Learning to Teach (Superhero Perspective)

I recently spent four weeks teaching in a comprehensive high school in Sydney’s south. It was my first ever teaching experience, and it was intense! Two things that hit me early on:

  1. lot of preparation goes into each class (e.g., lesson plan, PPT slides, finding resources, making worksheets, designing activities, etc). I’m sure it does get easier over time as you build a portfolio of things to draw on. It also depends on whether you want to be great, or whether you are content with being mediocre.
  2. lot of things are happening all at once inside the classroom. In addition to ‘delivering’ the content, I’m trying to familiarise myself with names/faces, monitor behaviour, formulate questions to ask students, respond to input from students, keep track of time, keep track of environmental factors — good teaching requires expertise in multi-tasking.

What I also began to realise as the weeks went on is that the process of learning to teach is like being a superhero who begins to discover and explore my superpower. Teachers have tremendous power over students, both in terms of how they learn and how they behave. Think about it — we have the power to control people. “Line up outside, two straight lines.” “Open up your books and write this heading.” “Turn around now. Look at me.” “Write down three things you learned today.” “Pick that up. Put it in the bin.”

Being an effective teacher requires having the confidence and capability to exercise power over people. This brings me to a really great quote from Haim Ginott, a child psychologist and author who wrote this about the power of teaching:

I have come to a frightening conclusion.

I am the decisive element in the classroom.

It is my personal approach that creates the climate.

It is my daily mood that makes the weather.

As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.

I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.

I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.

In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.

Lots of things have being proposed to improve/reform the education system — money, syllabus, testing, technology, parent choice; the list goes on and on. Ultimately however, learning happens in the classroom, as facilitated by teachers. Developing the knowledge, skills and motivation of teachers is paramount; and also, I would suggest, their character. As we all know, with great power comes great responsibility.

Grit Is Not (Necessarily) A Virtue

I’m currently studying in the field of education. This is an interesting area in that everyone agrees that it is important, yet there’s so much variability in its delivery and outcomes. Even in the brief time that I have read about and visited schools so far, my encounters have ran the gamut from inspiring and heartwarming to infuriating and depressing. The system muddles along with so much that needs to be improved.

A while back I saw this short TED talk where researcher Angela Lee Duckworth spoke on the importance of grit to success:

To summarise:

Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

As with most TED talks, it is slick and persuasive. I remember silently assenting to this obvious and important truth. The implication for education is clear: we need to teach grit to children so that they can be more successful. Sounds about right?

Not so fast. A couple of weeks ago I was going through the archives of Alfie Kohn, an author and lecturer who is an outspoken critic of the testing culture in schools. I came across an article, “Grit: A Skeptical Look at the Latest Educational Fad,” that gave me pause. Kohn makes several arguments against grit, including, for example, that it may be pointless (and even harmful) to persist with something, and that grit unduly focuses on the “how” at the expense of the “why” (e.g., fear, approval seeking, genuine interest, etc.), which may be the more important consideration.

For me, Kohn’s most noteworthy objection to proponents of grit goes to the heart of their conception of students in the education system. Proponents of grit place the emphasis on young people’s inner character—their grit, resilience, perseverance, and so forth. However, Kohn argues that the more we focus on these personal qualities, the less likely we’ll question the big picture, including problematic policies and institutions. For proponents of grit, underachievement is to be explained by internal character flaws, such as “failure to exercise self-discipline”, rather than structural issues such as class and privilege which in reality play a significant (and often determinative) role in economic outcomes.

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Perhaps, as Kohn points out, the problem is not with kids who are lacking in their stick-to-itiveness. Perhaps they tune out because what they’re asked to do is not particularly engaging or relevant. There are educational reformers who are on a mission to make pedagogy more constructive and imaginative, and less focused on memorisation and testing. Kohn notes that for Duckworth and other proponents of grit, they look at the status quo and ask: How can we get kids to put up with it?

When you put it that way, grit doesn’t sound so flash anymore, does it? Grit is nice. Grit is important. But we can and should also do more to change a broken system rather than simply get kids to adapt to it.

Quote(s) of the Day IX

March has thrown up a multitude of articles on the prickly subject of free speech versus protection on US college campuses. By protection, I mean the ability to be safe from upsetting or damaging speech/conduct, in particular as it revolves around sexual dynamics, politics and identity. The New York Times has a good summation of the hubbub.

There was one passage from an account of anti-rape activists protesting against an objectionable essay that caught my eye:

It’s easy to sympathize with the young feminists’ desire to combine maximal sexual freedom with maximal sexual safety. Yet there are contradictions between a feminism that emphasizes women’s erotic agency and desire to have sex on equal terms with men, and a feminism that stresses their erotic vulnerability and need to be shielded from even the subtlest forms of coercion. The politics of liberation are an uneasy fit with the politics of protection. A rigid new set of taboos has emerged to paper over this tension, often expressed in a therapeutic language of trauma and triggers that everyone is obliged to at least pretend to take seriously.

I’m troubled by the proponents of boycotts and safe zones on the grounds of free speech and stifling political correctness. But putting aside the question of whether it is justifiable or not, there is an inherent contradiction at play. I wonder whether and to what extent they are aware of this.

Quote(s) of the Day IV

If you look back over the stuff I’ve posted about (really, why would you, but here are some examples) you will see that I am deeply interested in the folly of the current aspirational-developmental-educational-professional culture that has gripped Western society. More specifically, that would be the United States and, to a lesser extent but worryingly going down the same track, Australia. I think that the human costs (life, beauty, flourishing, companionship, mental wellbeing, etc) inflicted by hyper-competitiveness in our societies are an absolute travesty.

I have recently come across two excellent articles on this subject matter. Since the last paragraph of an essay or article is usually quite punchy and captures the essence of what the author has been saying all along, it is well worth quoting.

The first article, ‘All Work and No Pay: The Great Speedup,’ looks at the speedup (“an employer’s demand for accelerated output without increased pay”) of American workers’ lives, the social consequences and where the 1% (of course) fits into the picture. Its final paragraph:

… So maybe it’s time to come out of the speedup closet. Rant to a friend, neighbor, coworker. Hear them say, “Me too.” That might sound a little cheesy, and it’s not going to lance Mitch McConnell from the body politic of America. But if you’re in an abusive relationship—which 90-plus percent of America currently is—the first step toward recovery is to admit you have a problem.

The second article is a New York Times book review of ‘Teach Your Children Well,’ by psychologist Madeline Levine. Apparently the book does a good job of turning the magnifying glass onto the parents themselves. Why do mothers protest the use of spray-on chemicals to treat apples in supermarkets but buy into the demonstrably more toxic education system? The last paragraph reads:

After all, as Levine notes, the inconvenient truth remains that not every child can be shaped and accelerated into Harvard material. But all kids can have their spirits broken, depression induced and anxiety stoked by too much stress, too little downtime and too much attention given to external factors that make them look good to an audience of appraising eyes but leave them feeling rotten inside.

Read the article, read the book, do something to get yourself up to speed with the broken system that is the college rat race and get fired up about it.

Quote(s) of the Day II

Every now and then you will read something that just hits home. The text bristles with shards of truth, piercing your heart and mind. So it was with me as I stumbled upon an essay — The Disadvantages of an Elite Education — by William Deresiewicz, a writer, literary critic and Yale alumnus. The article offers an eloquent, biting critique of elite education (specifically Yale and Ivy League but generalisable to other countries). In my first ever post, I reflected on my years at Sydney Law School and wholeheartedly concluded that it was an experience worth having. Nevertheless, I do have strong reservations about our elitism — particularly in light of what many grads in my cohort are now doing and in light of the up-and-comers who seem more convinced than ever that doing law at Sydney is just the ticket for success in life.

Dr Deresiewicz has a lot to say about elite education, but if I had to distil down to his core points, it would be these:

1. It makes us think we’re superior people

One of the great errors of an elite education, then, is that it teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense. But they’re not. Graduates of elite schools are not more valuable than stupid people, or talentless people, or even lazy people. Their pain does not hurt more. Their souls do not weigh more. If I were religious, I would say, God does not love them more.

Yes, someone who gets extremely high marks in the university entrance exams might be ‘better’ than others in the very narrow sense of being more book smart. The danger is to let this mindset seep into other areas of thinking. We begin to feel entitled, that we deserve better because we’ve worked so hard and we’re so bright. If another person is not doing well it’s because s/he is lazy and dumb and they deserve less.

2. It constricts what we do with our lives

An elite education gives you the chance to be rich—which is, after all, what we’re talking about—but it takes away the chance not to be.

Some people started off wanting to be rich and successful, so they decided on the ‘best’ course at the ‘best’ uni to maximise their shot at riches and success. Some people didn’t have a clear idea of what they wanted to do after finishing high school, but they were book smart so they did well in tests and fell in to the best course at the best uni. I am in the second category. The danger with the second group is that we know better but we still go down that path. We don’t have that ruthless streak. We are probably disdainful of those who are pushing pushing pushing for better marks, better job, better pay. But nevertheless we go through the those same motions, jump through the same hoops.

I have several theories as to why. Perhaps because we’re unsure of what we want, we take our cues from what society regards as successful. Perhaps we’re stubborn and decide to stick with the law school —> corporate route because we’ve invested so much time and effort into our degrees that we might as well do it (see: sunk cost fallacy). Or perhaps we’re so afraid of failure (see next point) that we don’t think we can go off the well-worn track, and that we’ll be perceived as such if we do so.

In any case, simply having an elite education makes it that much harder to contemplate, let alone pursue, a path that may be more suitable for us.

3. We become terrified of failure

Because students from elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed. The idea of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them. They’ve been driven their whole lives by a fear of failure—often, in the first instance, by their parents’ fear of failure.

I don’t have much to add, except to say that from personal experience this absolutely rings true. Once you’re on the ‘elite’ path, there is a great expectation and desire to perform. It may sound ridiculous, but I was terrified of getting anything less than a Distinction in my subjects. That fear pushed me forwards, and now looking back the most significant thing I got out of it was a set of pretty numbers.

4. It goes against the true spirit of education: to teach us to think

But if you’re afraid to fail, you’re afraid to take risks, which begins to explain the final and most damning disadvantage of an elite education: that it is profoundly anti-intellectual.
[The kids] are products of a system that rarely asked them to think about something bigger than the next assignment. The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name. It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.

This one is the killer. While I did comment favourably on legal education in my first post, I believe what I gained was quite particular: analytical skills. The essay also alludes to this, with elite schools placing a premium on the analytic over other valuable facets of intelligence: for example social intelligence, emotional intelligence and creative ability.

I consider myself fortunate to have had the foresight to combine my Law degree with an Arts degree which allowed me to dabble in the humanities, particularly philosophy. I was able to think, to question, to ponder. My fear is that as tertiary education becomes ever more ‘professionalised’ — lawyers, accountants, engineers, computer technicians, etc — less and less students are willing or able to pursue learning for its own sake, thinking for its own sake.

Could this just be the cry of a pompous Arts student? Maybe. I think the professionalisation of tertiary education is more a reflection of how society is transforming, rather than an indictment of the students themselves (who, after all, are responding to what society says is important). Are the Humanities dying a slow death? Now there’s something I can spend a good 1000 words on.