A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

There Should Be No Such Thing As a Teacher

When I was first associated with the academy I was not a teacher, rather a psychologist who taught people about scientific epistemology and statistics as these applied to psychological research and the understanding of it.  When I was in business I was not a teacher, but produced images that were used to enlighten and instruct (advertising!) and taught clients about the process and employees about the intimate details of the work.  And most importantly, all the time I was teaching myself. 

As my own personal children were variously amused and abused by our distressed school system, as I got more and more involved with it – a founding parent of a charter school, on its Governing Council, substituting in the my town's largest high school, getting involved with another charter as the primary creator of the math and science program – I found that I had become, in the expectation of the organization, a teacher.  This meant, ultimately, that I had fulfilled certain requirements for paperwork and that I attended classes filled with children every day.  I was not a biologist, not a psychologist, not a statistician, not a photographer, not a philosopher, not a musician, not a bike mechanic – I was not even “allowed” to imply that I could be considered these things.  I had been resolved into a teacher. 

Teaching, like terrorism, is a method in the service of some substantive human activity. There should be no such thing as a teacher. There should be magazine writers who teach writing, naturalists and physiologists who teach biology, math geeks and engineers who teach math.  People who teach should first and foremost be something else, and even more importantly, the organization should expect that those who teach are something else, first and foremost.  And this expectation should be manifest in the design of the physical space and in the arrangements of schedules. 

It is the unspoken assumption of most school administration that if ‘teachers’ are given a moment without some structured expectation (often accompanied with a form), that they will loaf.  I am confident that this is often true for ‘teachers’ (and is probably a projection of the administrators), but I am equally certain that it is not true for a musician, philosopher, statistician or bike mechanic. 

This is not to say that the art and science of how to teach should not be studied and learned about; a terrorist must learn to sneak around and to build bombs. But, which end of the continuum would you prefer for your kids: a person completely versed in the subject who didn’t have training in the art of teaching or a person fully trained in the practice of teaching who knew little to nothing about the subject, a person whose training suggested that they didn’t really need to know much of substance so long as they ‘knew how to teach?’ 

The act that made me successful as a photographer was the Zen-like process of composing images, a process that kept me entertained for 20 years.  I also learned the details of cameras and how to process film with supreme meticulousness; it was the only way that the efforts in composition could have the expression that I wanted.  I had an employee once who was even more exacting in the darkroom than me, but who could not see a well-formed image.  You get my point! 

I have watched actors, musicians, artists, scientists of various sorts, math poets and others be turned into teachers by the oppression of our schools, be driven away from the substantive things that they are and care about, but had no time for, that went unappreciated.  It is the expectation that those who are unwilling to give up their interests will leave education – leaving teaching to those who have no interests, but who, by the rules of the job, know all the terms of the art. 

This is not to say that all teachers have been turned into rule spewing zombies.  There are many closet scientists, artists, writers, athletes, politicians and farmers in the teaching corps, but they are these things despite the requirements of the teaching rather than in support of the goal of informing the next generation of humans how to best get along in the world. 

It is epidemic in today’s young people that they have no academic interests.  While there are many forces at play that rob them of these experiences, it must be true that they are not spending time with adults who are passionate about these interests. I have long said that enthusiasm is the currency of education.  But enthusiasm without something to be enthusiastic about is just mania, and mania is first cousin to obsession.  Kids rightly realize that obsession is just craziness.  And rejecting craziness is not crazy at all.

(The next essay will return to the subject of human collectives.)


ron said...

Right on!
I left "teaching" in College and a University because of the structured result imperative, the bureacratic pre-determined conceptural result.
I love heuristic learning so much I started my own "school", totally uneconomic but absolutely satisfying.

Michael Dawson said...

This argument is right-on, and would be immediately accepted by the public, if the public were ever allowed into the discussion.

As to teacher training, some big part of the argument for it is that one needs to understand child psychology in order to do the job properly. But how does one ever get to know one's students in classrooms with 30 or more kids in them? Impossible.

James said...

Ron, if we humans don’t get ‘uneconomic’ we are completely screwed. Narrow economic concerns are simply crazy. I hope that your school gives you the sense and reality of life.

Michael, child psych training is not even a crutch; it is a stick to beat the kids with. First of all the classes are insufficient to give more than a wrong impression and support the dominant prejudices, and worse, teachers think that they know something after taking them. At the charter school I help start there was a custodian with more kid-savvy than most of the teachers. I know it’s cliché, but true.

Anonymous said...

The present comment is merely a reference to a detail – your essay is excellent; points well taken.

But, given the few Keye commentaries I've read, here, I'm surprised by this: "I had an employee once who was even more exacting in the darkroom than me, but who could not see a well-formed image."

What is a 'well-formed' image? What qualities does a 'judge of image quality' have to have to make him an authority?

Might the darkroom technician simply have had different criteria from yours for what constitutes a 'well-formed image'?

– Dana

James Keye said...

I felt the inadequacy of "well-formed image" when it was written, but had no interest or reason to dwell on the point. An advertising image has requirements that are, however, more easily defined than an image for personal consumption: to excite the senses, to lead the eye to the product or intended emotive source, to avoid distraction from the singular point of 'winning the page' for the client. People walking into the client's store holding the picture in their hand is an objective test.