"Depersonalized teaching"

Bud Hunt (@budtheteacher) and I had a Twitter conversation the other day. He was reading Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s book, Schooling by Design, their follow-on to Understanding by Design, and he twittered the question that is the title of Chapter 4:

Bud: “How Should Teaching Be Appropriately Depersonalized?”
Me: “The same way love should be depersonalized. It shouldn’t be. Schooling is depersonalized. Teaching is personal. It’s like saying learning should be depersonalized.”
Bud: “I think it’s a question of what’s a good system – and a good system is larger than a person.”

Wiggins and McTighe want to make schools better. They see that much bad and ineffective teaching hides behind the defense of being ‘personal’, and they want to replace such practices with better teaching—”depersonalized teaching”—based on rational, proven procedures that result in effective ‘transfer of knowledge and skills’.

If Wiggins and McTighe succeed, schools will be better, but they will not be any different. That is, they will be doing the same thing they are trying to do now, but more successfully.

My problem is, I am fundamentally uninterested in what schools are doing, or trying to do. Since I’m a teacher, this is perhaps a surprising position to take, so let me explain.

Schools are the servants of the State and the Economy. The State wants good citizens; the Economy wants productive workers. Parents by and large share these goals—they don’t want their children to be criminals or bums. So they send the children to school, where it is hoped that the children will learn to be Obedient and Productive.

If I emerge from my schooling a good citizen and wage-earner, the State is happy, the Economy is happy, and my parents are, well, at least happier than they would be if I were a criminal and a bum. But am I happy? I don’t know.

I don’t know because while good citizenship and productivity are necessary prerequisites for a good life, they are not sufficient to create a good life. Real education pursues a good life by asking important questions. Nancie Atwell, a great teacher, identifies the big questions as these: Who am I? Where am I? and What am I doing? The pronouns can change—Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing?—and the last question can become “What should we be doing?—but the basic three questions remain. And they were asked first, of course, by the ancient Greeks.

And the answers are, 1. We don’t know. 2. We don’t know. and 3. We don’t know.

People interested in maintaining the State, building the Economy, and improving schools will at this point say, OK, let’s move on: questions without answers are not useful to us.

You see, the State, the Economy, and the schools that support them have absolutely no interest in me insofar as I am an individual human being trying to understand my existence. If I never ask such questions, the State and the Economy will be perfectly happy. (Schools and parents usually regard such questions as an adolescent phase similar to acne.)

Mind, this does not make me an anarchist. I appreciate living in a well-ordered state, and enjoy having a certain amount of freedom. I am happy to pay taxes to the state so that roads, schools, hospitals, etc., can make my life and everyone else’s better. A certain amount of obedience is a good thing; being able to support oneself is a good thing. They are good, however, in the way that engine oil and gasoline are good in a car: necessary, but not very interesting. I want to know where the car is going.

It is those three questions—Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing?—that interest me, that seem important to me. And while as a teacher I do traffic in knowledge and skills, and do try to ‘transfer’ them efficiently and effectively, that’s not what’s really important. Because ‘transferring knowledge and skills’ is not real teaching. Or to put it another way, as Socrates said, there is no such thing as teaching—there is only learning. The teacher, as Socrates put it, is a kind of midwife, helping to bring ideas to life by asking questions. Not questions like, “What were the major causes of World War I?” but questions like Who are we? and Where are we? and What are we doing? Once a student begins seriously considering such questions, there is only one path to follow: learning.

So for me good teaching boils down to two tasks: 1. Inspiring students to want to learn, and 2. Helping them when they need help. And most of Wiggins and McTighe’s excellent advice about structuring learning boils down to this: Don’t waste students’ time. If the activity’s purpose is unclear and/or trivial, then it is a waste of time. Such an activity should either be re-designed or scrapped. If the curriculum has no coherent rationale behind it, it will waste the students’ time. Here we totally agree.

But Wiggins and McTighe don’t talk about inspiration because inspiration is personal. It can’t be systemized. It can’t be measured or counted, nor can its effects always be perceived, even. As I wrote to Bud, Wiggins and McTighe are working for baseline competence—which would, yes, be a big step forward in many cases. But when I think about great teaching, I think of those gifted individuals who inspire their students. Socrates, of course, is the archetype. But Ron Jones, Diane Mensch, and Bobbie Booth, three of my high school teachers; Page Smith; Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy; Jim Manuel, who supervised my student teaching; Tom Ferté, a “personal” and unsystematic teacher if there ever was one; Charles G. Bell, eccentric genius of St. John’s College, Santa Fe; Henry David Thoreau—these are some of the teachers who have made a difference in my life. If you asked me what knowledge and skills Charles G. Bell transferred to me, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. But he certainly inspired me to learn. The work of these teachers was intensely personal, not because they got to know their students personally, but because they themselves were persons who recognized their students as persons and understood the mysterious power of a person seeking to understand his identity, his world, and his life: Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing?

Of course, as school administrators see it, the view is rather different. They are trying to manage a system, and the system is inefficient because teachers are not like machines. Some of them are mediocre, some are pretty good, some are excellent, some are terrible. The mediocre and terrible teachers are, of course, a big problem. But even the good and excellent ones don’t work in the same way, so that inequity is built in to a school. Johnny, in Mrs. A’s class, will not have the same experience as Lucy, who is in Mrs. B’s class. The ‘system’ is not systematic. Wiggins and McTighe are trying to improve things by introducing rational methods that will ensure greater consistency and more effective teaching, i.e., ‘transfer of knowledge and skills’. They and the teachers and administrators working with them or along the same lines are doing noble work, in their own way—quixotic, perhaps, but admirable nonetheless. Few tasks in life are as discouraging and soul-destroying as trying to improve schools, because this is essentially a political problem, and it is a rare soul that is not destroyed by politics.

So I wish them all well, but having dipped my toes in that pool a time or two, I will be off elsewhere, thanks, doing what I see as the real work of teaching, as best I can: trying to inspire my students, and helping them when they need help. It’s very personal work.


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