What if?


Saturday evening I sat in a darkened theater, wearing a tuxedo for the first time in almost 40 years, for the first presentations of what might be annual awards for excellence in education. The Bammy Award for Excellence in Education

I am sitting among a group of education bloggers who will be called up on stage and recognized for our work.We’re being treated like movie stars, photographed and video interviewed on the red carpet on our way into the Arena Stage in Washington, DC.

As much fun as it is to see people I have come to know, respect and learn with all dressed up, the men handsome and the women beautiful in our finery, this feels weird, bizarre and more than a little uncomfortable.

That this feels so strange is precisely what is wrong with the Bammy Awards for Excellence in Education —  that it is so outlandish for educators to get red carpet treatment, hear kind words and receive weighty trophies. We have become far more used to being blamed, attacked, criticized, sniped-at and otherwise vilified.

The Bammy Awards are a calculated response to the cynical, damaging and dangerous negative images of teachers and other educators being presented to the public.

In the process of recognizing exceptional teachers, administrators, school maintenance managers, education reporters and school nurses the Bammy Awards ask a challenging and important question: What would happen if we treated teachers with the same high regard we give to entertainers, sport stars and other celebrities?

What would happen, how would things change, if we showed teachers appreciation, respect, perhaps even admiration for their work, their experience and their dedication instead of treating them with contempt.

What would happen if we built educators up instead of tearing them down; what if we helped teachers feel good bout themselves instead of causing them to question their choice to teach in the first place.

What would change if we recognized the professionalism of teachers the way they do in Finland and Singapore?

What indeed?

A Better Idea for Improving Teaching

1913 photograph Ford company, USA
Image via Wikipedia

One of the most common suggestions for making teaching better is patently absurd, counter-productive and dangerous. It is the one proposing studying, recording and analyzing excellent teaching so that it can be replicated.

Proposals to replicate excellent teaching are counter-productive and dangerous because they distract us from thinking about ways to improve teaching that will actually accomplish that goal.

That the replication proposal exists at all is testimony to the pervasiveness of industrial models of and ideas about education. Xeroxing excellent teaching is absurd because teachers are not assembly line robots that can be programmed to perform the same task the same way every time, precisely the way every other robot does it.

Teachers are not robots and educated students are not mass-produced uniform quality-controlled products. Teachers and students are human; whatever education occurs in a classroom is the result of human, not human-like, interactions. If you need proof of this, think of your favorite teacher.

Is your favorite teacher your favorite because of her teaching precision? Do you even remember particular lessons she taught? Or is what you remember fondly your interactions with her, or the way that teacher made you feel about yourself?

I could go on and on about my junior high school English teacher for two years,
Elizabeth Novad, who I credit for showing me my intelligence, helping me learn to think, to express myself clearly (despite the evidence before you) and to feel confident about having a different view of things than the current popular opinion.

Mrs. Novad was a very different teacher than any I had before or after her, but the way to better teaching is not by trying to get all teachers to do what she or any other great teacher does. In fact, I have absolutely no doubt that were Mrs,.Novad teaching today she would be vilified for half the stuff that she had the students in my class doing.

Lets ditch the industrial manufacturing model of schooling that assumes that while good things occasionally occur, for the most part teachers are incompetents who need to be scripted so they deliver identically excellent lessons.

Lets adopt the medical model instead.

The medical model assumes that doctors are competent people who are expected to capably assess patients and deliver specifically targeted treatments to improve the patients’ health.

Everyone agrees that doctors need the flexibility to make diagnoses, try treatments, and adjust or radically change the treatments if necessary to better ensure patient health.

Even though doctors are generally capable undesirable outcomes occur; the wrong medicine or dose might be prescribed, the wrong leg amputated or, in the worst case, someone dies.

When things go badly, instead of looking for the easiest person to blame for the failure there is an open-minded inquiry, in which all the patient’s doctors and others physicians participate, that examines all the factors that influence a patients outcome.

There is understanding that even with the administration of the best care available at the time, unexpected and undesirable outcomes occasionally occur. There is acknowledgment that each patient is unique person with their own quirks, physiologies and willingness to comply with medical advice, and that those patient individualities can sabotage even the most careful medical plan. There is also awareness that doctors are human, that humans are not perfect and sometimes make mistakes.

Because everyone involved realizes that identical symptoms might indicate a variety of medical needs, that not every condition can be treated with the same medicine or procedure, no one calls for analyzing good doctoring so that it can be replicated and every patient treated exactly the same way all the time.

No one makes rash or brash assumptions. Instead, there is a conscious reflective, inquiry-led effort to refine diagnostic techniques, to reconfigure error-prone procedures, to develop new medicines and methods and remove doctors who do not have the skills or knowledge to be effective.

In other words, the focus is not on finding good work and multiplying it, but on finding out what doesn’t work and eliminating it.

Isn’t that a better way to improve schools and help teachers become more effective.