It’s a Wonder We Can Think at All

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all … Paul Simon (Kodachrome) 1973

In 1972, I was hired to teach science to seventh and eighth graders in Cheshire, Connecticut, a small bedroom community north of and near New Haven. I was fresh from having finished two years of service as a conscientious objector, and I had used my “free” time to complete a Masters program in Biology Education. I was also two years removed from a cookie cutter undergraduate program designed to stamp out teachers who were prepared to teach middle-class children, as well as the children of blue-collar parents who wanted their children to aspire to a life better than that of their parents.

If you do the math, you will know I have been a player in the Education Follies longer than many current educators have been alive, but no longer a player, I now sit and muse about such things as my profession’s pronounced “Knowing-Doing Gap,” which is the gap between what educators know research has proven to be effective in classrooms, and what it is they actually do in their classrooms.

Imagine a medical doctor ignoring thirty years of research-supported best practices because she wants to doctor like she had learned to doctor when she was in medical school. But that is how too many educators practice education, with the result that the education in too many schools, especially schools that serve the neediest of our children, has devolved into a “clown show,” which, according to the Urban Dictionary occurs when people are really screwing up an activity that should be fairly straightforward. But I digress …

My first weeks as a teacher were desperate times, despite the fact that I had been trained to teach the very students sitting in front of me. Feeling desperate is not atypical due to Education’s failure to follow the models provided by other professions where newbies learn their way around the block as clerks and interns before being set free to practice their professions.

Fortunately, I was saved by a demanding principal and a compassionate and knowledgeable Science Department Chair. Survival, as so often happens with emerging teachers, is more often a matter of good fortune than systemic support. I had been lucky, and thanks to these two great educators, I was surviving, but I was not thriving, and in my view, neither were my students!

In the early weeks, while I was hanging on by a thread, a friend with a questionable sense of humor had just enlightened me with George Bernard Shaw’s notable 1903 quip that “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” This was way too close to home because after downgrading my personal expectations in my junior year from pre-med to biology, and then as the post-graduation, two-year, draft-lottery-required delay in my studies approached, I began to feel that I did not have sufficient drive to pursue doctoral studies. Clearly, I had decided I could not “do” because I changed my major to Biology Education.

What I learned from my mentors, Hrach and Sal, convinced me that the undergrad preparation I had received was mostly useless, except to provide the insight that Shaw could have gone one step further: if, in fact, those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach, my undergrad preparation in Education convinced me that those who can’t teach, often teach others to teach! 

Never good as a young man at handling hits to my self-esteem, I was feeling pretty blue in May of 1973 when Kodachrome was released. The first time I heard the song, I had already decided to leave teaching and had been accepted into a marine science graduate program. I might have felt better given that I had survived the year, and my students had learned things, but I knew Simon’s line was touching a truth. How I had taught my students had not given them the opportunity to think and find their own meanings (under my guidance) from the evidence provided to them. I had fed them roughage. They had crapped it out.

During my two-year Master’s program, instructors and professors had reinforced the Shaw Corollary referred to above, save for one instructor, whose name I unfortunately cannot recall. During his course in the Fall of 1972, the instructor exposed us to the notion that how we teach and assess what students are supposed to know and be able to do, should be done in a way that increases the probability that ALL students will learn significantly, and NOT in a way that will generate a normal distribution curve—the latter being what too many middle level and high school educators still believe is their primary responsibility: sorting students.

I had understood, internalized, and applied what that forgotten instructor had taught me (something which originated decades before 1972, and what many years later would come to be called Standards-based Education), and by January of 1973, I was determining what it was that I wanted students to know and be able to do (no state or district curriculum had been provided to me; rather, I was provided with a text book that would have taken years to “complete,” from which I extracted my “objectives”). I was designing assessments that measured whether or not the students were, in fact, mastering the instructional objectives, and I was implementing instruction that was designed to lead students to mastery.

I was doing what I heard Fenwick English describe twenty-years later: the alignment of written, taught, and tested. I was documenting and conveying to my kids what it was they should know and be able to do, I was teaching them to master those objectives, and I was testing them with assessments that measured their mastery.

Those assessments told me my students were learning, but it was years later before I fully understood that the lessons I had been creating were not reinforcing, strengthening, and challenging what is perhaps our greatest human gift: the capacity to engage in higher-order, or critical, thinking.

At some level of understanding in 1973, I knew I was officially in the cadre of teachers who had inspired Paul Simon’s lyrics, and I was not proud of it. Getting out of teaching seemed to me to be the best thing to do in the spring of 1973, but in less than a year, I was back in it up to my neck, and in the years that followed I tried my best to learn how to meet this objective:

The most important, foundational goal of an educator should be to reinforce, strengthen, and challenge the most important of all human abilities:                     critical thinking.

Despite knowing that I could not singlehandedly overcome teacher-as-knowledge-disseminator classrooms that dominate American Education, which would have eliminated a source of Simon’s lament, I persisted. I tilted at this windmill as did many of my colleagues, but after what has transpired over the past three years, I cannot help but conclude that American Education—specifically educators of my Boomer generation—has failed our students, and therefore, our country. It is apparent to me from their votes that millions of Americans cannot think at all; possibly because of all the crap they learned in high school.

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