In this age of highly active parenting the trend-watchers have perceived yet another parenting style just yearning for a catchy label. Connoting someone pushier than helicopter parents and more outwardly focused than tiger moms, the latest silly epithet for over-involved moms and doting dads is the snowplow parent. Why “snowplow?”- They push aside obstacles to clear a straight and easy path for their children’s success. In case you’re wondering if you should be laughing along with the name-callers or cringing with the guilty here are a few examples to serve as tell-tale signs: If you’ve ever called the school to get a grade changed (particularly if that school is a college or university), or given gifts to the coach to get more favorable treatment for your youngster, or accompanied your child through a job interview, you might just fit the bill for a snowplow parent. Of course such labeling is a bit frivolous, and it’s easy to laugh at some of the extreme examples, (like the parents of the young (adult) woman who had an amber alert issued for her when they hadn’t heard from her in 24 hours), but more and more, colleges are feeling the awkward pressure of pushy parents fighting dubious battles for their grown-up offspring.
Names and labels aside, the phenomenon raises an interesting question for the teaching profession in general and for teachers of challenged students in particular; at what point should parents intervene to shield their children from the consequences of academic rigor? At what point must a student be allowed to face her own shortcomings and be allowed to learn the subsequent lessons? It’s a tough question to answer, and the situations during which it arises are often emotionally charged. For parents of struggling students, the dogged attitude required to obtain the support their kids need can persist long after needs have been reasonably addressed and calcify into the unhelpfully overprotective stance of the notorious snowplow parent.
Working at a private school for students with mild learning disabilities you quickly learn that there is a sometimes blurry line between providing the support kids need to be successful and simply over-coddling. I think it’s a distinction that both teachers and parents worry about a lot. It’s not at all unusual to hear from parents who are skeptical of the authenticity of the newly positive grades their children have begun to receive once meaningful supports have been put into place. Confusingly, it’s also not unusual to hear parents ask for greater challenge and rigor while in nearly the same breath insisting that their child not be allowed to fail, (or to be realistic, even to receive anything lower than a respectable grade). It’s something akin to another ubiquitous and seemingly paradoxical expectation that a student be coached and coaxed into having more intrinsic motivation, but more about that another time. Of course, it’s only fair to point out that there can be a certain snowplowing tendency on the part of teachers as well as parents.
It’s a classic catch 22. If I “help” too much and a student achieves unaccustomed success I will be accused of coddling and more challenge will be demanded. If I implement greater rigor and a student doesn’t rise to the challenge it will seem that I haven’t provided the support he needed to succeed. This simplistic explanation of the problem may make it seem contrived, but it is a very real conundrum that we constantly face. And as it is with all conundrums there is no simple solution. It involves ongoing, ad hoc decisions and judgment calls. However, if we can clarify how challenges are beneficial it may help in making those decisions.
It’s good to remember that school isn’t just a place to acquire knowledge but is a kind of training ground where habits are formed and an individual’s dispensation toward learning, work and people is solidified. It seems to me that the rule of thumb in these situations must be in keeping with the principle of setting challenges. People, that is all people but young people in particular, experience growth when presented with manageable challenges: challenges that demand more than what one is comfortable doing but which are still reasonably surmountable. The benefits of overcoming the challenge are increased confidence and greater intrinsic motivation along with the appetite for the satisfaction of ever greater challenges. If you are fairly certain that the goal was achievable and reasonable supports were in place, a student must be allowed to fail and in the failing to grow. A challenge without at least the potential for failure lacks authenticity and does not afford the opportunity for growth, and is really not even a challenge properly understood. Children can learn an awful lot from failing when it is safe for them to fail. Conversely, the unfortunate child of a so-called snowplow parent will most likely come to resent the parent’s unwarranted efforts and more importantly will find himself poorly equipped to handle himself in life.
If you ever want to get busy teachers to actually respond quickly to an email try asking them a question like this: “If you were to give one brief piece of advice, like one or two sentences, about what makes for good teaching, what would it be?” Unsurprisingly, it turns out that most teachers are the kind of people who are more than willing to impart words of wisdom.
That’s the question I posed to a few colleagues at a small boarding school for students with mild learning (dis)abilities yesterday. And now I’m posing it to you as well dear reader. The only requirement is that your answer be brief, a sentence or two (teachers aren’t always good at following directions). Take a moment right now to pour your wisdom, in a dram-sized dose, into the comment box below. (Hint: You don’t have to be a teacher to answer the question.)
Leaving out the tongue-in-cheek or downright sarcastic (not sure if you know my colleagues); here are some of the responses I got in no particular order. They run the gamut from pithy two-word zingers to matter-of-fact practical advice to deep philosophical stances, but all are worth pondering.
~This week, I’d have to say proper scaffolding/differentiation.
~Strong active listening skills and mutual respect combined with a passion for your discipline.
~Being prepared to veer away from your set ideas of what you will accomplish in a given lesson and be flexible. Know what it is you want to achieve during the course and concentrate on essential questions and don’t sweat the small stuff. Remember that the students are the most important ingredient in a successful lesson.
~Good teaching requires a combination of patience, ethics, and understanding while being careful to not expunge what children have already been taught or what is important to them.
~Good teaching to me comes from the heart, an honest desire to see someone else succeed on their own terms and open their world to new ideas. Good teaching to me shows students the strengths and abilities they didn’t feel they had inside and gives them a safe and comfortable place in which to explore and exercise those strengths.
~Do not try to be someone you are not (as a disciplinarian and as a teacher).
~The ability to think on your feet and be aware of students’ needs, rather than just what the “plan” is. Sometimes we get so focused on what we had planned that we don’t realize that the kids either need more or less time than we had planned, or they need more information before they can really understand what we are trying to teach; teachers need to be willing to part ways with the plan if it is not working and adjust so that it will.
~Teaching is making a difference in a student’s life. The result of teaching may be obvious now, or it may take years to pay off, but good teaching – or bad teaching – has an impact on a student’s life.
~I try to find ways to teach that I imagine would have worked on me when I was a kid.
~I believe that good teaching requires teachers to genuinely care about what their students WANT to learn, and incorporate pieces of that into the skills that the teachers know the students NEED in order find success for the rest of their lives.
~A good teacher needs to be connected with the vibe of the room and sensitive to what enlivens the students and conversely what causes rapid eye glazing. Good educators must never be satisfied with the quality of their craft.
~ A good teacher rejects “fairness” between their students and inserts appropriateness in its stead. A good teacher evolves and risks applying new techniques to improve their effectiveness and does not lazily wallow in the confines of a stagnant methodology where they can retreat to a familiar comfort. A good teacher creates opportunities for their students to be “actually” proud of their accomplishments by appropriately challenging them.
~What’s important is empathy and a conviction that you have something important to share.
Lately I have been very focused and entranced by the idea of connectivism, and how it correlates with thinking, learning, and computers in the classroom. I recently stumbled upon George Siemens’ article that details the differences between constructivism and chaos in addition to understanding connectivism, and it was valuable to me as a teacher most specifically when he states, “Unlike constructivism, which states that learners attempt to foster understanding by meaning making tasks, chaos states that the meaning exists—the learner’s challenge is to recognize the patterns which appear to be hidden. Mean-making and forming connections between specialized communities are important activities.” This quote activated my sense of connectivism as I attempted to think of examples from my work or life to explain why it was relevant to me as a reader and an educator. It felt very meta—in a sense—because as I attempted to understand the quote and find meaning in it, I engaged in the act of connectivism by trying to activate my own network of personal knowledge.
A recent post at Learningdiversity.org asks the question, “Are teachers more like social workers, doctors, or football coaches?” When I read the post—and the accompanying study by the Varkey Gems Foundation of teachers’ social status around the globe—I was not surprised to learn that teachers in the U.S. do not enjoy the status of other professionals. This is a common refrain, and rather than simply once again lament that it is the case, we need to take a more careful look at why it is the case. In his recent excellent book, The Allure of Order (click here for an Education Week review), on the history and future of school reform in the U.S., Jal Mehta explores the many interesting factors contributing to the social position of teachers and teaching in the U.S. The historical “feminization” of teaching, the multiple-paradigmatic status of the field, and the lack of control over educator licensure are among those reasons.
An educational system is often described as a black box. We can identify inputs and outcomes, but the complicated interaction of factors, what happens inside the box, remains something of a mystery. In trying to unravel the enduring mystery of what makes for a great educational system one of the few identifiable key factors is the social status of teachers. In cultures where educators enjoy a prestigious social status (though not necessarily a prodigious income; income, it seems, is only important insofar as it is linked to prestige) education outcomes tend to be better than in those cultures where teachers’ social status is low. No one is quite sure how this works. It may be that the prestige awarded the teaching profession in some cultures reflects a more general attitude that values education. It may be that the prestige attracts better and brighter teachers and allows them to ply their trade more effectively. It may be all those things and more. At any rate it is an indicator that correlates with educational outcomes. So, how do various countries see their teachers, and where does America stand? Gauging teacher status is not a straightforward thing, but the Economist published an interesting chart recently that can give us a good idea of where we stand.
The chart displays the results of a survey conducted by the Varkey Gems Foundation in which people were asked with what other profession they associate teachers. Choices include social worker, nurse, librarian, government manager, and doctor. In seven of the 15 countries surveyed people associated teachers more with social workers than the other options. Not surprising. Try a quick experiment; Do a Google-search for images of “teacher.” Your browser will quickly be populated by pictures of pleasant-looking, smiling young adults, mostly women, working closely with youngsters. Now do a Google image-search of “social worker.” The people and context will look much the same: smiling young women working with young people. According to Google at least teachers and social workers are pretty much the same people doing the same sort of thing. However, the United States and Brazil leaned closest to librarian, indicating perhaps a slightly higher perceived status. (The popular image of the librarian of course will be a slightly older, somewhat more dignified and serious woman, still often enough working with kids.)In the highly politicized climate of Japan’s educational system the majority of surveyed Japanese saw their teachers as being like government managers. Interestingly, only the Chinese saw their teachers as closest in prestige to doctors: highly educated, prestigious professionals.
The comments section of the Economist post is fairly rife with animosity toward teachers. It’s pretty clear this animosity stems from a perception that public school teachers are coddled and protected bureaucrats, government employees growing fat and lazy on the public dime. Given what we know about prestige of the profession and educational outcomes these attitudes don’t bode well. Add to that toxic attitude the implicit acceptance by the general public of the fact that the highest paid public employee in most states is either the football or basketball coach of the largest state school; we might have a considerable way to go in developing the profession.
Recently, in modern popular culture, there has been an on-going debate surrounding the necessity of the humanities in a liberal arts education. Various types of editorials have been written decreeing both the merits and the hindrances of focusing on the value of literature to a well-rounded education. If one were to specifically type “the death of the humanities” into a search engine, over twelve million results would become immediately available. In this debate, however, a singular question has emerged: how do readers become creatively and playfully engaged with a fictional text and use interpretations of their readings to explore their own self-identities?
For those of you haven’t yet seen Peter Schmidt’s letter to the editor in the Opinion Pages of the New York Times on October 8th, it’s worth reading. Schmidt’s pithy “Invitation to a Dialogue: Don’t Teach to the Test” sums up in remarkably few words what the vast majority of educators believe about the suffocating hegemony of standardized testing in education. His allegations against current testing mandates and practices include the stifling of intellectual and moral development, not to mention the promotion of untoward anxiety for parents and students: (One might also include here mention of teachers as well.)
He advocates three steps toward dismantling the system and restoring to center-focus creativity, imagination, and equity. Step 1 requires the admissions offices of colleges and universities to wean themselves of their dependency on SAT scores which perpetuates inequality by giving the advantage to students who can afford pricey test preparation services. Step 2 is for schools to pull back on AP courses that are not only ineffective in preparing students for college but also deaden intellectual curiosity. Thirdly, he calls for schools at all levels to refocus on creativity and imagination as the cornerstones of education.
While there is no mention of how such fundamental shifts are to be implemented, there’s no doubt that the general direction of the recommendations is as accurate as the underlying reasoning is solid. The baneful effects of standardized testing are in no way commensurate with any perceivable benefit gained through the supposed “accountability” thereby procured.
We can’t imagine that any but a few readers would disagree with the sentiments expressed by Mr. Schmidt. What is of greater interest to us now than what should change and for what reasons, about which there seems to be widespread agreement in education circles, is the question of “how?” What incremental steps can be taken to shift the momentum away from the standardization of education given that top-down change through legislative mandate seems unlikely? One important development Schmidt mentions as a launching point at the beginning of his letter could speak to a practical, if modest, approach to broader reform. He remarks on the heartening development that a group of private schools in New York City will likely abandon their E.R.B. exam requirement for kindergarten and first grade. If private schools continued to develop and lead a trend away from standardized practices and toward a student-centered approach to education by rejecting standardization in all its forms, their prestige, as well as the success of their outcomes, could provide the impetus for wider changes in education. Until policy-makers come into line with what teachers and education reformers have been saying for years, we here at LearningDiversity.org would encourage all school systems with the autonomy to do so to demonstrably reject standardized measures and to make this rejection a main feature in their selling points.
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about collaborative learning and the notion of connectivism, partly because it’s a hot topic in a class that I’m currently taking, and partly because I try to apply principles of it every day with my students. I’ve just finished reading a chapter of Infotopia by Cass Sunstein and was really struck by a lot of what I read. Throughout the text, Sunstein discussed the many reasons that Wikipedia is considered so successful and argues that unlike many online collaborate ventures, Wikipedia does not necessarily rely upon economic incentives. Rather, as he writes, “For many users, participation is attributable not to self-interest, but to other motivations, including people’s desire to see their words in print, the value of self-expression, and the apparently widespread desire to be helpful and constructive.”
Here is the idealized version of online collaborative learning, which, as a teacher and student, I am constantly trying to employ. The Internet provides a unique and accessible mode of self-expression, and the ability to contribute to such a well-known website such as Wikipedia seems to hold intrinsic value to the user/author.
It was refreshing to read that quote, but I am unsure how true it is; at times I find myself suspicious of the content creators on Wikipedia, mainly because of personal experience. I’ve always been of the mindset that Wikipedia pages were created by authors in order to make it demographically friendly and accessible to certain types of users with the underlying idea that because it was supposedly objective, the information would widely be considered accurate due to the romanticized nature of the site.
As a teacher, I have always operated under the assumption that I ought to teach students never to use a Wiki as a resource when writing research papers, but I am wondering, should we redefine our scholarly views on sites such as Wikipedia despite the fact that it can be accessed and modified by anyone because it provides such a venue for self-expression? Assuming that user participation is based on the desire to be helpful and constructive, should citing work from Wikipedia automatically be discounted because it is not always research-based? When do we, as educators, get to the point where we start to embrace sites like Wikipedia?
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