The Gorilla in the Room
Lisa Sanders' new book Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis (Broadway Books 2009) offers more material worthy of teacher reflection than all the pronouncements issued from the U. S. Department of Education since its inception.
Lisa Sanders, M. D., author of the New York Times Magazine "Diagnosis" column, and technical Advisor to the TV show "House, M.D.," offers many provocative stories in Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis. Before I was 42 pages into the book, she had me running to the New England Journal of Medicine for more info on the demise of the physical exam in patient diagnosis.
Arne Duncan and his Race to the Top minions could not see the gorilla in the classroom if it sat on their Blackberries. They are so busy counting things--and demanding that teachers count things--that they haven't a clue of what classrooms are about, what kids need, or what teachers' real jobs might look like.
And consider all the gorillas in the room that the teacher will miss when she is forced to devote her students' attention on test prep for consonant blends, apostrophes, or fractions. My point here is not that teachers should ignore such skills but that she must ever keep them in their place. And keep ever alert for what the grand philosopher of science David Hawkins called the bird in the window. Bird in the window/gorilla in the room. . . Choose the metaphor that appeals to you. And keep your eye on the real children, not the numbers ground out by some corporate conglomerate.
Any teacher worth her salt knows that children's learning does not have any close connection with adult lesson plans. You can lead a child to long division but that doesn't make him grasp it. And what he grasps one minute surely will disappear ten minutes later. Of course, if you drill kids on the multiplication facts every day for a month, they will do better on a test on multiplication facts than children who were not drilled. However, again to quote Hawkins, "We're not interested in one-month results; we're interested in, let's say, seven years." And the test for that hasn't been devised.
Could we hang this from banners in every school in the land? We're not interested in one-month results.
Writing in 1969, Hawkins insisted that "a fundamental aim of education is to organize schools, classrooms and our own performance as teachers in order to help children acquire the capacity for significant choice, and that learning is really a process of choice. If children are deprived of significant choice in their daily activities in school, if all their choices are made for them, then the most important thing that education is concerned with is simply being bypassed."
How quaint that seems now when choice isn't even considered for children and is being systematically removed from teachers, where teachers are required to follow a script while monitors roam the hall to make sure they're on the right page.
Hawkins rightly insisted that there's an essential lack of predictability about what's going to happen in a good classroom, not because there is no control but precisely because there is control of the right kind. In a good classroom the teacher bases her decisions on what she sees children doing. She pays close attention to the accidental things that happen along the way, the things nobody can anticipate. That gorilla. That bird in the window.
In Hawkins' words, "Everybody knows that the best times in teaching have always been the consequences of some little accident that happened to direct attention in some new way, to revitalize an old interest which has died out or to create a brand new interest that you hadn't had any notion about how to introduce. Suddenly, there it is. The bird flies in the window and that's the miracle you needed. Somebody once said about great discoveries in science,'Accidents happen to those that deserve them.'
Read that paragraph again and weep: Weep for pedagogy, for teachers, and for children. Today, the predictability of classrooms is devised by publishing/testing conglomerate committees and shipped out across the country. Today, Arne Duncan wants national standards so that all classroom will be alike, and there will be no "accidents."
In the Arne Duncan model school teachers are denied the capacity for significant choice. And instead of fighting for teachers and children, the NEA, AFT, NCTE, IRA, and all the rest of the camp followers ask for a seat at the corporate table. They exhibit both
The leaders of NEA, AFT, NCTE, IRA and all the rest of the Obama/Duncan camp followers choose not to see the gorilla in the room. As Dr. Sanders observed, "Most of the time we see what we want to see, what we expect to see. Our ability to see objects or events that are unexpected and dissimilar to those that we are looking for is extremely limited." People who were never in the classroom or haven't been there in a long time have tunnel vision.
No, NEA's end-of-August carping about Race to the Top hasn't made me change my mind. When Race to the Top was only hurting kids NEA, looked the other way, but when teacher salary and security are under assault, then NEA goes into attack mode. This is exactly why the public hates teacher unions. When will they fight for what's right for kids?
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