Mal Education II: In which we do away with ppts and be skillful instead.

I’ve written about this before in a post entitled, Mal Education: or reasons why you should never ask me for a recommendation letter. I can’t seem to link it to this entry at the moment but in case you would like to read it, please just scroll down a bit. That post was mostly about the teaching profession and some bumps along the way that most commonly cause people who are passionate about it to trip. This post is no different. This time I want to share an email from a friend who (as I was told) was also talking to someone else about teaching and methods, more specifically.

I’ve often been called traditional in class and the only defense I have against this comment was last week’s ten minute break so I could buy a snack, eat it in class and have them all sit and wait for me (bwahahahaha) because they were being a bit sabaw (colloq. for when the brain has gone on sabbatical). I’ve never really voiced out my irritation at being called traditional because I’ve always known that while my methods may be time-tested, my ideas and insights are often progressive. But that’s just me rubbing off the scars after being called something traditionally derogatory. Fortunately, a friend of mine who is more articulate about what plagues us both has written a short treatise in defense of our kind of education. I could just be an essay really but I call it a treatise because this is just the condensed version of our combined thoughts. In this excerpt,  my friend replies to another person’s email. His professional opinion is asked after our friend is invited to teach history. There’s some references to videos and other things but don’t mind that. Read his thoughts for the nuggets they contain. I’m so tempted to print this email of his and post it on our faculty bulletin board.

Teachers spend hours making awesome powerpoints and focusing on performance when really, aren’t these things only tools that ought to help us cmmunicate better? I’ve just recently been re-hired as a World History teacheer in my old high school. There’s this  nagging temptation to go digital and “spice up” history because to the rest of the world, the word conjures images of dust and a general sense of forgetfulness. It’s a very desolate subject in that sense but in my case, I think history is just about human longing and feeling nostalgic for things which we know intuitively but have forgotten through the ages. The stories of all the big people and the small ones that litter our textbooks are so incredible that we hardly manage to find the time to see ourselves reflected in them. So, we forget them and do our laundry, cook our meals, run our errands and live our lives away from them.

But wait, isn’t the incredible part in knowing that they were people too? That these greats whom we’ve come to either revere or forget had once walked this earth and been just as alive as i am right now as I type this awlays gives me an immense sense of wonder and awe. But often, communicating this is made difficult by teachers themselves who stand in their own way by preferring to be flashy and “modern” in methods. I wonder how many of us really know what we’re doing in the classroom? And I really wish we would complain less. We have the pleasure of being around such bright young minds for five out of seven days and though we only spend five or six hours a day with these people, I’d rather have that than the promise of security and a huge paycheck! There’s never a dull moment and when they’re difficult, they aren’t really. They’re JUST KID–needy, affectionate, confused, worthy of attention. The list goes on but you get my drift, right? I’m sharing this private email exchange with permission because it’s a reminder of what real teaching is. This is the job I signed up for. In case you agree or disagree, leave a comment but please, no powerpoints. :p

(What follows is a copy-pasted email entry. Emphasis mine.)

“I’ll try to answer what you said about the video and your question about “boring ol’ lectures” at the same time: The past 50 years or so have seen a lot of attempts to move away from traditional teaching methods. Lecture, memorization, learning the teacher’s ideas, point of view, and insights are seen by many as old-fashioned teaching methods which are both boring and ineffective at impressing any kind of deeper meaning or creating any lasting impression in students. Worse, the retention for lessons learned in this way is supposedly nonexistent, hence the common jokes about forgetting everything you learned once you’ve graduated, or after the current school year is over. This moldy style is referred to as “teacher-centered” learning as it relies on expertise, input from, and listening to the teacher. Possibly related is the use of old fashioned or even “defunct” materials such as a blackboard.

The trend for some these days is to focus more on “student-centered” learning, where the focus of the education is not to fill the students up with information from the teacher as one would fill a cup with water from a jug, but rather to facilitate or direct the learning processes of the student. In order to do this, one needs to know one’s students well enough to discern how they think, what their interests are, and what motivates them, then structure the lesson such that each student acquires a minimum of objective knowledge before going on to activities, exercises, or projects that let him discover and understand the deeper ideas on his own, and in his own way. At the same time, learning the deeper ideas will indirectly make him have to learn more objective material, since he wouldn’t be able to understand the deeper ideas without it.

To illustrate: A teacher-centered teacher might make students memorize the structure of government and differentiate the branches, while a student-centered teacher might, say, give an introductory lecture then let the students read on their own and perform a little role playing as the various political leaders. Any mistakes or misconceptions demonstrated in their skit will be corrected by the teacher, and this is the teacher’s main input. This method supposedly will let the students understand the material in their own way and also be more fun and “game” like, as opposed to tired and cobwebbed mnemonics and recitation. At the same time, the students will gain an appreciation for what it means to be a government official.

From what I can see, the new methods of math that the woman in the video is crusading against are typical of student centered work. Rather than making students memorize formulas, algorithms (step by step processes, like the steps to add, the steps to do long division), or methods of solving problems, the focus is on developing the students’ ability to THINK like a mathematician: abstract, looking for patterns, creating personal algorithms, etc. Drills are considered the enemy, because they are rote, and anything that is rote doesn’t engage creativity or insight, and that “must be” bad.

Ok, now that I’ve been fair and explained the facts: Fuck student centered learning. How in Heaven’s name can you learn to do Math well if you haven’t mastered doing equations? Deeper understanding of ANYTHING is impossible or, worse, inauthentic without some kind of memorization. Math, as opposed to what many people like to believe when they talk about its “practicality”, is a COMPLETELY abstract subject. Don’t think so? When was the last time you saw a “one”? How about a “square root”? HOW ABOUT A ZERO FOR PETE’S SAKE!? These are IDEAS that we use to describe and comprehend nature, and algebra is different from geometry is different from calculus is different from trigonometry is different from set theory and they’re all different from all the other methods of doing math because they’re all ways of describing ideas in shorthand. In short, these are LANGUAGES, and how the hell can you speak the language if you don’t learn the fucking vocabulary? Drills ARE for idiots but they give you what you can’t gain from YEARS of deep, insightful thinking: efficiency and mastery of the language. To say nothing of the fact that (and I say this from experience) there are a LOT of insights that you can gain from doing drills. Look at my students who don’t do any drills:

Q: What’s 5000 + 6000?

A: (some thought) 11,000!

Q: What’s 11,000-6000?

A: (unable to answer after much thought)

And this is something you and I take for granted! My students are from Grades 4 to 6! I answered DOZENS of questions MUCH harder than that in the 3rd grade and we would do HUNDREDS everyday leading up to exams! My Math coordinator insists I shouldn’t give more than 5 FIVE FIIIIIVEEEEEE  questions for homework!

So that’s math. And as far as student centered vs teacher centered, FUCK student centered. Children are naturally curious. They want to know WHAT, HOW, and especially WHY, and if you’re a good teacher, you’ll always be able to sate their curiosity while making them hunger for more! I’ve seen kids sit thru a lecture about the origins of the Native Americans (Asians who crossed the Bering Strait land bridge during an Ice Age) for half an hour DURING THEIR LUNCH BREAK because they didn’t know that Americans weren’t originally white and the teacher ANSWERED ALL THEIR QUESTIONS AUTHORITATIVELY INSTEAD OF JUST PARROTING SOME FUCKING TEXTBOOK.  Teachers only know how to answer WHAT, and only using data that was provided them. They have no insights to share and since they have nothing near mastery of the material they certainly don’t know how to ask questions (integral to real lecturing, which is not mere dictation) which lead the students to thinking about the material, asking their own questions, and gaining their own insights!

Student centered teaching is a fucking buzzword (buzzphrase?) for lazy assholes who think they don’t need to know the material as well since they’re just “facilitating”, and this results in the students becoming a bunch of – surprise surprise – lazy assholes who 1) won’t work unless it’s a game, 2) are afraid to answer unless they’re in a group and are buoyed by the emotional support of their peers, none of whom know the subject matter any better anyway, and 3) barely know any objective material and know that they can get away with doing or saying almost anything since it’s their own “unique insight”. The only kids who succeed in this “student centered” tripe are kids who are interested in the work and do a lot of their own reading, which is as good as saying they don’t need a teacher at all, just materials and good parents. So why even bother sending them to school?

The fact is, “teacher centered” is just a derogatory way to refer to boring teachers who don’t know how to teach, and any teacher worth his salt knows when to dictate, when to question, and when to listen. That said, board lecture is fucking awesome if you know how to use the board and aren’t just writing the whole fucking lesson on it. I despise Powerpoints, but in the end they’re just another tool which would be great if I knew how to use them effectively. Unfortunately I spent 4 years in a university where the teachers used Powerpoints as a way to project their notes in front of the students (you know, the kind of stuff you should just put on an index card so you don’t forget it), resulting in major confusion as to whether you should be reading or listening.

Also, this mania for technology and “modern” teaching materials like computers and videos and whatever-who-gives-a-fuck all stems not only from the belief that the older methods are boring, but that “kids these days” are somehow different from kids in the past, and will have an aneurysm or go brain-dead if things aren’t interactive or flashing or beeping. But the fact is, kids are what they’ve always been: kids. And kids are curious, accept what adults teach them (caveat: WHEN THEY HAVE FAITH IN THE ADULTS, NOT WHEN THE ADULTS ARE MAN-CHILDREN WHO ARE JUST TEACHING BECAUSE THEY’RE TOO STUPID OR LAZY OR SCARED TO TRY ANYTHING ELSE. KIDS SEE THRU BULLSHIT.), and are excited to learn and become smarter. The problem is that so many of today’s educator who, well, SUCK, refuse to give the kids any kind of credit, and prefer to underestimate them time and time again.

I don’t know how you feel about this, because to me, the best teacher I had in college was Alejandrino. Our class was nothing but inference, extrapolation, and discussion, and these to me are the tenets of a good lecture. I don’t know if he taught your class the same way. I have tried and tried and tried to do what he does, but deprogramming my kids is ever an uphill struggle which only I and maybe one other teacher in my school attempt at all. Yesterday I had them do a reading comprehension exercise where the first sentence of the one paragraph passage said, “… Lahat ng mga diyos ay tinataway na diwata…” The first question was “Ano ang tawag sa mga diyos?” and one of my students answered, “Babaylan”. WHAT THE FUCK? I had her read the passage back to me and she knew her mistake right away! THEY’RE JUST THAT LAZY IF IT’S NOT A GAME. I SHIT YOU NOT. You think you’ve seen bad spelling you ever seen kids spell “Pilipinas” wrong, without a capital letter, and spell it THREE DIFFERENT WAYS IN THE SAME TEST? NOBODY’S THAT STUPID. But again, make it a game? These kids ALL taught themselves the sign language alphabet because it was in their books and it looked like fun. FUCK. And just in case you’re thinking that’s some kind of proof that we should engage their interests more, then you’re missing the point of going to fucking school. I will engage their interest about the material, about stuff I think is important, about stuff THEY want to know about, but fuck if I’m going to let them do only what they enjoy doing. At best, the smartest ones will grow up to be all brains and no discipline, inclined to theorize but never to do, and with no grounding in, well, ANYTHING. If you’re a rich guy with smart parents who gave you access to every possible opportunity and avenue to learn, how much worse will it be for average or poor kids?

Finally, the methods I espouse also encourage something aside from intellectual achievement: discipline and respect for authority and the challenges of life. ie, sometimes you can be damned sure you’re going to be forced to do something you don’t want to do.

(There should be more but the email ended there. Oh well, till next time.)

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