Doom by Whom?

10 April 2007

One of the teachers I worked with today handed me a copy of the review of this book from the Conservative Book Service:
Tracing the development of educational ideas in the United States from the time of William James to the present day, Zoch shows how they have given the schools an obsessive focus on teachers and their teaching methods while neglecting the disciplined effort and hard work that students must expend in order to achieve. Philosophical, psychological, and social influences as varied as behaviorism, John Dewey's idealism, the Romantic conception of the child, and modern cognitive theory have converged to create the widespread belief that the teacher and his teaching methods create (or fail to create) success for the students. The greater, more important, and more difficult role that the student plays in the mastery of knowledge is largely overlooked.

Zoch further demonstrates how the notion that the teacher determines whether or not the student succeeds handicaps our schools and thus harms both teachers and students. "It misleads students into thinking that the true source and fount of their success, both in academics and in more mundane affairs, lies outside their own actions and character: someone else must 'achieve excellence' for them. . . . Many American students sit back in their desks at school, arms crossed, waiting for the teacher to do what will make them smart."

Result? Because most students, in accordance with society's prevailing views, see their success as a product of what their teachers do, they devote little effort to their studies and, predictably enough, learn little. Their dedication to schoolwork, as Zoch documents, falls far short of that routinely displayed by students in other, less prosperous countries.

Why did the teacher give me this? Mainly because it supports the viewpoint he espouses now and then and I'm sure that he feels like a voice in the wilderness in this district. I think that he would like to sway me over to his side. Meanwhile, he's (reluctantly) participating in some work to build a differentiated curriculum.

This book does pique my interest. At first glance from the review provided, it appears an "excuse" for teachers just to teach in the same way---and never mind about the kids who don't get it. I would certainly agree that there is only so much a teacher can do in the classroom, no matter how intense the instruction. At some point, every kid has to buy in and make a choice to engage with the learning. Teachers can encourage that, but they don't necessarily control it.

I then went looking for another review of the book. The first one I googled across was from the Hoover Institution at Stanford. It more or less jives with the one above, but it raises more questions for me. While I, too, think that high expectations for work ethic should be set by the child's primary teacher (his or her parents), what do we do when kids don't have that sort of home life? Are we in the schools just supposed to say, "That's too bad. Maybe if you practice, practice, practice you'll get the parents you deserve?" Or perhaps simply just the "too bad" part and wash our hands of any responsibility to help a child?

I think I have to put this on my summer reading list. I really am curious to know if the author is just spouting off his opinion...or if he has any research behind what he's saying. How would he suggest we change the system? Who is currently dooming these kids to fail? If any of you out there have seen or read this book, I'd like to know your reactions.

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Blogger Stephen said...

There is one teacher that can categorically make a student engage and do the work. The parent.

With one-on-one teaching, the parent, with their all-controlling vigor can force the student to do whatever they want. And, there are examples where this worked. For example, Mozart's father is said to have been a task master.

Of course, the parent, acting this way, can do alot of harm as well. Much better to inspire the student. Internal discipline is much more effective than external discipline. So, the question becomes, inspire the student to do what? My answer has been "anything is better than nothing".

11:39 AM  

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