviewed and graded. Instead, they are placed on the open market.

Adapted from War Against The Schools' Academic Child Abuse (1992), chapter 2.

I'd say we're nowhere near this level of professionalism in curricular development by the big publishers. And, even if they started to build a better moustrap, there's no evidence that our educators would be interested in buying it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well to be fair to educators, it's a human failing to be so resistent to testing.

Doctors opposed it for hundreds of years, engineers only do it because engineering failures are too obvious to ignore and your nose gets rubbed in this fact pretty thoroughly during training, politicians avoid it if remotely possible, 'science' spent millenia going in circles because of failure to test (eg Aristotle's claims).

This doesn't make it forgiveable, but it is understandable.