04 October 2012

Changing Pedagogy vs. Teacher Identity

Those who watch my Twitter stream closely may understand that I cycle through two very different approaches to the night - either I stay awake "working" through the dark hours, fighting my way, or I hide as I did as kid, still mostly awake, just waiting for dawn when sleep can come...

Anyway, that's not the point...

But awake one late night I watched The Story of Louis Pasteur on Turner Classic Movies. And in that movie I realized something - that it took Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister forty years to convince the world's doctors to wash their hands. This seems - to us, as it did to Pasteur and Lister - a tiny thing with huge results, patients stopped dying at a 50% rate from infections, but it was massive because it threatened the entire self-image of the doctors. In order for the doctors to make this change - in order for them to stop killing half their patients - they had to admit that they were not quite the "healers" they imagined themselves to be. And the doctors of the 19th Century couldn't quite get there...

Joseph Lister explains the whole germ-infection thing...
Today, education is caught in the trap which suffocated medicine 150 years ago. Pedagogy and the structure of schooling does not change because so many of those who practice and lead it refuse to confront their egos and their self-images - and this ranges from the teacher who still uses worksheets and grades compliance to Arne Duncan, Michael Gove, and even Barack Obama.

And the result is... we are "killing" kids - both figuratively and literally.

Educators get caught in an awful "Anti-Virtuous" Cycle. So many did well in traditional schools for very traditional reasons. They were born to wealth and privilege, or they were born to educationally successful families. And/or, they simply are the kind of student "school" - that culture of compliance and passivity - enables.

Then, because "school" worked for them, they stayed in school - many teachers have never been anywhere else since heading off to nursery school/preschool: Primary, Secondary, University, Graduate School, Working in School, it is all they know, and they only know the schools they have succeeded in.

Thus, they mimic the teachers who honored them, and then... surprise, surprise... the kids who succeed in their classrooms, in their school buildings, are the kids most like them. This is powerful reinforcement, it ensures these educators that their life's successes are not the accidents of privilege but are because of their inherent superiority.

"It worked for me..."
So when we challenge the old pedagogies and old school structures we attack the entire self-image of these educators. We not only challenge their life's work as "educators" - we are in fact saying that often they are doing as much damage as good - but we are also challenging their entire identity and self-worth.

That's a big deal...

And it is a horribly destructive deal, just as the self-image of those ancient doctors was so destructive.

So we need to decide... who is more important in education? The kids or the recalcitrant teachers?

Because if we are going to move from replicators to design thinkers, we must move our focus from the needs of those who work in schools to the needs of those for whom schools exist. And beyond that, if we are to succeed where we have not, we must begin to see and understand that "user experience" of school from the perspective of those students for whom it is not working.

That's "design think." When Ford Motor Company decided to become truly competitive in the United States they really began to look at the choices made by all those who did not buy their cars. They focused on their "users," their customers, and they tossed out virtually every old management structure. Compare a 1995 Escort and a 2012 Focus, and you'll see the difference. They knew they had to win back all those who had walked away from their products... and we, in education, must win back all of those who - quite logically - walk away from our "product," literally and figuratively, every day. Just as General Motors spent years in denial, pretending they built cars people wanted, our schools live in denial, claiming that "there's something wrong" with all those kids who won't bother to pick up the passive parcels of knowledge we dump on their mental doorstep. Because we are so often part of that one third that waited for those parcels back in our day, we never stop to imagine why anyone wouldn't grab it.

So, here's the beginning... I am not going to pick on teachers or the teaching profession because I believe it to be the most important job in the world. But I am going to say that teachers must learn every day, from brain research, from observation, from great practitioners. And that learning must change their practice every day, otherwise, they are simply not demonstrating their learning.

And I will say that teacher excuses, "I don't have the time," "I'm busy," "I don't get paid enough for this," "We tried this before and it didn't work," can only be used by teachers who consistently accept those excuses from their students.

great teachers do not wait to do the right things

I understand - even if I don't really - that it is very hard to be told that you've been doing a "not very good" job. I don't really understand because people have told me that pretty much all my life. So, its ok... my goal is to keep changing every day so I do it better. But if you've never heard that before, I'm going to imagine that it's devastating. Maybe almost as devastating as it is to be student in a school which pays no attention to how you learn and what you need.
"Scientists are now discovering massive structural changes in the adolescent brain through extensive functional MRI scans, changes that apparently shake the internal mechanisms of a teenage brain to its roots. If this is true – and all the signs suggest that it is – these must be seen as essential evolutionary adaptations that ensure the survival of the human race by forcing teenagers to break away from their parents and teachers. “Get off my back,” adolescents down the ages have pleaded. “Leave me alone. Give me space.” Adolescence is about growing up and no longer thinking like a child. It’s about ceasing to be a clone. Sitting still (if only for part of the time!) may be an appropriate learning environment for the pre-pubescent child, but it is largely inappropriate for adolescents, whose biological pre-dispositions, we now know, urge them to find out things for themselves.

"And here is the crux of the present advanced world’s dilemma. Little more than 100 years ago, American psychologists started to define this rebelliousness of adolescence as a disease, an aberration that made teenagers a threat to themselves. Psychologists and educational bureaucrats alike concluded that something had to be done to prevent teenagers from threatening the carefully controlled world that teachers had created.

"Educational administrators saw only one answer to this problem: put adolescents into school for longer and longer, and give them so much studying to do that they wouldn’t have the time or energy to question what an adult society was actually doing to them.

"We’re still doing this today. Policymakers, with little background in the neurological processes, expected that, by the age of 22 or 23, the next generation of young people would have been “broken in” to the currently defined way of doing things. Their thinking resembled that of horse breeders who, until very recently, thought it necessary to break in a young foal after it had run relatively wild for two years. Now horse breeders carefully study the temperament of every foal, and then define unique training programs that build upon what each can do naturally. Human adolescents crave and deserve no less. Deep down, there stirs within them the urge to climb the mountains of the mind and see what possibilities lie before them; they are innately “big picture” thinkers and frequently upset older generations by questioning the compromised lives so many of us lead. That is their nature; it is what their brains have evolved to do. It is the apparently unreasonable dreams of adolescence that, years later, drive the progress of what we are proud to call our civilization. It has always been so." - Education Canada
- Ira Socol


Anonymous said...

This rings true on so many levels. One of the things that strikes me in England where I work, is the number of teachers becoming increasingly frustrated and angry with the backward looking nostalgia of Michael Gove. He is systematically reversing the positive progress made by teachers in education over the last 30 years while entrenching the asinine 'reforms' that successive governments and non educational civil servants have implemented in that time. They fact that he is able to do this is because so many people are experts on education, having of course been to school themselves.
I really think it is a crazy world when we put an ex-News International journalist in charge of education, presumably because we as teachers can't be trusted to have a rational view of our profession!

monika hardy said...

grazie man.

Crudbasher said...

Wonderful post Ira. I had a lot to say here so I wrote a blog post in response!
When Teachers Hold On Too Tight

Anonymous said...

As a teacher I always feel I could do better but also see it is impossible to do better in some schools. For example, as a middle school music teacher, I would love to let my kids explore their curiosity for music, which they clearly have, but with the very tiny classroom my district gives me, the limited budget I have for instruments and the class sizes, 30 kids (have you ever heard what 30 kids in a music room can do with instruments if they are told to explore?), there is just no room (spatially or sonically) to allow them that freedom. I tried all variety of experiments, have 80% of the kids work on some silent project for a period while a small group got to explore instruments and composition, which they all said they wanted to do, then rotate these groups. It could not work because some kids got left with silent projects for quite a while and complained and I got accused of neglecting some children by the admin. Your post, while lovely and even true in many key areas, reflects your limited understanding of what many teachers face from administrations and resource realities. This is where the question of "who is more important, teacher or student" becomes very complicated because the things teachers fight for often to make their jobs better, a quality you seem to critique here, is often something the teacher knows would be better for the kids...a larger music room, sound proof practice rooms, more instruments, etc. Help us fight the corrupt district mentality that holds us back and stop blaming teachers for the failings of our school system. Nice essay but you have some things to learn here.

Unknown said...


There are so many wars... and those of us in England and the US are under the most negative pressures from corrupt politicians like Michael Gove and Arne Duncan who are willing to sell our children for corporate profits. But I thank you for not giving up. The bigger the threats to our kids, the better we have to be.

Anonymous (and please identify yourself, a basic part of professional online behavior),

I am sorry, but all over the US, and elsewhere, I see classes of 30+ students joyfully making a great deal of noise in music classrooms, and in my primary grades experience, it was often 60+ students with one teacher. In fact, I know elementary music teachers who've merged their classes via Skype into enormous cacophonies. Its wonderful.

If space is an issue they bring kids outside, or find other space in the school. I have NEVER seen a music teacher send most kids off to "be silent" - yeah, I'd imagine their frustration.

So my suggestion is for you to get on #musedchat on Twitter and ask your peers for pedagogical suggestions. Because you are lucky, schools all across America are abandoning music education and saying "farewell" to those teachers, and if your music education is about silence, your administration will see little reason for you to keep your job.

- Ira Socol

BalancEdTech said...

So, what about those people who succeeded in the system, yet could still be learners later? There might be more in that group than in the group that struggled, but later became teachers anyway. Is your point how do we get more of those than the compliant less-learners? (They all learn, it's more what they learn, how much they learn, and if it changes schools in the ways you write about.)

Another question, did they come like that when they started teaching, or were they co-opted by the system/environment? I imagine both and that dealing with each group could require different things.

Unknown said...


Important questions - I do feel that we need affirmative action for "school failures" at every level of education, from teachers to PhD students to faculties of teacher preparation programs. Those who have failed at school, or have been very close (through a child lens - siblings etc) to those who have failed, bring a different, and important vision. http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2012/07/affirmative-action-in-education-game.html
But that is hardly the only way to learn, or the only vision needed.

I will say that I disagree absolutely with the "TFA model" which claims that being a "traditionally successful student" is all one needs to be a teacher. In fact, that might be a warning sign. At the risk of over generalizing, some of the weakest classroom teachers I have met have Ivy League undergraduate degrees. While not impossible, I will hazard to guess that it is much more difficult to assemble the wide world view and requisite empathy to teach well at Harvard or Yale or Princeton or Penn than it is at a SUNY campus, or Michigan State, or Hofstra, or UC-Davis. Surely it seems impossible if your secondary experience also includes Sidwell-Friends.

But the real issue here is not just learning, but continuous acting on learning. I have never taught the same way twice - not even if it was a second course section immediately after the first. How could I? Some things don't work, others don't work well, others inspire different thoughts, and so I change.

It is why I beg teachers to abandon lesson plans and suggest "learning goals" instead. The lesson plan stops you from learning as you teach.

- Ira Socol

Karen LaBonte said...


Good stuff here. Thanks for your clarity and honesty. Here's a brief YouTube video that illustrates your point nicely. It's called "Felas in a Jar". http://youtu.be/GlpjA-QgmQM

Lori said...

I have been saying for years that the person most likely to want to become a teacher is the one who enjoyed the school experience the most — so of course that person is going to perpetuate what they enjoyed. They want to repeat the experience with themselves in the starring role.

Unfortunately, this type of teacher seems to outnumber the type that comes in wanting to effect great change.