The Secret to Education … that One Thing that will Change Everything … the Great and Shocking Truth … one by one, I reject these titles, until I finally pick the first, just for fun.
It is a dim and rainy day (photo taken just now); before I take off for New Haven, where I will be spending the afternoon and evening, I thought I would put together some thoughts on teaching.
I taught for approximately nine years in New York City public schools: first at a middle school in Boro Park Brooklyn (for three years), then at an elementary school in East New York, Brooklyn (for one year), and then, for the last five years, at Columbia Secondary School, where I served first as curriculum adviser, then as philosophy teacher and coordinator.
In addition, I taught for several years in other contexts. I taught first-year Russian at Yale for a year (as a graduate student), second- and third-year Russian at Trinity College in Hartford for a year (as a Mellon Fellow), and literature for six consecutive summers at the Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. (This is ongoing.) Finally, I taught English in Kyrgyzstan for a summer and taught elementary enrichment summer school on the Crow Reservation in Montana.
So, after all this time (which pales in comparison to many teachers’ experience), what would I say that our schools need? I say emphatically that there is no one answer. None! I have no secret, no great solution.
Or rather, if there is one thing schools need, it’s good judgment: the ability to recognize good curricula and practices and apply them discerningly.
One truth presents itself again and again: teaching requires focused, quiet thought, which the school systems do not emphasize or honor. Yes, teachers need to collaborate, but to do so well, they also need to think about the subject on their own. This has little room in the school day; if you want time for quiet thought or focused study, you have to find it on your own.
Nor is “more time” the answer; there has to be a strong understanding of what that time is for. A teacher’s work must be perceived as intellectual. For that to happen, there must be more time for intellectual life overall. That will not come overnight, nor will any one reform bring it closer.
With all my skepticism, I do have a few ideas. They are not mass solutions, but they could set an example for many.
I would start with a good curriculum: that is, not a script, not a pacing calendar, but an outline of the concepts, works, and problems to be studied, along with the major assignments and projects. I would find schools willing to adopt the curriculum and education schools willing to base their program on it. This curriculum is not meant to be constricting; rather, it builds flexibility, as it gives everyone a working base.
Prospective teachers would begin by studying the actual subject matter of the curriculum (before thinking about how to teach it). They would learn it backwards and forwards, pose questions about it, give presentations about it, and attend lectures and seminars. They would study their own subject matter and another subject (and possibly a third). Those already familiar with the subject matter would study it at a higher level.
The following year, they would translate the curriculum into lesson plans, practice giving lessons, and serve as student teachers at participating schools. They would not have to reinvent the wheel year after year; if lesson plans already exist, they might review them and modify them for their own teaching. They would develop more than one way to teach a given topic and would anticipate student questions and errors.
Then, when they entered a school, they would be well prepared to teach not only the subject but the actual curriculum itself. They could put their efforts into their new responsibilities.
Of course there are problems: what if there aren’t enough education programs or schools? What if some district mandate comes along and topples the curriculum that was constructed with such care?
Any number of things can go wrong; this is no magic solution. Still, I see promise in (a) having prospective teachers focus first on subject matter, then on curriculum and pedagogy and (b) having schools and education programs work with a shared curriculum. To some extent, this is the approach of the Dallas Institute’s Cowan Center and (in a different way) the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Such an approach takes time, but this is precisely the right kind of taking of time: going far into subject matter and figuring out how to bring it to students.