Jan 222012

A good supervisor realizes that in many instances student teachers perform in a certain manner because they are expected, by superiors and parents, for example, to teach that way; not, because there are good scientific grounds for their practice. For example, language teachers may be expected to use vocabulary lists for memorization and teach about verb tenses. Why? Because that is what administrators or students’ parents remember from their days in school. Scientific pedagogy is not infrequently stifled by tradition.

But what is essential to being a supervisor and a good one at that? Merely the job title? I don’t think anyone would be comfortable with that answer. We would not want to to leave it up to chance, nor favoritism or prejudice. On the contrary, we would expect that a person designated as a supervisor to have certain reasonable and desirable characteristics. Important among these would likely be knowledge, skills and attitudes of a certain sort. Here are some criteria of hopefully general application.

Our first criterion might be: a supervisor should be committed to improving the education of the students who are being taught by his/her supervisee. Note that “improving education” invokes values of a certain general sort, without being over specific as to exactly which ones. A usable definition of supervision should be possible without restriction to certain ideologies or philosophies.

Our second criterion is: A supervisor must have pedagogically relevant knowledge of subject matter. It is not enough for, say, a person designated as a supervisor of physics teachers to have gotten A’s in physics courses herself; but rather she must posses two other capacities:

a. she must know how to represent that knowledge in ways that promote learning in those less experienced than she; and
b. she must know how to help the student teacher to represent his or her knowledge to the student.

Note how such words as “relevant knowledge” and “promoting learning” insinuate a values commitment without constraining it within specific ideological or philosophical framework. This enables supervision-defining skills and attitudes to be offered to a variety of persons without bias to a particular world view. Some knowledge, skills and attitudes can be trans-ideological, focussing on technique and means, rather than ultimate ends.

A good supervisor is, herself, a good teacher. She must be able to imagine herself ignorant and be willing to experiment with strategies to bring herself, as ignorant, to be knowledgeable. In addition, the supervisor must be willing to negotiate with her supervisee a characterization of the criticized lesson which communicates a fair and “teacherly” concern with improvement, based on educational, rather than personal reasons.

Our final criterion is that a supervisor should be professionally skeptical of the institution’s ability to enhance educational outcomes: the school in which her supervisee works may engage in practices which undermine the learning of the pupils her supervisee teaches.

To be a professional is to be not entirely subjugated to one’s employer; rather, it is to maintain certain standards in the face of possible institutional pressures to “sell out,” i.e. to sacrifice educational goals to bureaucratic or political convenience.

The context of much teacher supervision undermines reasonable expectation of educational outcome. For example, supervisors are not infrequently given insufficient time to observe; or, they are assigned to “evaluate” teachers for punitive reasons, or in areas in which they, the supervisors, have little knowledge of subject or pedagogy.

It is not unreasonable to expect that organizational functions will normally interfere with educational ones. Pedagogical rhythms may be interrupted for the sake of the numerous supportive functions the school provides. However, it is the supervisor’s duty to deflect, resist and subvert any interventions which debase the educational process.

For continued examination of this topic, see Do Schools Really Need Curriculum Supervisors? Confusing Role with Function.



Jan 162012

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the class room
Teachers leave those kids alone — Pink Floyd

When students don’t do their homework, don’t pay attention, are disruptive, cut class, or play hooky, we talk about them as “not wanting to learn.” We jump to the conclusion that such students don’t want to learn anything at anytime in any place for any reason, when, in fact, it may be that a particular student doesn’t want to learn a particular thing in a particular place at a particular time for a particular reason.

Do we even bother to recognize that students, just like we adults, have their own priorities? And if we adults think our priorities should override the kids’ is it anything much more than a matter of our convenience? (Of course, we always say, “But it’s for their own good!” Really?)

What adults would sit confined, having to ask permission just to relieve themselves, for five or more hours a day for no pay, even in the unlikely case they believed it would do them some longterm good?

For more on this see Dragons, Sea Monsters, and Kids Who Don’t Want to Learn



Jan 092012

In a world where you are “so-so”
Where competitors are few
Happiness is knowing
There are those worse off than you.– Phemelistophes (BCE 8321)

In the US all citizens are, so it is taught, equal before the Law. Socially, this just won’t do. Nearly everyone searches to discover someone who is of a “class” lower than his or her own. It’s an esteem-builder. Our educational systems abet this process.

A rise in “Class” — which good democrats officially deny exists — means higher Status. In this land of Equality and Liberty (but only reluctantly, Fraternity) such ascension is almost universally welcome.

Status signals access to entitlements. High Status is the promise of a life full of perks: goods and services not needing proportionate payment in time, trouble or money. In a culture where physical necessities are generally satisfied, status anxiety is a widely stimulated market motivator: a casual review of advertising confirms this observation.

In America there are many avenues to Status. Wealth, beauty, family, these good ol’ standbys are, for us red-blooded Americans, enviable but no longer necessary. Piety, knowledge and practical skill — those historically monkish or lower class accomplishments — are fading, too. We needn’t even wait for the fickle finger of Celebrity. Status can be gotten much more easily by adjusting your speech.

But this is no news: didn’t Henry Higgins teach just this to Liza Doolittle? Yes, but with one big difference. Henry insisted on Liza’s conforming to “high class” standards of grammar and pronounciation.

Not only public media spokespersons, but college faculty — even those who profess to despise the notion of social class– use patterns of speech that mimic “upper class” grammar while they violate it. This overcorrection is not done so much deliberately to defy standard grammatical norms as, perhaps, to stave off feelings of a threat to one’s superior status.

“Me and Jim seen a hawk,” says Bill to Grandma. Grandma, a retired schoolteacher, will almost invariably correct, “You mean, ‘Jim and I saw a hawk.” If Bill grows up to speak like most status striving Americans he will — as an adult — be heard to say things like:

“Mom visited Jim and I,” or
“That message was meant for Jim and I,”

as though the word “me” were to be expunged from the language, a blatant sign of “lower class” membership.

I have heard such variations egested by even insistently grammatically fastidious college professors, for example,

“I found Jim and I’s books in the lab,” and
“Between Jim and I there is no disagreeement.”

The issue, here, is not “good grammar.” It is not even one of consistency. Almost all real-world performance is muddled somewhat from standard. The interesting question is: why do people, who would vehemently protest knowing language conventions de-correct themselves in practice?

I suspect that it is the American game of one-upmanship that plays a role in this.

For more examples, contrasts and discussion see The Case for Case.


Jan 032012

Too many cooks spoil the broth — Proverb

Do political, rather than educational concerns determine schooling decisions? For example, a major concern in our public schools is the placement of special education students in regular classrooms. This is generally seen as involving “politics,” i.e. favoritism. Although school people follow presumably equitable legal procedures, the reality is that parents often threaten boards of education with costly lawsuits to get unusual treatment for their kids, even though a decision in their favor cannot be considered as setting a precedent.

In the School District of Philadelphia, about 1975, a board member was shocked to find out no one could tell him what non-real estate property the school district owned. Consequently, the command was issued that students (about 200,000) were to be sent home for a week while teachers applied numbered labels to desks, chairs, blackboards, TV’s, lab equipment of all kinds — even boxes of paper clips. Inventory lists were to be created and submitted at the end of the week.

And so it was done. There were no control mechanisms in place. There was no double-checking. In fact, there was no provision made for collating the information collected. When standard-test-time rolled around soon after, a local newspaper reporter — unofficial “friend” of the school board — came up with the by now all too familiar explanation for low test scores: poor teaching.

Is there some way of reducing educationally irrelevant influence to a minimum? “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Maybe so. But isn’t the argument really about who is competent to be head chef? And, more importantly, whether that matters?

To examine these and similar issues further, see Productivity, Politics and Hypocrisy in American Public Education