Friday, April 19, 2013

Ineffective Instruction: Through Ignorance? Or Distraction?

An educator never says what he himself thinks, but only that which he thinks it is good for those whom he is educating to hear. ----- Nietzsche The Will to Power
Most people, and those who write TV drama, tend to confuse teaching and preaching. It’s tradition! If your circumstances are right, for example, where you preach “to the choir,” that is, to any highly attentive, motivated, deferent group of people, then preaching can actually be teaching resulting in learning. Otherwise, though you speak with the tongues of men and angels, you are no more than sounding brass or tinkling cymbal.

But many attempts at teaching take place where the intended recipients are deficient in attention or motivation or deference: as in legally compulsory situations, e.g. K-12 schools, public or otherwise; semi-compulsory venues, e.g. required college courses; or even punishment substitution classes, e.g. driving classes for traffic offenders, or drug or alcohol “education” sessions.

Because the words “teaching” and “teacher” have ancient, revered and deep philosophical roots, (See Models of Teaching) modern tastes developing for “21st Century” institutions have pushed to replace the ancient words with “instruction” and “instructor.” Similarly “teacher’s judgment” has become “test results,” and “improved comportment,” has metamorphosed into “positive behavioral change.” (See Student as “Client” ) However, since this linguistic NewSpeak is still in flux, I will not consistently follow the “improvement,” throughout this essay.

But the real achievement with all this semantic hugger-mugger has been to convince an ignorant, or, in any event, only superficially-interested public that having changed, updated, upscaled and respun the vocabulary lists has brought about some substantial change in the realities of schooling: old wine that has been rebottled is new.

Would-be teachers (or instructors) are trained in what is called, often inaccurately and optimistically, classroom or instructional “management techniques.” Thus armed with putative pedagogical or public speaking skills, many enter teaching jobs or occupations (the spoken word is “professions”) expected to entertain, or distract their charges long enough to present them with material to be tested or “experienced” and to forestall their students’ dozing off, walking out or openly challenging institutional rules.

What is frequently characterized as “ineffective” instruction is thought to be a matter of ignorance of methods of effective presentation. Such ignorance is more commonly encountered at colleges and universities -- where exciting lecturers are still a rarity -- than in K-12 schools or in the corporate world. People who enter college teaching are expected to be “scholars.” Teaching effectiveness is a much more distant desideratum, following committee participation, grant-grubbing, and remaining always sensitive to, and ready to clear the decks for “collegially” pursuing the belfry-bats of “administrative intent” or trustee interest.

In many colleges and universities, the secondary expectations leave little time for any substantial scholarly pursuit. And yet, even as grade inflation, plagiarism, cheating (See Cheating Blogs) and hokey research (See many examples at crowd out learning, higher education leaders speak with surprised, tremulous tones of dismay at this predictable sacrifice by students and faculty of their ethics to their rationality. (See Fiscal Policy Effects on Grade Inflation)

In K-12 schools and in the corporate world, whether it is called “education” or “instruction,” it is not so much a dogged pursuit of scholarship that makes teachers or instructors ineffective. (See What Can A Teacher Do? Two Myths of Responsibility) It is actual commitment by many an organization to goals other than vaunted learning outcomes. Knowledge acquisition takes a distant second place to intrusive pursuit of more important priorities: in K-12, obedience training and attitudinal adjustment. (Schooling vs. Education)

In business, the devaluation of technically important instructional activity is shown, for example, in lack of support for customer service activities -- consider botched user manuals or mis-scheduled technical training sessions. Also, training budget may be sacrificed to “leadership” snipe hunts, pursuing newer “opportunities” before older ones have been completed. (Activities typical of persons in “buffered” roles. See Buffering: Enhancing Moral Hazard in Decision-Making.)

In general, instructional effectiveness is hampered by distractions. But these distractions are often unavoidable. Economic reality, financial support for educational activities, is basic. So are the activities of institutional power players. (See Power in Schooling Practice). Training and education take place, nowadays, in complex organizations. Such organizations have basic conflicts that cannot be escaped. (See Basic Internal Conflicts.)

Too many people, I suspect, think that they can escape into teaching to avoid having to confront more basic social and economic issues. (See Comparing Teaching to Other Occupations)The image of Socrates lazing about Athens chatting with disciples still delights educators at all levels with its aristocratic overtones of disregard for dealing with day-to-day necessities.

The myths of organizational simplicity and enduring mentorship, yet dear to many beyond education, is reinforced by the still echoed comment of President James Garfield who defined a university as “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.” Such a university never was, and never likely will be.

As private organizations, businesses, in general, have no educational obligations. Nor very much in the way of public esteem. That they train their employees, or provide instructional aid to their customers is a matter of perceived internal need. Publicity, good will, customer satisfaction are means to ends that the directors of the organization determine. History shows that it is not ethics, nor even, on occasion, rationality -- both insisted on by Adam Smith -- that constrains the social costs inflicted by such organizations. It is either exhaustion, or government intervention.

But educators, professors, particularly, are (in 2013) still treated in many places like secular priests and priestesses. They rank high in public esteem: not only in the Gallup polls; but, as indicated in media reportage of their failings with tones of outrage that the perversions of media stars themselves hardly ever provoke. Parents still treat teachers with deference and businessmen pursue invitations to university faculty clubs (even though they know they’re likely going to be solicited for a donation.)

Educators, teachers or instructors, high priests that they be, tend to believe that the alms they need to live in comfort, the eleemosynary sources they expect, should be freely accessible to them. However the institutions that provide them sanctuary have basic requirements, which, realistically, take priority. Nonetheless, if these institutions are bound by law or contract, that priority exists only so long as it does not appear to undermine their purported educational missions.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Increasing Teaching Efficiency

--- EGR

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Killing the Messengers? Disregarding School Reform Critics

Ignorance is Bliss -- Thomas Gray (1742)
Wealth or celebrity, in our Land of the Free, provides those who enjoy it, special people, both broad opportunity and wide audience to promulgate shallow opinions no matter how deep their ignorance. Non-special people who dare venture critical comment against such self-indulgence risk being punished as proverbial messengers of bad news.

For example, whistle-blowers in government face weakening of the laws that protect them from retaliation. Also, AgGag laws are passed to strangle free speech criticism of selected industry practices.

We can imagine the following dialog in, say, a college lab coffee room:
Harry: Yum! This leftover chocolate pudding I found in the frig tastes pretty good!

Jack: I hate to tell you, but that’s not chocolate pudding you’re eating.

Harry: Dammit, Jack! You’ve ruined my whole day!

When it comes to reforming public schools, heavily endowed opinionators importune the many educators seemingly all too ready to swallow down celebrity offal at face value, if sauced over with sentiment invoking the welfare of children or national competitiveness.

Bullshit, -- oops! (Pardon my Anglo-Saxon.) -- chocolate pudding, abounds providing sustenance (brain-food, no doubt) for myriad “researchers” willing to ride their bandwagons to escape academic and occupational ennui. Even when these reform enthusiasts, failing to extirpate criticism, finally come around to begrudging opposing viewpoints, they can count on their celebrity to finesse any apologies of shame or regret.

As to school reform? No matter! So never mind. Wasted time, money and human resources are just so much past history. And real “pro-active” Go-Getters don’t lose sleep over past history! They stand ever ready with that Tool they wield so effectively, to promote the next social reform that distracts them from ennui.

For references and to examine that Tool further, see BS -- It Really Serves a Purpose

--- EGR

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Inverting Risk: misdescription for the sake of punditry.

The children involved with the Atlanta schools cheating scandal are “the victims of … massive fraud, the helpless pawns of adults who callously overlooked the needs of their charges and focused on preserving their careers.” -- C. Tucker, 4/10/13 Phila Inquirer, A18
Punditry tempts one to great (see) moral hazard. Once you have a newspaper column that guarantees an audience, you can, if you wish, sacrifice fact and logic for the sake of seducing sympathy for your latest enthusiasm. (Besides, getting to ride the high horse of moral superiority is so delightful!)

First, let’s give but short shrift to the likely false assumptions in Tucker’s diatribe:
a. Did any students or their parents, relatives etc. protest against the high scores announced before the “scandal” broke? (Not likely.)

b. Did the adults involved, i.e. school staff, “callously overlook the needs of their charges? (More likely they did so with trepidation and feelings of guilt. Educators are, to my taste, entirely too sensitive to what kids and their parents claim to want or need.)

c. Which “needs” is Tucker talking about? Is there much agreement as to what they are and which among them takes priority? (Disregarding slogans for the consumption of the ill-informed, the answer is NO. See The Need for and Possibilities of Educational Reform)

d. And, horrors! What kind of adults might overlook the “needs” of others (children included) and focus on preserving their careers? Not just teachers and principals and school superintendents; but, also, presidents, popes, preachers, corporate CEO’s, as well as you, me, members of Congress, definitely, and even pundits! (But see The Mea Culpa Culture in Public Education.)

Now that we are fatigued from wagging our fingers, let’s consider a deeper issue: the degradation of our natural sense of logic and experience by the persistent hammering in of emotional confusions.

By the time a normal child is ten years old, he or she has learned through experience the following three rules for survival:
Rule 1: A sure bet is definitely not the same as a distant possibility;

Rule 2: Sure bets are lower, much lower, risks than distant possibilities; from which follows

Rule 3: Avoid betting things you value on distant possibilities, unless the payoffs are proportionately (inversely) unequal, i.e. massive payoffs may be worth an increased risk, even though small or equal ones are not.

As the headmaster of a private, academic school, grades seven through twelve, I attempted to solicit financial support for our programs from corporations around the Philadelphia area. I was never successful in the face of the reasons given by almost every one of those who refused: “High school kids are too distant a prospect for us to bet on. Too much can happen before they get to us. We only contribute to programs for upper-class students in college, because we’ll see them presently.”

No dummies, they! They have retained their childhood knowledge of Rules 1-3 given above. They put their money on the surer bet.

But, in this cruel world we live in, who in their right mind -- unless well-endowed (or a hopelessly optimistic educator) -- makes a bet on the future prospects of a school kid at the much surer risk of destroying their career? That is, discarding a career they have poured much time, sweat and money into, along with the pension they cannot recover through new employment? Tucker seems to think this would have been the reasonable option for the educators involved.

“Reasonable” for educators, but not a newspaper columnist, I am sure.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Illogic and Dissimulation in School Reform

--- EGR

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Bestowing Trust

Those who control how you trust, control you . (See Related Blogs)

There is much ado, both socially and politically, about which aspects of our society our laws should give priority to, for example, “free markets” or “government control.” Many people pick sides, founding fan-clubs of sorts, and spending a lot of time “debating” the “issues.” This is like a bunch of rabbits tuning in on a quarrel between wolves and foxes as to how those predators should arrange their dinner menus.

Of course, the rabbits have a role to play here. They -- in their massive numbers -- have to trust either wolves or foxes in order to facilitate the carnivores’ meal-making (and not flee or resist their needed participation).

There are seldom, if ever, any “free” markets: there are only people free to manipulate the trust of others. But neither are there, however exalted, any “trustworthy” institutions, in and of themselves: it is our bestowal of trust that makes them so. The very common ideas of “need to know,” or “proprietary secrets,” “name-brands” and “Trust me!” attest to this.

Judgment is regularly and openly diverted from a search for information in order to make a comparison to standards, to the well-encouraged short cut of emotional response to advertising. Caveat emptor -- like many another commandment in our “faith-based” society -- is given lip-service, only, and disregarded in practice.

Much of the expatiation on Constitutional rights and liberty, as well as that on community and tolerance is little more than seduction into trust. But it will likely be the thoughtless bestowals of trust by ill-informed, mal-educated, or distracted individuals that pave the road to innovative (!), modern (!) , 21st Century (!) forms of slavery.

To examine these issues further, see PERSONAL LIBERATION THROUGH EDUCATION?

--- EGR