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