Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What makes a good teacher education?

In the past month the New York Times had an article with the theme of "do we need education courses for our teachers?" The article went on to suggest that perhaps just having people who had completed their college education and had a strong major in any subject would probably be better teachers in the long run having the passion for their subject major. Interesting thought. W do have a lot of unemployed folks right now that completed their undergraduate degree and have a major in some area. Sports medicine, women's studies, political science, creative writing--there are a number of majors that might lighten up the curriculum of a school. The problem is that because the state pays the money to the school districts they get to make the rules of what is to be taught. Not all these majors fit the curriculum. And educational reformers love to say that if they were in charge ALL teachers would teach their major. Sounds like we have some round pegs being fitted into square holes. Things don't just fit easily.

But let's advance the tape a bit. In a more recent follow up article in the New York Times, a number of people wrote in to comment on their thesis. And many of them supported the idea of not requiring education courses stating that they had not learned a thing in these courses. All they needed was time as a student teacher. Several of the writers were positive that the education professors had not been inside a school in years. One writer said that he had taken a number of educational courses and had learned "nothing that he had not already known." Another writer mentioned that he took the courses while maintaining a full time summer job, did not read the text and still got an "A" in the course.

To be sure my heart sunk reading the negative comments about educational courses. I've heard it before but it still hurts. Am I and my colleagues that out of touch with the world of education? I don't really think so. I've spent much time lately pondering where the truth lies. To be fair the New York Times is an east coast newspaper and many of those who responded were from east coast schools. Perhaps I am not as aware of the school situations back in the northeast. My big city school experiences have been in Portland (Oregon), Seattle (Washington) and Vancouver (British Columbia). But many of the respondents to the article of whether we need education courses were fairly vehement against. These were apparently experience teachers too. To be fair there were a number of respondents who said that teachers needed a knowledge of curriculum, an understanding of child growth and development and an understanding of educational theory. I suppose the question really is--how much and when does a teacher to be need this knowledge. The old question again.... "Which knowledge is of most worth?" Plato asked that question many centuries ago....

There seems to be a missed assumption somewhere in all this writing. I sensed that several of the negative writers went to class and said "teach me something--I'm waiting." I'm concerned about the one who didn't read the textbook and still got an "A". Might there have been some kennel of knowledge in the book? And then, when do we know when we have learned...something..anything.

As I said I have pondered and puzzled over how college instructors, particularly, educational professors teach. I had one professor during my doctoral days that never told me a thing. It was a course on "Creativity." I had to take it even though it was not part of my major area. He had us read, create, present, look, and on and on but he never told us anything. We had to come to our own conclusions and findings. It was amazing....about thirty five intelligent people all coming to different endings in the course and feeling like they had learned so much. More strangely, I have reached back into that course many times to look at the creativity of grade school students and to understand what they were trying to tell me. I even visited the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and spent a wonderful day exploring my understanding of creativity. And the professor never told me a thing. Amazing.

I had another professor who I thought was the worst teacher I had even come across. He was terrible. Absolutely the worst. He was in Psychology and believed in the Skinnerarian school of thought of stimulus/response. For every stimulus there is a response. He was a difficult lecturer--he was hard to hear and he basically read from his notes. But here is the kicker--his tests were truly stimulus/response tests. One hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty sentences with a word removed. For example: "For every stimulus there is a correct _______. The correct answer for this professor was "response." I tried to get out of the class but my major professor, the one who advised me, said I had to take it. I was unhappy. So I spent my time in class mentally arguing with this guy. At one point I was sure I had him. He said in class that if you cannot see it you cannot measure it, therefore it doesn't exist. HA! I had him. And I asked in class, "what about God? Can you see God? Can you measure it? I really was pleased with myself. However the professor just said, "No that is something entirely different" and went on. I was upset. I did get though the course and I probably learned more Psychology by mentally arguing with the professor the entire time. To this day, I think he was wrong on so many things. And he really put me off when he dismissed my question on how to measure God.

However, several quarters later I was taking a course on Philosophy from a professor I really admired. He had the class discussing ideas and concepts, then pointing out our differnces and similarities. It was a wonderful course--I was in heaven. But there was a time when I just didn't grasp a philosophical concept of duelism. Didn' make sense to me. dawned on me that that phycology professor was a duelist. Human behavior over here and Religion and Faith over there. And the two would never meet. I finally understood. The wonderment of it all.

My main point here is that learners probably shouldn't come to class and say, "Teach Me." There is a responsibility of the learner to make some effort. Maybe if the professor doesn't meet your standards, try to understand why. Is it the fault of the teacher or the fault of the learner. And sometimes the learning becomes clear many year later.

I also had a professor in School Administration. Now this guy was a poor lecturer. He had been a principal and a superintendent and knew state law forward and backwards. But he still was a terrible lecturer. Terrible. But we graduate student quickly found out that if you stopped Professor Higbee in the halls and asked him a question he was a fountain head of information that was valuable. Many of us even when taking other courses would stop him on his way to his office and ask for advice. He was outstanding. I suppose that sometimes it is the responsibility of the one wanting to learn to figure out how to get the information out of the one who knows.

I have several more examples of interesting instructors. And no, I'm not patting myself on the back for outstanding learning--rather I feel strongly that at times experienced teachers who take a college course need to take some responsibility as to what they learn. And if you don't read the book don't blame the instructor for not making you read it.

I have a philosophical saying that I like. I may have already mentioned it here in this series of blogs. "There is no nobility in being superior to anyone else. True nobility is when you have been superior to who you were yesterday."

I suspect all of us have had teachers that were not to our liking but I suspect we all have learned something from each of them. I'd like to thank a number of teachers for what they did for me.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Teachers and Technology

Technology has been around for quite along time. In the broader sense, hand printed books and next the block printed books to Gutenberg's press (c. 1430s) was a bit of technology that helped the masses read. At first only rich individuals could afford books. And could afford teachers to teach them to read. I like the story that the Italicized font was developed in order to produce smaller sized books so that those on long carriage rides could hold a smaller size book on the rather bumpy roads of yore. I never checked this story out to see if it was true--but it makes a good story anyway.

So we have books in the classroom--sometimes not enough and sometimes out of date. But we use the parts we can. I once had a conversation with a Russian colleague (Professor of Education) who mentioned their problem when producing a Social Studies book was to decide which history they should include. Their government puts a hold on some of their history--it doesn't get all told. Interesting. Ah, the fascinating philosophical question: which knowledge is of most worth?

So we have books as a technology. I once was reading a book about the life of Nathaniel Bowditch, the first American navigator (as well as mathematician) to my fifth grade class. Somewhere in Bowditch's childhood, he was indentured to a chandlery which meant he couldn't go to school, so at night he borrowed an encyclopedia and hand copied it. My kids were duly impressed going over to the eighteen volume World Book set we had in the classroom. I never told them that the encyclopedia was much smaller in the 1750s and in one volume.

I suppose you could say that the blackboard was a technology. And certainly going from turkey quills to metal quills was an advancement in technology. In some of the old schools today you can still see desks with a hole in either the right or left top side of the desk. It use to hold ink bottles of which the teacher was required to fill from time to time.

The first typewriter called the Type Writer Machine was produced by the Remington Arms and Ammunition family about 1875. An interesting fact was that young ladies of the day were taught to use this machines, i.e., to learn typing, and they themselves were called "typewriters." Around 1880 there were advertisements for "typewriters" to come work for different companies in Boston. And if I remember correctly it took a number of weeks to learn how to use these machines but half the curriculum was on how to dress and how to act in a company office. But the typewriters (the machines this time) didn't make it into the schools until the early 1900s. I find it interesting that learning to type became predominately a woman's skill until after World War II. Perhaps the Army needing company clerks who could type forms and requisitions finally broke down that barrier. In some high schools before WWII, learning to type was limited to girls only.

But the end of World War II also brought a change in the schools. Overhead projectors, 35mm slide projectors, Opaque projectors and the 16mm film projector made their appearances in some cases for the first time in the public schools. When I returned from the Korean War, I started teaching in a brand new elementary school and it had one overhead projector, two filmstrip projectors, one opaque projector and one 16mm projector--for the whole school which had sixteen teaching stations. When a teacher wanted to use one of the projectors, she/he would sign up for it and it would be wheeled to the proper classroom for its use and then returned to the storage area......which just happen to be my classroom, designated by the principal. I had to wheel the equipment whenever a colleague wanted it--hardly any one wanted to use the projectors so it wasn't a hard job for me.

An interesting aside. On the school campus was the old four classroom school that had been in use since the 1930s. Some say it was build during the great depression....I really don't know but it was old, hence the need for a new and larger school. As the community grew the need for more classroom space became apparent and the old school house was once again put to use for two fourth grades. When those two classrooms wanted to see an educational film (I was told by my principal to never call them "movies") I had to lug that damn 16mm Bell and Howell Movie Projector across the playfield to that old schoolhouse. The first time I did it I set the projector up, threaded the film and then left. That afternoon a fourth grade student came to my room and said that the projector wasn't working. So I ran down to the old building and sure enough, it would not turn on. That afternoon, I took the projector into a commercial store in Seattle and left it there to be fixed. A few days later they called me and said there was nothing wrong with the projector. So I went and picked it up and took it back to my school--finally getting it back to the two fourth grades across the campus. This time I tried it out and it still wouldn't work. I repeated my activity of above--they said it was fine and I again retrieved it. Only to find it wouldn't work once more. This time the store said, hold on, we're sending a person out to your school. The first thing he did was to check the voltage--there wasn't enough to run the projector. This old school only had four wall outlets and they didn't have enough wattage to run the projector which needed a thousand watts. A few years later over the objections of some parents, the old school was razed. I was happy with the decision.

Another technology that became available to the schools was an invention by the Germans--the tape recorder. After the war we suddenly had reel to reel tape recorders to replace the very difficult to use wire recorders. Speech teachers were delighted with the new tape machines.

However......and this is a big "however". No where can I find in college catalogs any courses that are about "audiovisual", the term used then for technology from the 1930s until the 1950s. It just wasn't taught to teachers. There is, however, a fair amount of graduate research on how to use "media" for the Department of War and the Department of Defense but not for the public schools. But the colleges of Education didn't seem to think that using technology would be important in the education of school teachers. Although I have never checked I suspect that even state standards from the Office of Public Instruction on the requirements for certifying teachers in this state would not require training in the use of media.

It took the Russians flying "Sputnik" over our heads to get congress and the public to suddenly want the schools to do more in mathematics and science....and with technology. Our eyes were opened and the schools quickly found themselves with overheads for each classroom, carousel slide projects, and movie projectors.

And colleges started requiring an "A-V course" (audiovisual) for all teachers on how to thread the Bell and Howell Filmosound projector, how to clean it, and how to change the bulb. My oh my. I wonder what the final test looked like for that course? It's all history now.

If you had a teacher who used technology, best you thank them if you can. They were a rare breed. They deserve a pat on the back.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Teachers and Mathematics.....and Technology?

Remember a number of blogs past that I said that schools had a choice in how they would teach mathematics to their students. Each school board needed to put their collective heads together and decide how they wanted to teach mathematics in their schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade. In a very simplistic way of presenting the problem, districts can either teach math by rote method or by discovery method. Remember now, I am being overly simplistic in my explanations

Let's start with the rote method. Based on a top down idealistic philosophy, the teacher explains how to do a mathematical problem like how to add two numbers and two number (45 + 45 = ) explaining how to "carry over to the next column". Right. Perhaps the teacher would do several problems like this and then have the students do several like problems for themselves. If the students got the problems correct, the teacher could go on to a different mathematical problem like adding three number to two numbers (123 + 45 = ). What the teacher is trying to do is to get the students to understand the concept about carrying over to the next column of numbers. Most children get this concept--adding numbers together to get a total becomes second nature for most. This is the rote method of teaching whether it be mathematics or some other subject. If you want to make sure the students have the concept in long term memory you provide more problems for them to solve. Time on task is the phrase we teachers tend to use. The biggest problem is that by providing more problems for them to solve you introduce boredom to the ones that have quickly understood how to do it. We want kids to like mathematics (an Affective Domain objective) and not be turned off from it.

Okay then. What about the other method of teaching mathematics? The Discovery method. This follows the Realistic philosophy of using real things to learn and by allowing the student to "own the learning, i.e., discover the concept without someone else telling them. For example with this method a teacher might place forty five bottle tops on one desk and another forty five bottle tops on another desk. The teacher then asks the students to be sure of the numbers on each desk then ask the question how many total bottle tops are there? In all probability the students will count from the forty five on the one desk and continue counting numbers on the second desk. Time consuming and a high possibility of error in the county. Then the teacher asks the class, "Is there a better way to count these bottle tops?" Eventually the students would want to put numbers on the board and would "discover" carry over to the next column. Indeed if the discovery was truly earned, there would be no need to do larger numbers in addition except to "prove" it works. The "Aha" method. Supposedly the students enjoy gaining this knowledge, hence, the Affective Domain is involved. "Liking Math."

Studies have been going on for years on both of these methods in teaching mathematics. Several of my mathematics colleagues state that one method or the other is by far the correct method and I am led to believe that neither method has achieved stardom.

Recently the Issaquah School District had it's math teachers review both methods as well as review a number of textbook series to use in the district classrooms. Buying a large number of textbooks is an expensive proposition and the district doesn't want to get it wrong. As a principal I would be asking my follow principals in other districts "what do you use--how do you like it?" and the teachers would be going to summer school and asking the professors what is best? After all this, Issaquah School District made the unanimous decision to go with the Discovery method of teaching Algebra and Geometry. Good, let's get on with the teaching......except......... the State Superintendent of Public Schools said the other method was probably better. What? (see "Which Math Book to Use? A Passionate Debate Rages" by Katherine Long in the Seattle Times Newspaper 8/16/09)

Actually the real problem in all this mathematical debate lies with the colleges and universities who mandate that to get into their institution students must have four years of high school mathematics. They are the driving force behind all this. Bellevue (listed in the top 100 high schools) students want to get into the university of their choice (hopefully with a full scholarship) and so mathematics becomes the gate keeper. Issaquah (and Mercer Island and Everett and Lake Washington) school districts follow suite. They all want their high school graduates to be the best. It makes sense to me.

What doesn't make sense to me is that we are discussing which textbook to use. Haven't we forgotten something? Where are the computer programs to teach mathematics? Why not a teaching program that explains a mathematical concept to the student (viewer?) and have them do a problem. If they get it wrong the computer says "no, lets try it this way." For heaven's sake, we could have the rote method as well as the discovery method all rolled up on a CD....or a box set of CDs. We have some of the best programmers in this area who are doing nothing but working on game software. Why doesn't Bill Gate's Foundation on Improved Teaching put out a call for new software on LEARNING MATHEMATICS. Now someone is going to ask me why the publishers don't produce a CD on mathematics. The reason is that they make a heck of a profit on textbooks. CDs would not produce the revenue that the textbooks do. Simple. I really believe that technology at this point could solve a number of problems in the educational market. Good computer programs would allow a bright student to move ahead and hence not get bored. The slower student would be given more problems to solve but be given instant help when needed. Where am I wrong here? What am I missing? And perhaps a bright student would not need four years of mathematics. I learned my "statistics" in college from a computer program called "Statpak."

Okay universities. Produce a sample test of what you expect of entering students and we teachers will teach our students to do well on it and even do better. The ball is now in the Mathematics Departments at all the universities. What do you expect?

And software companies--pay attention. What our educational system needs is good CDs or web based programs that can teach mathematics. Wow! What a concept.

One more time--say it with me. "Thank you teachers for what you do in our classrooms!"

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Teachers are the answers....

There have been a number of reports in newspapers and on the web about reforms needed in education. A popular one has been about how we need longer school days and we need schools to continue throughout the summer months. A research report has stated that children who continue throughout the summer retain more of what they learned during the last school year. I don't find any fault with the research but it didn't say that the children continued to learn or that they advanced in learning. And it didn't compare the results with children who had the summer off. How long did it take for the kids who had a summer off to catch up?

I think teaching kids, young adults as well as adults takes time. You need to teach the material however it takes time to absorb what was learned. Sometime it takes years to understand what you have learned. Talk to most adults and they will tell you about the "aha" factor where somewhere in their life, the understanding of something finally hit them. Aha! Do you remember, "Oh, yeah, I remember learning this!"

I have two points to make....... My first point is if a child (or teenager) is not learning, doing it longer and longer (longer days or throughout the summer) is not going to work. On a few schools that report positive results an analysis seems to show that the administration changed the curriculum to art projects, hands on scientific experiments and field trips. As far as I can tell it was a summer day camp. And I will agree, kids will learn. But we've been doing that sort of thing for years at regular summer camps. I don't think it should be said that the regular education system is now improved.

There are enumerable research studies that show play is an important part of learning. My second point is that kids need to play in order that later on they can learn effectively and efficiently. Really! Actually, let's face it, we humans need to play in order to recharge our batteries. Companies know that their employees need time away from work to be effective workers throughout the year. Why we need to have a full year of schooling just doesn't make sense to me.

In this country we like to compare ourselves to the rest of the world. I know from first hand that much of Europe do not have schools during the summer. In fact in France the month of August is generally vacation time for the whole family. Yes, the museums are open for the tourist and the cafe's are open but that's about it. It's holiday time.

An aside: I went to visit a French Teacher Training Institute just outside of Paris one year. We were looking at classrooms and talking about their curriculum when noon arrived. Conversation stopped! And we headed to a little cafe' nearby where lunch was served. Only then did my host seem to relax. A bottle of wine, good food and the conversation continued. Indeed, I think my host would have preferred spending the day there talking about schools and teaching. Very relaxed. Play is important to all of us. Please pass the wine, thank you...and I'll have a little more of the bread and cheese.

But there are some other negatives that we need to consider about the longer school day or continuation through the summer months. You're going to have to pay a higher salary to the teachers. It's gonna cost you. And then what are you going to do when the family wants to go back to the family reunion in Iowa? How do those kids make up the work? I don't think the longer time at studying is going to take off anytime soon.

I hope you are having a good summer and you have taken some time off to relax and play. When you have a moment, sit down at your computer and write an e-mail to one of your teachers and thank them for all they did for you.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Continuing Saga of Kindergarten Teachers

I once wrote somewhere in a past blog that I thought that kindergarten teachers had the hardest job in teaching. Yes, harder then high school civics or biology, maybe harder then university professors who teach only high level graduate courses. Because if you don't have a good foundation about learning and the enjoyment of learning, a student really can't go anywhere. Having fun with learning is like having butter on bread--it goes down easier. So bless the kindergarten teachers of the world.

On the other hand kindergarten teachers have to be on top of what is going on in the minds of four to six year olds--maybe a bit older. Let me digress for a moment. If you're a parent with a young boy age ready for kindergarten, give a thought to delaying his entrance into kindergarten by a year. Go next year instead of this year. Boys seem to take longer to get ready for school activities and most do not work well when stressed. I'm on an old kick here, but success breeds success. If you have two boys in kindergarten and one is five and one is six, I'll bet my money on the six year old doing well at high school graduation. Learning activities in kindergarten will come easier to the older boy and because he will have been successful, he'll look forward to other learning situation and probably be successful as well. End of lecture and digression.

But back to kindergarten teachers. They have to know what the little kids are watching on the TV, what books Mom and Dad are reading to them at night, what foods they are eating, what songs they listen to on their iPods. The kindergarten teachers has be in sync with the children to be able to take them through the learning activities.

Which is why I somewhat lost it when a kindergarten teacher to be from my College of Education said that technology wasn't important. Well now! It seems a couple of my colleagues who have retired from teaching but are still interested in all this stuff wrote me to tell me how their grandchildren are using technology at home and will probably look forward to it when they finally get to school. Both their remarks to me were about two young boys about to enter kindergarten this coming fall. Both are excited about beginning their education.

One of my colleagues, Patricia (as usual all names are different from real life to protect the innocent and me) said that she asked her grown daughter if the Mickey Mouse Club was still on TV as she remembered she was infatuated with "Annette" when she was young. Her daughter, smiling, asked her son to show Aunt Patricia the MIckey Mouse Club. Jacob then went over to his computer, logged on and found the Mickey Mouse site and then proceeded to show his Aunt more details then she really wanted to know. I remember one kindergarten teacher advising me (Me, the music teacher at the time) how to ask a question of these little ones. She said that you don't want to ask an open answer question as a kindergartner will answer and answer and answer. She told me most young children didn't know the meaning of a period in a sentence. It was good advice.

But I do want to quote Patricia. "So does 'technology' belong in kindergarten? It's already there....and God help the poor teacher who doesn't know this. I'm guessing she never got a Monk-E-Mail .....with custom voice video!!!" Earlier in the week I would have said that I had never received a Monk-E-Mail but Patricia was kind enough to send me one. What a kick. I can see young kids sending these to each other......with their beginning sense of humor. If you haven't explored this web site with your child, go to and send me one at And no, you can't tweter me. I'm not caught up with these young kids. Yet!

Treat a person as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat him as he could be, and he will become what he should be. I don't know who wrote this saying but I like it. It seems to me we need to treat our kindergarten children with the culture they already know. Another way to put this is a statement by the famous Sociologist, Margaret Mead. She once wrote, "We must teach our children to venture down paths that we do not yet know."

Why don't you venture down a different path and thank a teacher who nurtured you in your learning.