Thursday, January 17, 2013
I've been reading/hearing a lot about educational innovations--most of which sound disastrous to me--but that's another topic for another time. The one I just want to write a little bit about today (and I mean "a little bit"--I'm weary from a 566-mile drive, Hudson to Becket, Mass.) is the notion that one way to improve classroom experiences for students is to get large groups of them together and stream video to them--video of master teachers doing their thing.
What an awful idea. What a profound misunderstanding of the classroom. Of a teacher's role and significance.
A simple proposition: Imagine the best teacher you ever had, K-whatever. Remember all that you can about him/her. Moments. Experiences.
Now--imagine: Instead of those experiences and moments, you had, instead, a streaming video of that person while you sat in a room with, oh, four score and seven other students.
Remotely the same?
Of course not. Not even close. What I remember about those great teachers I had--from elementary school through grad school--were the intimate, human interactions with them. It is not the things they said or showed me that I remember--not so much; it's who they were. They inspired me, made we want to please them--to be like them, at least insofar as I was capable. It was the hand on the shoulder, the laugh at a shared joke, a sharp look of disapproval (when I--all too frequently--earned one), the soft smile of appreciation, sympathy, encouragement.
I try to picture those teachers, try to imagine what it would have been like to have experienced them only on a video ... ?
And I find the task impossible--even, perhaps, horrifying.
The key to improving instruction is not to diminish it for everyone by reducing classroom magic to a TV show. It's to make teaching such an attractive profession that our best and brightest will want to practice it--will want to enter those classrooms across the country and to weave their own magic with the brightness of their minds, the warmth of their personalities, the fire of their enthusiasm.
I love the image from Charles Dickens' account of his climb of Vesuvius when it was spewing hot cinders that scorched his clothing. Others held back, but he and a couple of others went right to the edge. Looked in. He returned to the others a different man, warmed and exhilarated by the volcano's fire.
Here's what Dickens wrote in Pictures from Italy (1846) ...
There is something in the fire and roar, that generates an irresistible desire to get nearer to it. We cannot rest long, without starting off, two of us, on our hands and knees, accompanied by the head-guide, to climb to the brim of the flaming crater, and try to look in. Meanwhile, the thirty yell, as with one voice, that it is a dangerous proceeding, and call to us to come back; frightening the rest of the party out of their wits.
What with their noise, and what with the trembling of the thin crust of ground, that seems about to open underneath our feet and plunge us in the burning gulf below (which is the real danger, if there be any); and what with the flashing of the fire in our faces, and the shower of red-hot ashes that is raining down, and the choking smoke and sulphur; we may well feel giddy and irrational, like drunken men. But, we contrive to climb up to the brim, and look down, for a moment, into the Hell of boiling fire below. Then, we all three come rolling down; blackened, and singed, and scorched, and hot, and giddy: and each with his dress alight in half-a-dozen places.
And--not counting the hellfire part!--that's what it's like being in the classroom with a great teacher.