Monday, May 11, 2009

Don't Assume, Teach: Why Good Educators Must Model and Scaffold More Than Just Academics

Yesterday I posted to several lists something about a recent presentation by Jim Stigler entitled, "Reflections on Mathematics Teaching and How to Improve It." Quotations from Prof. Stigler's presentation engendered one puzzled reaction from an anonymous skeptic who opined:

The way I understand the word is used in the U.S., diversity is to be celebrated, and the schools are to accommodate the students rather than the students being made to conform to the schools.

Japan, on the other hand, is famously one of the least diverse places on earth. And yet, even in Japan, according to the article, individual Japanese students do not know exactly how to be students so they are explicitly instructed. This sounds to me like the student is made to conform to the expectations of the school, not the school "accommodating diversity" in the American sense. This does not seem to support the "every country has diversity" assertion and therefore "different strategies" are required.

One of the most interesting things I picked up from reading LEARNING TO TRUST by Watson and Ecken, a book that looks at Ecken's experiences teaching a combined grade 1-2 classroom over a two-year period in inner-city Louisville, is the necessity to teach a host of skills to kids that those of us raised in middle-class communities and homes take for granted as a given that everyone brings with them to school. These include such "obvious" things as listening to and following directions, having a one-to-one conversation with a peer without turning it into a brawl (physical, verbal, or both), taking turns, and so forth.

I don't find it surprising that effective teachers in any country realize the necessity of "schooling" kids in some of these expectations and skills. The hard part is being the first teacher to try to do this for kids who are in grades 6-12. By that time, the horse has long left the barn.

It is puzzling that anyone would be surprised or confused by this: kids come to schools from a wide range of cultures and sets of attitudes about school and learning. One merely needs to set foot in a classroom with a female teacher and a male student of, say, Middle Eastern Muslim descent to note that it is a cultural norm for boys to assume that females are neither qualified to teach nor to administer discipline to them. (While this may not be universally true, I've seen it so often in SE Michigan, an area with a very sizable population from that background, that it is a lesson that can and needs to be learned quickly for most teachers here.) Clearly, such kids are going to be very problematic in typical public school settings, where a majority of teachers are female, if they are not "schooled" and to some extent enculturated. Obviously, there is no single approach taken around here to this or similar issues, and no doubt some people would argue that schools have no business treading on anyone's cultural beliefs and values. But from a practical perspective, it's likely to be imperative that these sort of things be addressed in the best interests of everyone concerned.

It would not be difficult to multiply the above example greatly. But even without something so obvious, teachers are going to have their own classroom rules and expectations, and it is foolish of them to assume that all or even most kids will come to class with the requisite skill set to adapt. Similarly, teachers are likely to meet with great difficulties when trying to implement pedagogical approaches with which students are not familiar. Something as simple as the commonly-used "Think-Pair-Share" method is going to go down in flames if kids are not used to being asked to work in pairs or simply cannot conduct themselves effectively in such situations, as described well in Watson/Ecken.

Cultural diversity and individual differences are huge factors for most American teachers, and certainly the latter play a significant role globally. To the extent that no country is without some sort of diversity (ethnic, , economic, etc.), the notion of cultural diversity is also relevant. Of course, I'm not speaking of paying lip-service to "celebrating cultures and diversity," but rather to actually knowing enough about the sorts of issues that may arise as a result of cultural differences that one can allow for and deal effectively with them as they arise in challenging or problematic ways in one's classroom or school. The culture of bullying that has been a serious concern in Japan for several decades is but one example that continues to challenge educators there.

No comments:

Post a Comment