21 September 2012

Bad Educational Practices Are Inherent in the System

If it weren't for the somewhat self-righteous sense of making a difference, I doubt we'd have any good teachers at all. But some people actually want to become teachers. Some people enjoy working with kids, and they feel good about themselves. These are the people that stay late, work at home and on the weekends, and over the summer. They obviously don't do this to impress their boss—there's no chance of promotion in this job. They don't do it for overtime pay—there's no such thing. They do it because they want to be a good teacher and maybe influence their students for good.

But we take advantage of these teachers. We think that we can cut their medical coverage, stop raising their wages with inflation, and give them more hoops to jump through, without any consequences. But good teachers tend to be talented people. Talented people can find good work anywhere, and they will if the cons of being a teacher become to great. And thus you end up with the teachers who aren't as talented. You can't legislate good teaching.

Objective assessment, or the kind of assessment with right and wrong answers that could be graded by monkeys, is the easiest. You can even put it on a bubble sheet and have a computer do it. Unfortunately, this provides very little benefit to the students. Students can't defend their answers. They don't need to show any evidence of why it's the right answer. There's no way to prove they do or don't understand a concept through objective assessment. But it's the easiest, so poor teachers (and inefficient governments) use it.

Subjective assessment is what good teachers use to determine a student's learning. They look for understanding and critical thinking. They compensate for external factors, and look for improvement. But subjective assessment requires teachers to know their students. It requires significant time and effort during and outside of class. It means a student can utterly fail at a project, yet demonstrate to the teacher that he/she learned something in the process and therefore succeed in class.

It means more work than teachers are paid to do.

Legislated Practices
As with grading students, there's no objective way to determine whether a teacher is good a good teacher. Try as they might, there's no test nor any other hoop that will tell you that a teacher is effective. It requires subjective assessment. It requires administrators who formally and informally observe teachers, and talk to parents and students about them. It benefits from parents who care more about their children's education than their self-esteem or their straight A's.

Yet, the hoops keep coming. They don't make bad teachers any better, and they frustrate the good teachers by giving them more work to do—

more work than they're paid to do.

Teacher Pay
Some good teachers can deal with poor pay for a while, or even their whole careers. But many of them leave teaching because of better pay elsewhere. If you're good at teaching, chances are you can succeed in another job that pays much better. Even if you can't, you can make more money as a cashier at Costco than you can as a teacher with a Bachelor's degree.

This leaves you with a few good teachers who can tough it out, and a lot of bad teachers who don't bother to find a job that they actually enjoy.

I'm not saying that paying teachers better would make them better teachers. I'm saying that better pay would keep the good teachers around, and it would attract higher-caliber individuals to the career. But by no means should you pay teachers better for students doing better on tests.

This is a new thought I've had, so it hasn't developed much yet. Before the new school year started a few weeks ago, we all had to go to all-day training held at the high school. Sitting on those hard seats all day listening to people talk who I believed didn't know anymore than I knew, I realized something: being a student is awful!

A few of these teachers did a few things well: they stopped lecturing and let us get to work and experiment on our own. They gave us a chance to apply what they were telling us to our own fields, interests, and strengths.

So now it's making me think a little more deeply about what I blogged about the other day. The parallel I'm getting is that we need to give students more opportunities to apply what they learn to something that interests them. This doesn't mean thousands of essays and physics problems based around zombies and video games, but it does mean finding things that appeal more to the age group.

It also means finding better places than the sterile, hard-chaired classrooms. I'm not quite sure what that is, yet, but I think emerging technologies will have a large part to play. One of which is responsive software. Another is cloud computing. And the last, for now, is tablets and/or netbooks.

I'll cover that later.

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