Saturday, November 23, 2013

In Defense of Teachers

Let's face it. Teachers are an easy target. When things are not going well for our children, obviously, it is their fault. I mean, they are with our children more than we are. If our children can't read, spell, write in cursive and memorize their times tables, they must have crappy teachers. What are those teachers doing anyway? My god, they have all of those breaks and summers off! If only the rest of the world could live that way!

Let me be up front by stating that this line of reasoning infuriates me. In my 43 years on planet earth, I have never met people who are more committed, purposeful, loyal, dedicated, and hard-working, than teachers. When I hear criticisms directed towards teachers, it makes my blood pressure rise. Let me argue that teachers are NOT the problem with our education system today. We have a broken SYSTEM that we require our teachers to work through. That system was created for an industrial age, followed by an information age that no longer exists. In most cases this broken system begins at the State level, experiences a little interference from the federal level, gets convoluted at the local and district levels, and has the potential to be misunderstood at the parent level.

Today I am going to visit a common criticism.

"Our education system is broken. I don't know what these teachers are doing, but they need to get back to the basics and give these children an education like I grew up with."

News flash. The world is NOTHING like it was when you were a kid. When was the last time you got a job because your penmanship was beautiful? Oh wait - we type almost everything these days. In fact, we have autocorrect and spellcheck on just about everything. Instead, our workforce today requires people who can work with teams of people to solve problems of all sorts that don't even exist yet. This requires innovation, creativity, perseverance, the ability to analyze and synthesize, as well as an understanding of human relationships.

In his book A Whole New Mind (2006), Daniel Pink states, "We are moving from an economy and society built on the logical, linear, computerlike capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathic, big-picture capabilities of what's rising in its place, the Conceptual Age" (Pink, 2006, p. 2). Pink continues,
For nearly a century, Western society in general, and American society in particular, has been dominated by a form of thinking and an approach to life that is narrowly reductive and deeply analytical. Ours has been the age of the "knowledge worker," the well-educated manipulator of information and deployer of expertise. But that is changing. Thanks to an array of forces - material abundance that is deepening our nonmaterial yearnings, globalization that is shipping white-collar work overseas, and powerful technologies that are eliminating certain kinds of work altogether - we are entering a new age. It is an age animated by a different form of thinking and new approach to life - one that prizes aptitudes that I call "high concept" and "high touch." High concept involves the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new. High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one's self and elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning (Pink, 2006, pp. 2-3).
In another book The World Is Flat (2006), Thomas Friedman explains the world facing our children.
It is going to take more than just doing your homework to thrive in a flat world, though. You are going to have to do the right kind of homework as well. Because the companies that are adjusting best to the flat world are not just making minor changes, they are changing the whole model of the work they do and how they do it - in order to take advantage of the flat world platform and to compete with others who are doing the same. What this means is that students also have to fundamentally reorient what they are learning and educators how they are teaching it. They can't just keep the same old model that worked for the past fifty years, when the world was round (pp. 277-278).
Both Pink and Friedman explored the most successful companies in America and determined common skills needed to be successful in the world facing our children. Friedman (2006) names a list of categories that most new jobs will fall into. He explores the "Great Collaborators and Orchestrators, the Great Synthesizers, the Great Explainers, the Great Leveragers, the Great Adapters, the Green People, the Passionate Personalizers and the Great Localizers," while Pink describes the skills of Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play and Meaning.

The Great Collaborators are described by Friedman as those who can collaborate with others or orchestrate "collaboration within and between companies, especially those employing diverse workforces from around the world" (pp. 281-282). This is similar to the skill of Empathy described by Pink (p. 66). Pink argues that in a world full of information and advanced analytic tools, logic is not enough. "What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others" (p. 66).

Friedman's Great Synthesizers possess the skill of Symphony as defined by Pink (2006). Pink points out that "much of the Industrial and Information Age required focus and specialization. But as white-collar work gets routed to Asia and reduced to software, there's a new premium on the opposite aptitude: putting the pieces together, or what I call Symphony. What's in the greatest demand today isn't analysis but synthesis - seeing the big picture, crossing boundaries, and being able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole." Similarly, Friedman claims that the next great breakthroughs will come from, "putting together disparate things that you would not think of as going together." He shares an example of "computer engineers who can map the human genome working with pharma companies that can turn these insights into life-saving drugs."

These are just a couple of examples outlined in these two books. The type of skills suggested by Pink and Friedman cannot be taught by simply memorizing spelling words, making sure writing is neat, or merely memorizing times tables and relying on traditional algorithms to solve math problems. The reason that students are coming home with a variety of ways to solve math problems is because that is precisely what it takes to work out problems faced by today's engineers. If students do not understand what those numbers truly represent, they cannot go on to have the deep understanding required of today's engineers and other mathematicians. If they simply rely on a formula they have memorized, when the parameters they face do not align with their expectations, they will fail miserably at solving problems such as the ones both Pink and Friedman discuss.

Now, before anyone goes and says I don't think basic skills are important…STOP. There are certain foundational skills that all students need. But what legislators and many people who are not in the education field do not understand is, HOW do we continue to provide those foundational skills, while still preparing our students for this "Conceptual Age" referred to by Pink? And HOW do we do this with ridiculous testing demands placed on students and teachers? Does anyone realize how much students are tested? They get tested so much in the name of data and accountability that there is barely any time left to actually TEACH. And don't get me started about the summers we take off from school. Can someone please tell me how many children in the United States are out working in the fields???

No, if you want to blame someone for the mess public education is in, blame the legislators. Most of the time, these people are making decisions that they know nothing about and holding teachers to a standard they, themselves, could never keep. And while they enjoy their posh lives and the plethora of benefits and perks afforded to them, they make decisions to pump tons of money into "more important platforms" while continuing to take money from education.

So please, hug a teacher today. They get criticized on so many fronts. I invite anyone to walk into a room with 30 children of whom around 65% or more are coming from poverty, another 8% require additional attention and support due to some intense special needs, and several need counseling for a number of emotional issues. Be prepared to specialize in all subjects and squeeze them in between all of your assessments. Oh, and don't forget, your State is always changing the rules on what should be taught, therefore your District is continually changing the curriculum that you are held accountable for and you must keep up with it. Any takers on this job that pays about $40k a year? Didn't think so.