School Reform: Listen Deeply to What Teachers Know

Summary: Recent research identifies truths about kids and pedagogy that have long been embedded in the practice of American educators. Time is long past to act more consistently on teacher insights.
The American teacher is targeted from some sectors as the fall guy for the ills of our schools and the complex and frustrating marathon run toward a fix. How else are we to understand the relentless use of standardized testing, not just to measure progress, but also to evaluate in large measure the quality of instruction, and by implication the quality of a teacher’s skills? To teachers hunkered down, under fire, it can feel like the ultimate gotcha. Do this testing ad infinitum to evaluate abilities that are vitiated by the very process it takes to evaluate. Smolder.
The full implication of a couple of recent reports in neuroscience and sociology actually make the opposite case — that the professional and practical knowledge of the teacher corps is woefully underappreciated by power brokers and ideologues and too little given deference in the decision making process. Teachers acting in their classrooms are more deeply and broadly proficient than the relatively narrow profile of their unions imply – unions that have not always acted for the good of school reform. Much as medical researchers have learned to examine healing herbs and plants for medical benefit that aboriginals guard within their tribal lore, so might critics pause to respect the insight teacher types cull from their training and their deep experience with kids.
Exhibit number one I have alluded to in recent blogs. The Adverse Childhood Experience study begun in the late 1990’s in a collaboration between Kaiser Permanente and the Center for Disease control has found what every sensate teacher has known in their bones in their first years of work – that a multitude of the kids they encounter in their work with reading, writing, and arithmetic carry emotional baggage that interferes with that learning in ways both subtle and overt with symptoms both subtle and overt. By implication, proper teaching involves tendering to the muted trauma of the emotional side in order to get to the cognitive skills which are the stated goal of the enterprise.
Of course, this is not to denigrate the ACE study, which is a pivotal, and which gives a quantitative dimension to the problem that teaching experience does not. The plaint is that respectful weighting of teachers’ knowledge would have argued long ago for greater investment in smaller class sizes –where teachers could focus on individual students — as well for investment in student support services – social workers, counselors, mentors and the like. Even the validation of teacher intuition inherent in the ACE study, now almost twenty years of age, thus far has been insufficient to loosen purse strings.
In Washington State, the exception is that the State Supreme Court may have been listening when it found the State Legislature has failed in its constitutional duty to fully fund education in the state. Or maybe that’s just wishful optimism, but we like the hopeful side.
The other validation of teacher and educational lore arises from the journal Brain and Language as reported by John Higgins in the Seattle Times’ EducationLab. A longer story short, researchers had subjects memorize two groups of “made-up” words while their brain circuitry was monitored. In the first phase, the subjects simply memorized whole made-up words; in the second phase, the subjects learned a different set of made up words, but in this instance were taught the constituent parts. Put a different way, in the latter phase subjects were taught building blocks along with the full structure of the words.
When tested later for recall, the building block version of the training activated portions of the brain known to be critical to successful reading and decoding of new words. Moreover, subjects were also able to decode a “new” set of nonsense words couched in the same system as the earlier building block version of the training. By contrast, when tested for recall of the simple whole word version of the memorization procedure, subjects showed little sign of activation of that portion of the brain involved in successful reading.
Experienced teachers, themselves readers, breath this same air; common reading instruction is based upon much more complicated, but eminently accessible building blocks. Sound it out. It is nice to see such pedagogy validated by neuroscientific links, but must school reform wait on the laborious progress of neuroscientific research? What other lore is cached in the experience of the teaching corps that in the common good should be recognized, elevated, and acted upon more immediately?
I’ve a candidate. One day an imaginative researcher, peering into brain circuitry, will document the power of belief, perhaps in self, to lay down neural tracks over which the individual subsequently travels a fulfilled life story. A teacher could tell you that.

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1 Response to School Reform: Listen Deeply to What Teachers Know

  1. Deb says:

    Oh, the books we could write if only the time. 🙂

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