29 June 2016

A teacher’s perspective, part 1: the 21st century classroom

The following guest post was written by a friend and colleague who teaches at a large, selective New York City public high school. Over the last several years, her descriptions of the changes wrought by various new technologies, the imposition of Common Core, and an increasingly byzantine evaluation system that effectively punishes teachers for teaching, have provided me with an illuminating glimpse into some of the more alarming changes the public school system has recently undergone (and continues to undergo), and piqued my interest in understanding how standardized testing fits into the secondary landscape as a whole. I have found her insights invaluable, and I invited her to write this two-part series because I thought that it was important that those insights be shared with a wider audience.

Twice a year, during parent/teacher conferences, I get to meet you. I get a fascinating snapshot of your families, and what my students convey to you about my particular classroom. During these brief moments, I often wonder how much you really understand about how differently your children’s educational experience is from your own. Today, I would like to clarify how profoundly different it is.

Perhaps you read the educational pages of national newspapers. There you will find desperate appeals to revamp education. Some of the themes you see are as follows:

  • Bored children who need more creativity and less rote learning.
  • Dull teachers who need to teach less and allow children to take control of their learning.
  • A technology gap that needs to be addressed with more tablets in the hands of more children at ever younger ages.
  • Higher standards that must be maintained by giving large corporations such as Pearson lucrative contracts with our schools to test them and then use these scores to evaluate teachers.
  • A competitive college process that must be combatted with more AP classes at younger and younger ages.
  • A challenging job market that requires working in teams, thus making group dynamics a paramount skill for students to master.

It is a constant harping that the 21st century school must have a completely different dynamic from the one that you knew in the last century. My own class is particularly different from the way I was educated. When I was in high school, I sat in rows with my classmates. Being shy, I rarely spoke, but I listened and learned a lot. When I became a teacher, I wanted to be my childhood “dream” teacher: someone smart and funny and challenging who stood in front of a class and explained things. I never thought a teacher would do anything else.

But here is a snapshot of my class: I begin class with a short exercise called a “Do-Now” – a 1-3 minute activity that reviews previous information, is short enough to accomplish quickly, and gets students’ attention focused on the new class. For the rest of the 45-minute period, I switch activities every 10 minutes so that students don’t get bored, and so that they practice different kinds of skills. Sometimes they work in pairs or groups, and sometimes they listen and take notes.

When I go to AP Workshops, I often get stunned looks from private school teachers who are shocked at my AP results – especially because I teach at a public school with 34 students in a class. I have been told by my administration that I am charismatic, that kids love me, and that they never get parent complaints. I am not a disgruntled teacher who conducts class in a stuffy, old-fashioned style; but I do worry about how the implementation of educational fads, when taken to extremes, can affect our children’s learning.

Traditionally, K-12 educators have never reacted strongly to educational fads. When I first came to education as a career changer 10 years ago, one of my first department meetings was about a concept called SMART goals. Fresh from my master’s program, I set about to master what lurked behind this impressive acronym. The older teachers just laughed at me, and told me to pay no mind. They said educational fads come and go, and there would be a new one next year to replace this year’s educational jargon. However, in the years to come, the tone changed. New teacher evaluation systems were put into place that would assure that these fads were systematically implemented. Teachers who resisted these fads found themselves under immense pressure from administration, and more often than not retired from teaching in exasperation.

I call them fads because there is little empirical research to vouch for their efficacy. Even if there is research to back up a particular strategy, administrators are not particularly adept at rolling them out at a macro level. Do you remember the metaphor of the butterfly effect? – even the smallest changes in education can have profound effects when instituted widely, and often these effects are unforeseen. I watch these unexpected effects play themselves out, and frankly it terrifies me, as well as the teachers I work with. As you are not in the classroom to view them, I would like to give you a bird’s eye view of how these changes are playing out from my perspective.

The implementation of these fads in New York City can best be understood if you care to read 115 pages of the Danielson Framework. It is the work of Charlotte Danielson, who designed a system for administrators to use in the evaluation of classroom teachers. It has four domains with numerous sub-domains making for a grand total of 22 measures of teacher effectiveness, actually 23 if you ask teachers to submit “artifacts” (http://usny.nysed.gov/rttt/teachers-leaders/practicerubrics/Docs/danielson-teacher-rubric.pdf).

Danielson’s Framework was so complicated to implement that the DOE had to organize extra days of professional development to explain it to us, as well as spend large amounts of money training supervisors to use it. Ultimately, Danielson’s work proved so unwieldy that the New York City DOE now uses an abbreviated version of it when evaluating teachers. In my last formal observation my supervisor used 7 of the original 22 measures.

When teachers first heard about this new evaluation system, some rejoiced. Before Danielson we could not be recognized for excellence – we only received satisfactory or unsatisfactory ratings. Now excellence could be acknowledged! However, reaching for the brass ring in the Danielson Framework, as it was first presented, meant giving up your sanity. It is not humanly possible to be excellent in every category during a brief classroom visit by an administrator. It became abundantly clear to me that a system which micro-manages teachers’ behavior would change the classroom profoundly. Teachers tried so hard to ring every bell on the 22 measures that their teaching style took on an ADD quality. Where I used to do three activities in 45 minutes, I now did five. In some ways it made me a better teacher – a student is less likely to be bored if I move them quickly through different styles of teaching. But the deep, slow, methodical learning that many students desperately need had to be put aside. In fact, I often ask myself the question: are my students’ obvious lack of attention skills due to my teaching style, or is my teaching style adapting to their lack of attention? Probably a little of both.

At the same time the more methodical way of teaching went to the wayside, administrators came to denigrate any kind of teacher mediation that did not consist of “high-level critical thinking” accomplished in a group setting. The general idea is that children of the 21st century can do a Google search when they need information. Thus, anything other than deep critical thinking, as indicated by constant, group-based chatter, is a waste of their time. In fact, Danielson describes a “true” classroom discussion as the following: Rather, in a true discussion a teacher poses a question and invites all students’ views to be heard, enabling students to engage in discussion directly with one another, not always mediated by the teacher (p. 64).

As administrators came in and out of our classrooms, students were no longer given simple comprehension questions or, heaven forbid, a worksheet where they could cover essential basic information in a methodical manner. The fact that students needed to assimilate some of that basic information before they could engage in higher-level activities was not addressed or even acknowledged. One of my colleagues likened the situation to being in college and having recitations without lectures. But due to fears of being assessed poorly, teachers increasingly abandoned any hint of the lecture format. The fear is so intense that I have witnessed many teachers actually apologize to students for “talking at them” when they feel the need to clarify information for too long, aka “lecture.” As for how this change plays out for students, I have noticed that the overuse of group work interferes with their independent thinking. Often, the moment a question looks difficult, they immediately turn to the person next to them, as it does not even occur to them to solve it on their own.

It would be logical to assume that students enjoy a system where they have so much control over their learning. However, when you actually ask students their preference, you get a very different viewpoint. Typical responses are as follows: Teachers who put us in groups are lazy. Teachers put us in groups because they do not want to teach us. I hate group work. Why won’t the teacher just explain it to us? It is so unfair – the smart students do all the work and the lazy students coast. Group work is a world of all-consuming frustration. Yet Teacher’s Ed courses systematically convince every novice teacher that we do our students a disservice by being “the sage on stage” – what is clearly needed is a “guide on the side” – yet there is little empirical research showing that group work is superior to guided learning. Additionally, for all their talk of giving students a larger role in how they learn, they ignore students’ obvious antipathy towards group work, and when pressed, cite their conviction that everybody in the 21st century workforce now works in groups.

Another unproven fad of the 21st century schoolroom is the idea that more technology will increase learning outcomes. Standing by my Smartboard one day, I was aghast to hear from an administrator that it was not enough that I use technology. If I wanted a good review, my students had to use technology as well. But laptop use by students invariably has two paradigms: students hide behind their laptops, distracted and off-task, or they type prodigiously like automatons, which makes me wonder if typing has the same processing “feel” as writing notes.

Even more frightening than the apparent lack of concentration, I have noticed that some teachers turn out the lights in the room so that the Smartboard is easy to see. In fact, on one of my evaluations I was told that I should turn out the lights and shut the blinds so as to see the screen better. A dark classroom creates lethargic students, and I find myself averse to creating this depressing atmosphere. When I come into a classroom and turn on the lights, students often complain. Apparently, they like learning in darkness. It is a frightening metaphor for education.

In part 2: how reforms have altered the arc of teaching and assessment.   

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