Experts and Novices, III

In a comment on yesterday’s post, Ira Socol brought up a really important point.  Schools, he says, tend to make a “demand for standardization too early.” And when they do, it

teaches the majority of kids that learning (of this kind) is unattainably difficult, that answers are “magic” things without process or tools, and that the only path to survival is to try to memorize enough crap to survive.

Why on earth would a school (or a teacher or parent or anyone) intentionally send such a message?

Well, I don’t think it’s necessarily intentional; in fact, I think it’s almost always unintentional.  Teachers tend to “teach as they were taught,” and school leaders tend to “manage as they were managed,” and parents tend to expect that school will be “pretty much like it was when I was a kid.”  As Cathy Davidson points out in this recent DML Central post, the factory-model school was designed to prepare workers for factory jobs, and factory jobs in the early days of industrialization were all about standardized responses.  In Frederick Winslow Taylor’s world,

For every job, there was the “one best way” (his famous catchphrase), determined by the supervisor, and then everyone was judged by how close they came to that one best way (“soldiers,” he called them) or how far they fell from the mark (“malingerers”).

So there’s only room for one real expert, the supervisor.  Everyone else must either follow the “one right way” or become a supervisor and make changes.  Where the legacy of the factory model is strong, is it surprising that teachers crave “curricula in a box” or scripts?  Or that school leaders can be dismissive, or even suspicious, of  “malingerers” who dare to propose alternatives to the “one right way?”

And where that’s the paradigm, the thought processes of students really don’t matter, do they?  What matters, for everyone in the system, is doing things the “one best way” so that you can be a “soldier,” not a “malingerer.”  If it’s easier and quicker to get to the “one best way” by imitating expert behavior rather than developing real expertise, why not take that easier, quicker route?

(I don’t want to talk about the implications for what educators call “cheating.”  Really, I don’t.  At least not today.)

quid respondētis, amīcī?  What other factors have contributed to the confusion of expertise and “one best way performance,” of standards and standardization?

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Published in: on August 2, 2012 at 2:17 pm  Comments (7)  

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  1. I find myself wondering, at what point does wilful ignorance become intent? There are things professional educators must know, must study, must consider, and while I’ll admit that we do a terrible job in most schools of education – and a far worse job in alternative certification programs – at what point do we expect professionals to learn and change their behaviours?

    – Ira Socol

    • Another great question, Ira. I think there’s a big difference between “regular” ignorance (or maybe I want to say “regular lack of awareness”) and willful ignorance. I’m not quite sure where to draw the line, though. As a new teacher, I ran classes and related to students in ways that I wouldn’t do as a veteran. Sometimes I genuinely didn’t know a better way; sometimes I knew there must be a better way, but didn’t know what it was; sometimes I knew what the better way was, but didn’t know how to do it. And sometimes, I bet, I knew what the better way was AND knew how to do it, but chose less-effective strategies because I was tired, or sick, or because “everyone else” was doing things that way, or for any of a constellation of “good” reasons or excuses.

      If I were still exhibiting those ineffective new-teacher attitudes and behaviors as a veteran, there would clearly be something wrong. If a colleague or administrator (or, for that matter, a student or group of students) pointed out a specific problem, and if I then failed to address it (or willfully continued to do the same ineffective things year after year), that would also be a warning sign. But in the absence of specific feedback, how much professional awareness do we expect, and when do we expect it to develop?

  2. I’m just reading about Guarino, Loyola, Comenius and other Renaissance Latin/Greek teachers. On my blog I quote Comenius:
    “Comenius (1592-1670) wrote:

    Languages are easier to learn by practice than from rules. (I take practice here to mean use, not doing cloze exercises)

    But rules assist and strengthen the knowledge derived from practice.

    [Exactly what some of us are saying now: grammar makes sense once you know the language, it is not the way to learn the language.]

    • Pat, That’s such a wonderful point. And I think it applies to areas besides language learning. “Learn by practice … but rules assist and strengthen the knowledge derived from practice.” The challenge is to know when to move from active use to abstract rules.

      • I think it satisfies those people who see languages study as an intellectual pursuit and want to introduce students as quickly as possible to the “higher reaches of culture”. I remember reading Caesar’s Gallic Wars in Latin II, age 15. No explanations, no discussions (we used Jenney, the old grey one), all just a total mystery that only we language nerds (one of us in that class) cared enough about to struggle through translating line after line for 9 months.If I had been able to read at some level, I think Caesar would have been good.

  3. […] posts here, shared on Google+ and Twitter, with continuing conversations in all three places.  Yesterday’s post, shared on this Google+ thread, led to another set of amazing comments that I’d like to […]

  4. […] made progress on our own journeys from novice to […]


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