The Clockwork Classroom

06 January 2007

I do a lot of the work for my grad classes on the weekends, including making my way through the required reading. One of the pieces I've been looking at today (along with one of the talking head video programs sent along for this unit) has gotten me thinking about some parallels between science and teacher education.

When Isaac Newton and others started work on describing some common observations about how the world worked, a theory of a clockwork universe developed. It was an idea that things moved along in a predictable pattern---and if we knew all the rules, we could not only understand something about the present, but could also know the future. Life was not excluded from this framework. One of my favourite outcomes of this sort of thinking was the development of automata, like Vaucanson's Duck. Lots of people thought that you could literally build a living thing. Again, the idea was that if you could just identify the necessary parts to something, you could replicate it and get the same results. Life and the world didn't have to be mystical. There is some truth to that, even if it isn't in the form that the Age of Enlightenment used to frame the idea. Not too much farther along, people realized that just because it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it doesn't mean that you have a duck. There is something else going on. (I also love it decades later when electricity is thought to be the spark of life---and you get stories like Frankenstein.)

Have we been treating teaching the same way? Have our teacher prep programs tried to look at the classroom...and then build teachers (like ducks) from those observations? In our drive to make good teaching easier---or at least more easily described and defined---have we forgotten the "spark" that makes the classroom come alive? Are we in the lab, mixing up teachers, but perhaps don't have the formula right? Is there such an animal as a clockwork classroom?

I don't think that there is a teacher out there who will tell you that the predictable classroom exists. Teachers do influence a lot of factors within their four walls---everything from the physical layout to the behavioral routines. We can give teachers all of the tools---talk to them about classroom management, grading, instructional models, curriculum materials, and more---and instructions to build the duck---but it will never be a living breathing classroom.

If the ed schools are only slightly farther along than Newton, perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the few hundred years of scientific thinking that have occurred in the meantime. Maybe the ed schools don't need to go through all of the same growing pains. Should we look at classrooms within the context of chaos theory? Is it possible that there are patterns within what appears to be random within the classroom?

When you get down to it, all of this is really about what it means to be a good teacher. I don't think that this is as simple to point out as identifying a duck. In my own mind, I look at good teachers as those who not only have their content and pedagogy at hand, but also the "spark" of being knowledgeable about themselves. We are not automata. Teaching is an intensely personal experience and practice. I don't know if or how we make that part of teacher training---how we acknowledge and nurture the spark. I do think it's important that we look closely at what we do in our teacher ed programs and continue to move away from the idea of the clockwork classroom.

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Laura said...

Wow! That is a perfect analogy! It makes me wonder if we have to get struck by lightning to get that "spark" like Shelley's monster...

2:01 PM  
Blogger Dr. Delaney Kirk said...

I think you're right. The trick then is to keep those teachers that do have the "spark" from getting burned out...

4:53 PM  
Blogger The Science Goddess said...

I agree. We definitely need to find better ways to nurture our good teachers. Fan that spark!

6:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful ideas and connections!

Unfortunately I am seeing more and more decisions that are leading down the clockwork classroom road. I fear that particular road is a cul-de-sac where we will just keep going round and round.

8:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful ideas and connections!

Unfortunately I am seeing more and more decisions that are leading down the clockwork classroom road. I fear that particular road is a cul-de-sac where we will just keep going round and round.

8:00 PM  

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