Consider me surprised.

I have never been so convinced that our political leanings dictate our pedagogical leanings as when I read the comments from “The 95 Theses of Progressive Teaching.” As I was posting it, I thought it would create a lot of a debate upon wording and ideas, but I was not prepared for the debate it created in terms of core beliefs. I was so sure that I had hit upon the universal themes of good education that no one could possible get on the other side of. I mean, who doesn’t want teachers that reflect on their teaching, that are teaching to students’ needs, that are supporting one another, that are constantly trying to learn from others, that are passionate about their job?

When I got the first comment of dissent, I started to think about what I was really putting across with my 50 theses. I realized that much of them could be seen as a grand plan for revolution in modern education. Now, I see that as a good thing, but some people would say that most revolutions either don’t work or are revolutionizing the wrong things.

The other aspect of these comments that really caught me off guard was the way that they were reacting to the title: “Progressive teaching.” Do I mean that I am a liberal democrat when I say this or do I mean that I simply want things to change for the better and not have us become either complacent in our successes or lost in our failures. I was hoping for the latter.

Are we so polarized in this country that even the words we use must either be in support of republican or democratic views? I had always said no. Words are how we enter into debate; they are how we strengthen our communication so that things can actually get done. I was not trying to throw fire onto tradition, and I was certainly not trying to align myself with a hopeless pedagogy.

Now to address the specific concerns that have been raised:

The first firm disagreement from another representative of the Edusphere came from Darren. In picking apart my first four theses, he said,

1. Teachers should be the change they want to see in their schools. What the heck does that mean?
2. Teachers should constantly reinvent the wheel to make it ride smoother and faster over any type of terrain imaginable. Why? There’s another sensible saying: if it works, don’t fix it. This doesn’t mean that teachers shouldn’t practice a critical pedagogy to determine if their instruction is meeting the needs of the students, but change for its own sake seems a tremendous waste of time to me.
3. Teachers should never teach the same things the same way twice. See #2.
4. Teachers should see tradition for what it is: the hope that things will stay the same forever. This is the most insidious. Tradition isn’t the hope that things will stay the same, it’s a link between the past and future. It gives us a foundation, a rock, something upon which to build. Graduation exercises are a tradition we have–should we get rid of them out of some belief that they’re stale or out of date? That’s not progressive, that’s destructive.

I would like to address each grievance individually.

  1. I stole “being the change we wish to see” directly from Gandhi’s mouth. It was shameless, but I had a good reason. I believe that teachers should never preach a particular way of doing things and then not put them into practice themselves (not walking their talk). If modeling is so important to students, it should also be that way for colleagues. You should be able to walk down the hallways of a school and notice the teachers who are really trying to reflect and collaborate. You should be able to see the change in them.
  2. I do not advocate change for change’s sake. I advocate change because things can always be better. It is hard for me to understand not wanting things to run more smoothly in a classroom, or your teaching to be more effective eveen when 85-90 percent of your students made at least one year’s growth last year. I can never be perfect at what I do, but I want to get at as close to that ideal, as close to reaching every kid as possible. That is why change is so important. If you keep going as you always have, those 10 percent of kids will never get what they need out of education.
  3. At the very least, you have to admit that you will never have the same students twice (they change their minds from day to day sometimes). How can you teach two different groups of kids the same way? I get anxious when I know that I am not engaging the group in front of me. When I know that a lesson isn’t working or could work better, it is my duty to make sure that I make the correct adjustments. Getting better at what I do is so important to me that it literally keeps me up at night.
  4. You are right. This one is probably the most insidious thesis of all 50. But maybe it is just in the way that it is phrased. What I mean is that tradition for the sake of tradition doesn’t make sense. I actually like traditions. I like going out with my wife on our anniversary. I like going out to my grandmother’s house and watching the parade every 4th of July. But these are traditions that make sense. These are ones that are authentic and have purpose for the individuals involved. The traditions that I am trying to change are the ones that lack all of these qualities. Traditions like “Social Advancement” (passing a failing student in elementary and middle school so that he/she will be with age-similar peers) must be changed because they are not helping students to succeed. The traditions that may have been a good idea at one time, the ones that made sense when we didn’t live in a global community and economy, the ones that aren’t focused on helping students to learn, these are the ones that must be changed. As for graduations: I spoke at my high school graduation, and I loved every minute of it. From writing the speech to practicing it endlessly to getting up and showing everyone what I had done. I do not want to eliminate tradition, just the stance that all traditions are necessary.

The second comment that really got me thinking was by another man named Jeff:

Let it suffice to say for now that any random five of these items gives ample reason why my wife, my son and I commute over two hours each day to his modest private school. His school is a cornucopia of diversity; each class in his three years there has been filled with students from across the globe. At the end of first grade he was reading at a fourth grade level and he was by no means the best reader in his class. They are busy mastering subject matter while their public (and many private) school counterparts are being subjected to “an environment that encourages life-long learning”.Our nearest public school is 600 yards away from our house.Public education has been in the stranglehold of the “progressives” for what…about 100 years now?And this is what you have to show for yourselves?
I would like to first say that I am really happy to hear that he and his family are satisfied with their son’s educational experience. I don’t have any problem with going somewhere to get what you want (or need). I am all for choice in the classroom, and I am all for choice in the school as well.Now to address the problems he has with my “makeshift manifesto”:I’m not sure that I understand the difference between creating life-long learners and teaching subject matter. Can’t we do both at the same time? The reason I teach Language Arts (English to you high school crowd) is because I love to teach kids to read and write. I love watching students understand how to structure their thoughts on paper, and I love discussing the intricacies of theme and diction in a novel or short story. Words are why I teach, not to construct teaching theory. But, how can I ignore the theory behind making better teachers and communities of teachers? How can I sit back and not respond to all of the other teachers who aren’t as passionate or reflective? I want all teachers to make sure their students are prepared for the real world of the 21st century, and that takes a lot more than just making sure they know how to write a 5-paragraph essay. I want them to be able to know how to use what I teach them, but more than that, I want them to be able to learn beyond what I teach them.I am not afraid of using data to back up my orientation. I am not afraid to be honest about what this outlook does to our students. Aprox. 20% of my students last year made more than one year’s growth on their reading and writing (according to last year’s state test). More than 85% made at least a year’s growth on reading and writing. Now, I know that these numbers are probably not Jeff’s idea of perfection, but I want him to know that they aren’t my idea of perfection either. What I am saying is that even as a lowly second year public school teacher (last year) I could teach both content and critical thinking (life-long learning) and still produce results that I can be proud of. (I can’t wait to see what my kids will do when I am a more seasoned teacher.)As for being in the stranglehold of the “progressives” for 100 years… I’m not really sure what he means. There have been many failed progressive movements in education in the last 100 years, but there have been just as many failed back-to-basics initiatives. One of the biggest questions I have is for Jeff’s son’s teachers: how would they categorize and describe their own teaching philosophy? I would love to know more about their successes with all of the students in Jeff’s son’s class. How are they getting such great results? Is it due to their private school student population, or is it the way that they are teaching (I’m assuming it is a little bit of both, but probably more weighted on the pedagogy)?

I am willing to swallow any stupid idea I may have, but my focus will always be on making myself a better teacher and making my students better learners. If you want to argue with me about my methodology, fine. But please don’t accuse me of not wanting what it best for my students.

0 Comments

  1. For starters, creating “lifelong learners” is a trite phrase without meaning. You can’t tell me how to get there, and you can’t tell me when you’ve got there. As I learned in both the army and in industry, goals need to be quantifiable and measurable or else they are useless. Apply that standard to your theses and see how they measure up.

    Now, on to your comments about my comments 🙂 I recognized the Ghandi quote, I just don’t like it. If it needs explanation to a college graduate, it’s not clear enough. You’ve clarified it above, and *now* it makes sense.

    For thesis number 2, notice that I *did* state that teachers should question their teaching to determine if they’re reaching students–that’s what critical pedagogy is. I apologize if that wasn’t clear. I substituted another saying for your #2: if it works, don’t fix it. Here’s another: practice makes perfect. After you’ve taught the same lesson a couple times it’s conceivable that you’ve worked out the kinks. I consider that fine-tuning, not reinventing the wheel. I took reinventing the wheel to mean coming up with entirely new lesson plans each time you teach the same lesson, whereas this fine tuning is just putting the critical pedagogy into practice!

    #3: Critical pedagogy. Adjust fire, don’t throw out the whole plan. Maybe you and I just interpret the phrase “reinvent the wheel” differently.

    #4: I don’t think you clarified how you define and value traditions, I think you changed it. I don’t think anyone could read this: “Teachers should see tradition for what it is: the hope that things will stay the same forever” and think you’re referring more to social promotion than to graduation. Perhaps, though, you and I just have very different ways of interpreting text.

    I appreciate the opportunity to discuss these with you rationally, however.

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