Thursday, September 01, 2011

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Rant Alert: Sir tells me I should warn everyone that my post today will be a rant and not fetish or latex related.

Today I watched a horrible wreck on television.

Not a wreck of flesh and steel, but of mind and knowledge.

Today I watched an episode of the game show Jeopardy! with three school teachers as contestants.

It was terrible to see two of them, one fresh from university, one with many years of high school teaching, implode in a heap of wrong answers and poor scores.

The third was also a high school teacher and, to his credit, walked away with $30,000 worth of right answers.

The other two finished with under $4000 and -$1600, respectively.

Now many things can influence this game as I am sure regular watchers are aware.

"Reaction time is a factor", so we have to allow that the runaway leader might have been considerably swifter on the buzzer.

Contestants, even those well rehearsed and chosen for the game by the producers do, sometimes, choke in the real event.

And occasionally, the categories are just not the forte of a particular contestant.But, with the possible exception of the reaction time issue above, I do not thing these rationale apply.

The lowest scorer kept losing money until she was in the red by answering questions wrongly.

She did not even know the river bordering Texas and Mexico (hint: not the Colorado)

The other, a kindergarten teacher, but, as I said, fresh from university, seemed mostly to miss buzzing in or to not is hard to know when someone does not even get the chance to answer, just what went wrong.

But I certainly expected to see more even scores across the board from professional educators.

We typically see much more even scores across teen contestants, which I find interesting. Teens REALLY know teen culture.

Our teachers are trained, in some ways crafted, by our higher educational system; it is a mighty force as anyone who has tried to stand against it or change its course can tell you. And so, I looked upon the works of those mighty and despaired.

Now Jeopardy is, by no means, the way a teacher should be judged or ranked, rated, or recommended. Jeopardy! is a game show and cannot be used as a significant testing vehicle except, perhaps, in the IBM Watson competition. IBM chose Jeopardy! as its demonstration vehicle because Jeopardy! does require contestants to both have a wide general base of knowledge and to exercise their language parsing and comprehension skills to participate at any reasonable level. Jeopardy! is used in schools to exercise students in those skills and it does have a very strong pedagogical background.

What worries me about this presentation I watched today is that I see many other episodes with people not in the education profession who do amazingly well; whose breadth of knowledge is both wide and deep. Why, then, do our professional educators who go on this show appear not to have the same knowledge base and skill base? Let me hasten to say that I have watched other Jeopardy! Teachers episodes with similar results. The previous one I watched had a high school teacher also go negative with all his wrong answers and have to leave before Final Jeopardy! And anecdotally, educators seem to make relatively poorer contestants overall. I have not performed a serious study, however.

What, I wonder, is going on?

Teaching is hard! teaching below university level is harder than hard. I have done it, I have taught others how to do it, and I have researched how students learn so teachers can be able to do it well and better than it has been done before. No matter what, teaching is hard...and teachers in our K-12 grades are not even allowed to teach as much as they would prefer...they are laden with so many administrative and politically motivated responsibilities that 12-14 hour days with significant amounts of that spent working at home each evening are considered not just normal, but somehow a moral imperative. Don't put those hours in and you are considered a poor teacher, unmotivated, ill prepared for promotion, etc, etc.

But, what are we doing in educating our teachers that we seem to see less and less breadth and depth in THEIR education? At these levels, ANYONE coming from a university education should have a strong grasp of a broad range of topics. And people educated on how to teach should also know the basics of general knowledge about history, geography, language, literature, mythology, physics, math, chemistry, biology, astronomy, philosophy, ethics, theology, politics, history, culture, music, drama, and art.

Our universities have an obligation to produce teachers ready to answer questions and ready to facilitate the gathering and contextualization of information into knowledge. Some say this is not necessary. Some say teachers should be taught to teach (organize and plan lessons and present the information, and just stay a few chapters or pages ahead of the students) but I must disagree. As long as there are teachers and we do not hand over education strictly to the web, teachers must continue to be a bit of the "sage on the stage" while also being "the guide by the side". They need a solid base of knowledge at their fingertips to quickly and accurately answer questions that arise. This is particularly true of elementary, but also of high school teachers.

Now, I do not expect every bachelor-degreed teacher to be an in-depth expert in all of those subjects above. but I expect teachers-to-be to be so interested in knowledge itself that they can almost not help but absorb significant amounts of information about those topics. And I expect university courses to be designed to interestingly and effectively impart that knowledge to them. Interestingly designed and taught general studies courses should be required of teaching majors...(no, frankly, I believe they should be required of ALL majors.).

Another thing we need to do before university is to stop teaching wrong information. History classes that are more designed to indoctrinate young students in cultural values at the expense of historical accuracy need to go. Geography courses that are decades out of date and set students up with an inaccurate vision of the world outside their borders need to go. Science courses that demonstrate effects without forcing students to think about causes and implications need to go. Literature courses that avoid hard topics and worry about political correctness when teaching students who absorb vast amounts of attitude from pop culture need to go. Any courses which universities identify as having to be untaught to first year college students need to go.

The current way in which teachers are prepared to be teachers is unfair
The current way in which teachers are expected to be teachers is unfair
The current way in which society views teachers is unfair
The current way in which society values teachers is unfair

These things are not just unfair to the individual teachers involved, they are also unfair to the students they teach and to the society those students both inherit and create.

The teachers I watched on Jeopardy! today who performed so poorly may be excellent teachers in their own environments. I know nothing of them, their skills, their interests, their dreams, or their achievements (well, apparently the runner up only managed to eat 5 hot dogs in a hot dog eating contest where she was the only woman and the winner ate 42, which does indicate a certain willingness to embrace difficult challenges!)

So please do not take this as any indictment of these individuals; I am making no judgements about them as individuals. But, after watching educators perform poorly as a group in several of these Jeopardy! episodes, I have to wonder, why do educators, as a group, seem to do poorly and non-educators, as a group, seem do so much better? And why do some educators do so wildly better? Are they just outliers or is there something else going on? Training, opportunity, personality? What is making the difference? I do not believe the old adage of "those who can, do and those who can't, teach". We have no scientific evidence of that. Although we DO know that many true experts in any field make very poor educators in that field. Experts do not know and often cannot explain how they do what they do...but here we are talking about general knowledge, not deep, deep expertise in a single topic.

But they should have more knowledge at their mnemonic beck and call than they appear to have on this show.

Well, those are my thoughts. I do not usually use this blog to comment on social issues, but this one struck very close to my heart. Watching educators do so poorly on that show always bothers me and worries me. I wonder if I could have done more as a teacher myself to be sure my students walked away with a greater breadth of knowledge than just the topic of my course.


You will now be returned to your regularly scheduled latex fetish blog.


Anonymous said...

The big issue, at least in my experience, is that teachers are trained to teach, rather than to know their subject matter. My daughter earned a BA in English, with the hope of getting into writing and publishing; job offers were non-existent, and she tried to get into teaching, but without a teaching degree (or political connections), it was hopeless.
In-depth knowledge does not seem to be a requisite when one becomes a teacher.

Anonymous said...

I am a teacher and an intellectual. Many teachers are just teachers. :)

Anonymous said...

If you're ever on "Jeopardy!", I won't be surprised if you win by a large margin. I bet you'd make a great teacher, too!

-- Angus

Latex Lady said...

@Anon1 ... Yes, teachers must be taought to teach. Teaching is a skill unto itself. Just knowing a subject well does not mean you also know how to explain it, impart it, and teach it. Quite the contrary in fact. This is one more reason teaching is hard. You need to both learn a subject and learn to teach the subject. But dedicated teachers do both and universities should strongly support the notion of a teaching major with a subject matter minor. However, they should also make it possible for subject matter majors to return to school easily to pick up a teaching certificate...this can sometimes be difficult for people who have graduated and then wish to move from a career in their subject matter to a career teaching their subject matter.
Indepth knowledge of the subject can help make one a better teacher in many cases. But traditional teaching organizations often consider that to be an over qualification. They prefer teachers who have focussed just on how to teach in the misplaced hiope they will be able to slot teachers into any subject or class level they need to. Administrations often think of teachers as plug and play which, of course, they are not.

@anon2 ... yes, i understand that many teachers are just teachers, but frankly, I think ANYONE coming out of university should be a bit of an intellectual. And i am talking more about having learned general knowledge, not deep intellectual expertise. Any educated member of the 21st century should know the basics of world geography, world history, math, science, and art ... we live in a very global civilization and to leave a US university not knowing that the Yellow River is in China (as an example) is no longer acceptable in my opinion. The world is far too small, too interconnected, and too interdependent for our nation or any other to be educating its students to be less than globally aware.

If I come across harsh on this issue, I apologize. But the net is vast, content is free, anything can be learned by anyone. Universities have an obligation to be sure that the majority of graduates they release into the world have mastered basic general knowledge, have been taught how to research and gain more knowledge, and have been encouraged to be life long learners.

@anon3 .. Thank you. I like to think I would do well, and wouldn't it be fun to see a contestant in a rubber burqa?

Actually you can occasionally catch some game shows that remind me of Jeopardy! on Al Jazeera TV with female contestants in full veils, saudi burqas or niqabs.

I do not speak Arabic, but from the interactions, the shows I have seen would appear to be very Jeopardy! like. The female contestants seem to have no problem with either being condescended to or answering questions...although, as I say, I do not speak the language so I could be wrong.

Anonymous said...

(This is Anon1 again)By the way, kudos on your storyin "confining clothing".

Anonymous said...

Sadly I don't see the situation changing very soon. Unfortunately a good chunk of the population is actively anti-intellectual and rails against those "fatcat unionist" teachers - the ones who start out on about $25K for postgrad qualifications. I also love the lines about working 6 hours per day and getting summers off!

Education is one of the first targets for spending cuts and is apparently the only sector where capitalism doesn't apply, ie, pay more to get higher quality output. What they don't understand is that education is an investment in human capital which can only help but drive the economy in the long-term.

Sorry if this comes across as too political or cynical, but I am very jaded with the level of public discourse right now and also very concerned about the direction in which the country appears to be heading.

Anonymous said...

I was see, I am from Europe, and many of us here tend to think that we are more intelligent than Americans:) As higher education in my country is still theory-based, I gues we had wider lexical knowledge, which of course means less practical knowledge. For example, law students have to learn paragraphs by hear, but what for?
really good teachers have to be open-minded and curious about the world, but I guess, many of them were not able to study anything else thn teaching. :-o

But now, back to the great issue: new burqa photos?:)


Andrew said...

The Teacher Tournament Champ was brought back for the Tournament of Champions, but only managed to finish with $400...he was no match for his 5 time champ competitors.