Bruno: How Teachers Should Think About Relay GSE
A couple of weeks back Valerie Strauss posted a piece by Carol Corbett Burris criticizing the charter-focused Relay Graduate School of Education. Despite being based almost entirely on a single video that Relay was promoting to demonstrate "rigorous classroom discussion", Burris levels some fairly sweeping attacks against the school's philosophy of "filling the pail" rather than "lighting a fire". (The video can still be seen here, but has been relabled as demonstrating "a culture of support" in the classroom.)
Robert Pondiscio says what needs to be said about how pernicious the "filling the pail" metaphor is in education. As he says, those sorts of educational "homilies" are cuddly, but ultimately vacuous, ways of thinking about teaching.
Also interesting to me, though, is that many of Burris' objections to Relay-style teaching are basically aesthetic. Consider her reaction to the way students are expected to behave when one of their classmates is asked a question:
Students engage in the bizarre behavior of wiggling their fingers to send ‘energy’ to a young man, Omari, put on the spot by the teacher. Students’ fingers point to their temple and they wiggle hands in the air to send signals.
It is a little weird to watch the kids do that, but so what? A lot of school lunch food around the world strikes me as a little "bizarre", but that says more about me and what I'm used to than it does about whether students in other countries are well fed.
As a matter of fact, as a teacher I can totally understand why we might want to have kids do something like what we see in the Relay video. It's notoriously difficult to get a whole classroom of students to engage in a discussion at the same time. If wiggling their fingers a little bit makes them more likely to listen to another student's answer and to think about the answer themselves, who cares if it looks a little strange?
Most of Burris' criticism of the Relay GSE read this way: as aesthetic judgements - statements about what Burris personally likes - being treated as if they settle moral or pedagogical questions. My experience is that this is all too common in education debates, which are often about what people happen to prefer as much as they are about what's actually likely to produce the best results.
Back in May Daniel Willingham tried to settle the question of whether teaching is an art or a science. He concludes that teaching, like architecture, is really both: it should respect what we've established scientifically, but it also has a lot of room for individuals' professional judgement. Teachers should know the science so that they can accommodate it with their personal preferences.
Unfortunately, I think Burris' criticisms of the Relay GSE illustrate how easy it is for us to mistake our personal preferences for scientific judgements. The real issue, then, isn't the correct proportions of art and science in teaching; I doubt many people would ever disagree with Willingham's conclusion on that question.
Rather, the thorny issue is whether teachers (and other educators) are able to correctly distinguish the art from the science. When we can't tell the difference between the two, it's almost impossible to have a productive conversation about teaching or education. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)