I wonder: when is my teaching helping to shape ethical, thoughtful, happy human beings? When am I (doing a good job, maybe) teaching to fulfill the demands of the market, of corporate future employers, of educational fashion, of the latest branding initiatives of influential schools?
I have written here before about the dangers of so-called “21st-century skills.” Today I am wondering about the coming and going, the waxing and waning of the Common Core, standards-based learning, the Kolb Cycle, Bloom’s Taxonomy, Learning by Design, scaffolding, rubrics, competencies, multiple intelligences, learning styles, collaborative learning, experiential learning, formative assessment, differentiated instruction, portfolios, extrinsic motivation, grit, persistence, lifelong learning, higher-order thinking, critical thinking, metacognition, active reading, STEM, STEAM, inquiry-based learning, backward design, design thinking, flipped classrooms, growth mindsets, makerspaces, and brain research. There is always a new “thought leader” with a new book; that’s fine, as long as we remember our core values and resist chasing the latest fad.
How many practices can be best practices? I don’t know. And I must admit that this little think pieces asks more questions than it answers.
Ichiro Suzuki, a baseball player who starred in both Japan and the United States, is perhaps the greatest hitter to ever play the game. And he had a batting coach. I’m not sure but I suspect hitting a baseball hasn’t changed much in the century between the heyday of Ty Cobb (shown below in 1917) and Ichiro. I don’t know if Cobb had a coach, but would the advice these two great hitters themselves dispense be that different?
How much does good teaching change over time?
At my school, as we often say, “the student is the unit of consideration.” Yet, in many ways we are teaching to society, not to kids. We change teaching methods and content not because children change, but because society changes. Much of what we do is dictated by the economy, by politics, by a dozen dominant colleges–and not by eternal truths.
If you don’t think so, look at the last five positions your school added (or subtracted!). My school didn’t add German, cut Latin, cut German, add Japanese, add Mandarin, and then cut Japanese because the languages changed.
Another example from the “what we teach” category, this one from Princeton’s admissions page: “If possible, we expect students will complete the following courses before beginning study at Princeton:
- Four years of English (including continued practice in writing)
- Four years of mathematics (including calculus for students interested in engineering)
- Four years of one foreign language
- At least two years of laboratory science (including physics and chemistry for students interested in engineering)
- At least two years of history
In addition, most candidates have had some study in the visual or performing arts.”
Oh yeah, the arts. Mentioned here as an afterthought. Who decided this? Do the best people, the best educated people, the happiest people, take more English than History, more Math than Art? This is the ivied tail that wags the dog, I suppose. And I can imagine that Princeton’s list results not from “best practices” from a combination of inertia and endless, contentious meetings in which people try to defend their turf.
But, I wonder, what about teaching methods? I fear that how we teach may also be guided from afar not wholly unlike what we teach.
I am proud of my school for convening a committee to rethink our “portrait of a graduate.” The skills, habits, and outlooks the committee comes up with might well be fairly conventional, but at least they are beginning with a great question: what would our ideal/typical graduate know, believe, and be able to do? Maybe once we have this list, we will be able to think more clearly about how to work towards offering the curriculum and activities that will encourage the changes we seek.
I hope so. And perhaps, if we are still long enough, we might have to courage to someday say through our actions that a college that short shrifts the arts and the humanities might not have its priorities straight. And we might shorten our list of best practices, thinking about what has worked in the past as well as what the hottest new trend peddled by ambitious “thought leaders.” Personally, I don’t want to remain the same out of habit and fear: I seek a happy balance between being open to new ideas while standing by progressive education’s tried-and-true methods.