"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How smart is book smart?

I am hitting the books these days, not only to get ready for the school year but to prepare for another Praxis test in order to be certified as highly qualified in a field in which I worked, off and on, for 25 years, and which I have taught in the classroom for a number of years, by virtue of my two other subject-area certifications. I am reminded of the Wizard of Oz:
Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity! Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain! Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts — and with no more brains than you have. But! They have one thing you haven't got! A diploma! Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universita Committeeatum E Pluribus Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th.D..Doctor of Thinkology.
With one hand we denounce this passive process in favor of "authentic" that is, real-world learning, with the other hand we base our educational credentials (and compensation) system on the conventional (and supposedly discredited) system.

The irony is that the field for which I am doing some book-larning in order to pass the test, theater, is an apprenticeship-based system, and has always been. New technologies and social structures have some impact on the the way theater is conducted and its subject matter. But the knowledge required to create theater is and has always been passed to the next generation on a one-to-one basis. There is no way to learn theater other than to do theater with experienced practitioners. Yes, you could start up all by yourself and be an auto-didact, but you will be doomed to re-invent a lot of wheels.

And that's what we do with new teachers. We make them re-invent wheels every day of the week. I was fortunate in that the among the first courses I taught was two double-sections of a team-taught course (Humanities--combined Social Studies and Language Arts). And as a matter of circumstance, I was teamed with four different teachers in four years. From two (luckily the first two) I took great positive lessons in classroom effectiveness; from the second two I mostly learned negative lessons and gained an opportunity to become a leader, at least in a small way. I have since gone on to teach in more conventional situations, and I realize how lucky I was. If I had been put out into the ocean of teaching in a boat by myself, I probably would have sunk long ago. But in most middle and high-schools, alone is what you are going to be most of the time. And teacher's room lunchtime anecdotes is no substitute for working with an experienced teacher and gaining a sense of what works and what doesn't.

And my career as a lawyer required some apprenticeship as well. A large firm handles this in a formal way. The place I started handled it more casually, but everyone involved understood that new lawyers must learn every day from more experienced lawyers, especially since rookie mistakes can be costly to clients and to the firm. Translated into educational terms, rookie mistakes can be costly to students and to the school. But we more inclined to laugh about those and treat them as inevitable, when they are so easily avoided.

We don't see the value of this passing-on of experience in schools, and so we won't spend the money to apprentice new teachers to more experienced ones. I don't mean meeting with a mentor from time to time; I don't mean professional development, in which we sit on our tails for hours at a time except for breaks to do a worksheet or to talk with each other (bleaah); I mean actual teaching in a classroom side-by-side for months at a time.

Oh well, back to the books. Let's see if they teach me anything I don't know.

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