Thursday, April 12, 2012

And in the center ring...

Can we be done now, finally, with the whole "sage on the stage vs. guide on the side" argument in teaching? Please? I'm willing to beg. The phrase was insipid the first time I heard it, and it's now reached nails-on-the-chalkboard levels of annoyance (nails on a SMART board just isn't the same, is it?).

Plus, it's wrong. Demonstrably wrong. Proven wrong. Direct instruction works. It works better than most other things. It has worked for years. There's nothing wrong with all those other kinds of instruction. I'm fine with performance assessments and mastery learning and guided inquiry and reciprocal teaching, etc., etc. But direct instruction still just works. I'm not saying you should lecture for 45 minutes, uninterrupted. That's just crappy teaching. But as a method of instruction, it works. Read John Hattie's Visible Learning. The evidence is in. So stop. Please.

Why do I care about this so particularly today? Because I happened upon a blog post on teaching that raised these issues again.

Under discussion in this blog post is the question of The Teacher As Performer: does a classroom teacher need to be a good performer? My experience as a student and as a teacher makes me answer a resounding YES. The author says NO.

First, the author claims that the performance skills learned and perfected by an actor are "personal, internal, more 'inside' for lack of a better explanation." This is something that "performance art educators know."

Really? I've been an arts educator, and I don't know that. In fact, I'd argue that actors who remain internal, personal, and inside are bad actors. They may be good "be-ers," able to impersonate a character from the inside out, but they're lousy "act-ors."  Maybe that's OKfor film; I don't know. But it's lousy on stage, where there is an actual audience (which is the analogy this author is trying to make). You are not up on stage for yourself; you are up there for them. You are not simply having an experience ; you are beaming that experience out to them, so that they can feel something. The point is not for you to laugh, or cry; it's for them to do so.

So, there's that.

Then there's this whole "sage on the stage" nonsense. Teachers shouldn't be performers because teachers shouldn't be in the spotlight. Yes, I agree, most teachers could do less of the direct stuff and make students do more on their own. There are far too many teachers who hog the spotlight and drone on an on for the whole class period.

But. That said, the teacher IS the key performer of the class, the shaper of the experience; the molder of the time. The "audience" of students must be captured, enraptured, engaged, sometimes befuddled. Left to their own devices, they'd go elsewhere. They're kids. Don't pretend that a more student-centered classroom will attract kids like flies. There are a hundred things they'd rather be doing. And no matter how "real world" or "relevant" we make the work, it's still school. It can be a great school, a dynamic school, even an unschooling kind of school. But learning is not always the same thing as playing, and learning is often difficult. Sometimes it even hurts.

The teacher is the one who has to make the case, sell the show, convince them that what they're here to learn is worth their attention and their sweat. Even if the work of the day is entirely student-centered, it is still the teacher who is shaping and managing that day, and creating an environment in which students can do their work. The teacher is, and remains, the ringmaster, and the ringmaster needs performance skills, even if all he's doing is directing your attention to the center ring of the circus.

The teacher is not only a ringmaster; she is also a role model. I can't tell you much of the discrete content I learned in any high school class I took, but I can definitely remember the habits of mind I learned from the teachers I admired. Like any good apprentice, I learned not only the technical skills needed for the job, but also some important ways-of-being-in-the-world. I learned how educated people behaved--how they talked to each other and what they talked about; how they followed a line of inquiry; how they solved a puzzle; how they found joy in their chosen field. I watched them like a hawk to learn that, just as I saw my own students watching me and my colleagues, years later. They were learning much more than language arts or history content; they were learning what it meant to be an adult...from every adult with whom they came in contact. And yes, to some extent I did "perform" that role, trying to be deliberate and careful about what I modeled in front of them.

There is a role for teacher-as-coach. A large role, I'd argue. We need more coaching and less lecturing, for certain. We need more mentoring and tutoring, more real, authentic relationships with young people. But this wholesale, "do this always and that never" approach is ridiculous. Our students still need to be taught--both the written curriculum of facts and skills and the hidden curriculum of how educated people behave. There are things we need to show them. There are things we need to say. There are discussions we need to shape and lead with them. There are things they need to see us do. We cannot simply sit back and say, "You do the work; I'll advise you from the side."

That's not teaching; that's abdication.