Posted in Teaching

Words and ideas

I string words together on the clothesline of this blog. Some mean something to some readers; some mean something different. Words are slippery with meaning and imagery and contexts and memory and ideas and moments shared and rediscovered.

I’m forever exhorting my students to choose their words carefully. To use the words “I dug around in there until I found it” brings to mind a particular image when the context is of searching for a piece of clothing at the back of the cupboard. Those are not the words I’d use when the context is searching for a mole you half remembered was nestled amongst your pubic hair (overheard train conversation). For that particular context I would use different words – I would choose different words.

‘Choose’ implies a deliberateness that ‘use’ doesn’t. That’s one of the things with words. We can use them (choose them) to convey particular meanings/messages and the reader happily remains unaware of our choices. The writing seems natural, as if there’s no other way to say it, to write it … to think it. No other way to think. We can manipulate the reader, cause him or her to imagine things he or she hadn’t thought to imagine before, to connect two distinct ideas that they hadn’t connected before, to even come up with the notion that two plus two equals five if we use/choose just the right words.

Precision in language is not to be underestimated. It’s a hallmark of critical thinking – of knowing what you mean and writing/speaking what you mean so that your reader/listener/audience doesn’t have to guess at your meaning. There is no ambiguity in your meaning, unless you choose it to be so. Disturbingly, for people like me, precision is often underestimated. In fact, some people don’t think about it at all. They use words as though one is as good as another and we all know, when we stop to think about it, that one is not the same as another.

But strings of words can also cause us to think in particular ways. My attention was caught by a newspaper headline yesterday about student teachers getting an ‘F’. It turns out that in a study conducted by an Australian university, many (in some cases most) pre-service teachers – that is, university students studying to be teachers – are very poor spellers. My own experience teaching pre-service teachers means that this finding was not news to me.

It may be shocking to you, or you may be quite unsurprised by this news … that those preparing to be your children’s and grandchildren’s teachers have poor spelling skills. The report then did something interesting. It connected two unrelated ideas: 1. poor spelling and 2. becoming a teacher.

It suggested that stricter spelling tests are needed prior to admission to university to ensure that those who cannot spell cannot become teachers. In our society, spelling and intelligence are linked. If you can spell well, then you are obviously intelligent. If you can’t, then you obviously lack intelligence. This is a truth for many people. Clearly, if teachers cannot spell well, they are not intelligent and therefore should not be teaching our children.

The connection between the two unrelated ideas was made ‘naturally’, despite the lack of any evidence indicating a link between ability to spell and ability to teach. The article, and perhaps the press release the story came from, took an uncritical look at the issue; it failed to raise serious questions, and left little room for thinking differently about the issue. It did this through strings of words that presented taken-for-granted assumptions about the audience – that they would immediately agree with the outcome suggested (more testing) and then turn the page to read about what the Kardashians are up to now.

Well, why don’t we (yes, dear reader, that means you and I) ask some critical questions before we turn the page and get up-to-date on the latest Kardashian capers? Why don’t we engage in some critical thinking? What questions do you have?

Here are just some of mine … please feel free to add your own in the comments section.

Questions about the nature of intelligence and the link (if there is one) between intelligence and spelling ability.

Questions about what we value in teachers. I note that the article didn’t call for an empathy test, or a test of a person’s capacity to form positive and supportive relationships with students and parents. Nobody seems to be calling for a test of a teacher’s capacity to deal with the often unrelenting demands of parents (leading, in one case I heard of recently, to a principal’s suicide), or of violent children.

Is spelling the thin edge of the wedge? If a teacher can’t spell, then maybe they can’t teach either; maybe they can’t see a hurting child and speak a kind word; maybe they can’t motivate and engage children or foster a child’s creativity and resilience, or nurture a child’s spirit …

The taken-for-granted assumption that a capacity to spell is what determines a person’s capacity to teach effectively speaks to a lack of critical thought … and in my view, for what it’s worth, that speaks to lazy thinking, which in my book is worse than poor spelling.

Words and ideas matter. Being able to communicate those ideas clearly and effectively, with the best/most appropriate words, matters. Yes, spelling matters, particularly for teachers, but to not allow someone in to teaching on the basis of poor spelling means we may miss out on developing some wonderful teachers. Teachers with heart and soul and passion.

Those things matter too.

******
I’d really like to hear from you. Please feel free to post a polite and respectful comment below in response to the news story, or to my post in general. What qualities are important in the teachers of your children/grandchildren/great grandchildren? Should spelling ability be the sole determinant of admission into a teaching degree?

What matters to you?

Posted in Learning, Life, Studying, Teaching

Do unto others …

My husband, Tim, and I are different.

One of my colleagues highlighted this difference when she said, “Tim’s nice. And Sharon, you have good ideas. Together you make one decent person.”

It’s become something of a refrain for us and we joke about it at odd times in that way couples do when the truth of what’s been said hits us between the eyes.

It serves to bring our difference into sharp relief.

Tim is nice.

And I do have good ideas.

***

In our work as teacher educators, we assess a lot of student work. Tim writes nice comments on the work he marks; his language is positive and his niceness exudes through his words. When students receive their assignments, they feel reassured.

***

He loads his presentation, gathers his papers and asks me if I’m ready.

I am.

I love listening to Tim’s presentations because his thinking is so clear, he uses language beautifully, and the connections he makes are interesting ones. His voice is soothing and controlled and warm.

My mind flashes back to November 23, 1999: the first time I heard Tim speak. It was his Honours presentation and I was impressed by the clarity of his thinking and the way he communicated ideas. Even though I didn’t know him then, I was determined to introduce myself to him afterwards. Three months later we meet again, both new PhD candidates, in adjoining offices. I listen to him speak on numerous occasions over the next few years and he impresses me each time.

This presentation is different though. It’s not Tim at his best. He finishes and looks expectantly at me.

I am not nice.

***

I load my presentation, gather my papers and ask him if he’s ready.

He is.

I start and a few slides in, I stop. I had had an idea. I tell Tim I’ll be back in a moment.

A few minutes later I am back, and I start again.

Tim listens respectfully. I finish and look expectantly at him.

Tim is nice.

***

I give Tim some feedback on his presentation: “I was confused by this slide because it didn’t reflect what you were saying”, “the information you spoke about [at this point] was very complex”, “on the fourth slide the information you present is in the opposite order to what you say and that distracts me”

Tim is upset.

“Do you have anything nice to say?”

***

Tim gives me feedback on my presentation: “It’s great. Well done. You’ll be fabulous. I really like how you have organised your ideas”

I am upset.

“Don’t give me nice. Tell me how to make it better.”

***

And there’s the difference.

Tim wanted me to be nice. He needed to be reassured.

I wanted Tim to be critical. I needed to be better.

***

Tim’s feedback to students reassures them. They feel that they can do ‘this’, that they can succeed, that they can achieve their goal of getting through university and being a teacher.

My feedback is anything but reassuring. It points out how they can improve their work, how they can communicate in writing more clearly, how they might connect their ideas in more logical ways … it doesn’t reassure.

Tim placates.

I challenge and question.

I struggle to write nice things. I object to the ‘bollocks sandwich’ approach (as one student described it): the say something nice, then say something constructive about how the work could be improved, then finish with something else nice.

To me it feels like I’m writing platitudes and empty words: “Thank you for your submission. You have used a clear font and met the word count.”

It feels wrong to me, and not at all reassuring.

And it’s because I wouldn’t want to hear it. Don’t tell me stupid stuff, tell me what I can do to improve my work – don’t waste my time with things that don’t matter.

***

We are taught from a young age that we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us.

But that’s quite patently wrong.

What’s really at work here is this: do unto others as they would be done unto.

When I ‘do unto others as I would have them do unto me’, I give the kind of feedback that I want to hear.

But there are plenty of students who want something different: they want to be reassured.

***

Tim is going to have to get more critical.

And I’m going to have to learn to be nice.

It’s going to be a struggle for both of us.

Posted in Learning, Schools, Teaching

On success pt. 2

Earlier this month (October) World Teachers’ Day was celebrated around … well … around the world. Did you hear about any celebrations? Did you take part in any? If you have school age children did you do something nice for their teacher/s? If you’re a teacher, did you celebrate in some way, or were you celebrated/acknowledged by others?

When thinking about success yesterday, I began to think about what it meant to be successful as a teacher. How is success measured? What does a successful teacher look like? What do they know, what skills and understandings have they developed, in what ways can they communicate their ideas, knowledge, understandings, thoughts, feelings, views? What are their values and what do they value?  Can you ‘see’ teacher success by looking at their students? Is there a link between a successful teacher and successful students? Is teacher success a sum of individual students’ successes? Is it simply a matter of addition … successful student A + successful student B (and so on)  = successful teacher?

We sometimes talk about students as if they are pieces of machinery that can be weighed and tested to see if they fit a certain list of pre-ordained specifications. Even if they are, would the teacher be the only one responsible for ensuring they meet those specifications, or are others involved too?

The structure of the school, for instance, has a part to play in student success – the kinds of programs the school offers, the number of lessons scheduled each day (and therefore the amount of time students have to work on things that matter), the relative worth of particular subjects (what’s more important and therefore how much time is spent learning Physics, English, Drama,  Maths, the capital cities of the countries of the world, the canon of English literature, History, driver ed, pet care, sustainability …?). And when there is only so much time in the day, what’s given priority? What’s missed out? And ability to ‘do’ which of those subjects would constitute success? If you can do quadratic equations but not name the poet who wrote The rime of the Ancient Mariner and discuss what it’s about in a coherent way, should you be considered successful?  If you cannot name the rivers down the eastern seaboard of Australia, but be able to parse a sentence correctly, are you a success? And for how long do you need to know this information? If you could parse a sentence when you were at school, but couldn’t now to save your life … were you really successful/was the teacher?

Different people will have different views on these questions and I doubt there will ever be any agreement. You might think that there is no question, that surely everyone would agree with your perspective, but ask around. What do others think?  Do they agree with you? On what points do your views diverge?

So the ways schools work has some impact on student success and our understanding of success has some influence on whether we deem students successful or not. The culture of the school – which is often established by the principal and leadership team  – also has an impact. If the principal says, at the end of lunch, ‘Okay troops, back to the trenches’ then she is putting a particular way of being into place. The teachers are soldiers and the students are … the enemy? Language is important, and it is to our detriment that we ignore the power of the metaphors we use and the influence they have on our own and others’ actions.

Of course, parents also have an influence on how successful their children are at school. Parents’ attitude to education and to teachers will be communicated to their children even if they don’t say anything to them directly.  Some parents will be in a position to take their children overseas and provide cultural experiences that other parents will not have an opportunity to provide; some parents will nag their children to do their homework, while other parents will have the view that schoolwork should happen between 9 and 3 and there should be no requirement for children to do school work out of school hours. Some parents will hold that view and still nag their children to do it! Some parents will talk to their children and in that way support the child’s capacity to communicate with adults; some parents will buy books for their children and establish a routine of reading to them at bedtime each night; some parents will limit time on the Nintendo DS and the iPod and how many hours of cartoons/video games/internet porn their children watch and will encourage them to become involved in sporting, cultural, community, and/or social activities. Some parents will speak to their child’s teacher and show an interest in the child’s education and progress.

But not all parents will do those things. Does that mean that some students get a head start? Or are better placed to be successful in schools?

We can’t discount the influence of teachers, of course, but we should remember that not all teachers are the same. They will have different motivations, different ideas about their role in the classroom, different ideas about the purpose of education, different ideas about how best to manage the classroom and its resources, how best to motivate and engage students, how to interact with children to allow them to flourish. Some teachers won’t even think about student flourishing. Some teachers claim that they teach subjects (disciplines) while other teachers claim they teach children. Some teachers are critically reflexive and question everything they do and question why they do it in the way they do it; some teachers don’t. Some teachers go to PD on a regular basis and continually learn; some teachers don’t. Some teachers leave as soon as the bell goes at the end of the day; others stay at school for hours, planning and marking and finding resources. Some teachers take their students on camps or walk the Kokoda Track with them, spending hours preparing themselves and their students for the trek.

Education is not a level playing field – not in terms of the children, their families, the schools they attend, or the teachers who teach them. But neither is it a factory, where a raw product is off-loaded in the loading bay, put on an assembly line, moved through a series of processes that are done to it over a number of years, evaluated at the end of the process to see if it measures up, and sent on its way – that ‘way’ being determined by how it measures up.

I have a hard time thinking of children as products, as things that need to have processes “done to them”.

And so I have a hard time determining what constitutes success when it comes to teaching. What does a successful teacher look like? What is the outcome of their success? Is it a group of children who all know the same things because they’ve been through a standardised/standardising ‘process’? Or is it more than that – how much more? What does that ‘more’ include?

And how do we know when a teacher has been successful? A teacher’s success may take years to be realised – there are countless instances of students who get in touch with their teachers many years after leaving school and recount a story of the impact the teacher had on that child as an adult. Success may not be immediate. Does that mean the teacher is any less successful?

I’m really interested in your thoughts on this. What does it mean for a teacher to be successful? Can success be measured and if so how? Against which criteria and whose judgements? Do we all have the same understanding of success and are we confident that we’re measuring apples against apples – if we agree that there is some way to measure teacher success?

Let me know what you think. I’m sure there’s a body of literature out there – people who have conducted studies on this very issue, but I’m interested in what you think.

And if you do think, then perhaps you should thank your teachers!