The other day, my college buddy Bruce Scrogin, a voracious reader, forwarded to me an article from The New York Times Magazine by psychiatrist Daniel Carlat, “Mind Over Meds.” (4/25/10) Dr. Carlat bemoans the split in contemporary mental health care between the pharmacological approach and the talk therapy approach, not a new observation but the article had several gems in it, like this quotation from pioneering psychopharmacalogist Leon Eisenberg, “…in the first half of the 20th century, American psychiatry was virtually ‘brainless.’ . . . In the second half of the 20th century, psychiatry became virtually ‘mindless.’”
The passage that particularly caught my eye – and it is relevant to the concerns of this blog – was this:
Like the majority of psychiatrists in the United States, I prescribe the medications, and I refer to a professional lower in the mental-health hierarchy, like a social worker or a psychologist, to do the therapy. The unspoken implication is that therapy is menial work — tedious and poorly paid.
The elevation of the technical and the diminishment of the human and relational is, as many social commentators have observed, a characteristic of our time. Reading Dr. Carlat, it struck me how much this diminishment of the human and relational applies to teachers and teaching.
Certainly his comment on status and pay applies: as you move up the administrative chain of command, the work in education becomes more bureaucratic and these days, technocratic – and is more rewarded financially. But I’m interested in another aspect of Dr. Carlat’s comment: the focus on the technical side of teaching with increasingly less frequent mention of values, passion, or artistic touch.
This technical focus has been amped up and institutionalized in our time by NCLB. The teacher is reduced to a knowledge-delivery mechanism that prepares students for high-stakes tests. The Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” is not much different. “Effective” teachers are praised; however, effectiveness is defined by the scores students get on standardized tests.
Another manifestation of this technical orientation is the increased focus on teaching techniques and, in a similar vein, best practices. Before going on, I want to be clear about this: I’m all for pinpointing good techniques – from gestures to ways to ask questions – and I do believe that some pedagogical practices (for example, particular ways to address grammatical errors in student writing) are, one the whole, better than others. Teaching does involve a good deal of technique, skill, tricks of the trade, and good teacher education and professional development includes a worthy dose of such knowledge.
But good teaching also involves values, emotional connection, belief systems, artfulness, instinct born of experience. I certainly appreciate that fact that these factors are harder to measure than, let’s say, the frequency of certain kinds of questions, but because there’s not an easy metric for them does not diminish their importance.
This issue was recently brought home to me by an article in the New York Times Magazine, another Gotham piece sent to me by a student of mine, Shirin Vossougi. (It’s my friends and students who keep me up to date.) The article “Building a Better Teacher” (March 7, 2010) is written by education reporter Elizabeth Green. It is a welcome addition to the current wave of mainstream articles and commentaries in that it isn’t hostile to teachers and attempts to stay close to teaching itself. But what made Shirin and then me uneasy is its exclusive focus on two aspects of teaching: on techniques that some claim work regardless of context (for example how to give directions) and on content knowledge in subject areas, mathematics, science, literature. The article is set up such that the two are treated pretty much as separate entities, and little else about teaching is addressed.
At the end of the article, Greene wisely takes us to the obvious next step, and moves toward a combination of the two approaches. But she doesn’t mention that many people before this moment have given a lot of thought to this very blend, from John Dewey to educational psychologist Lee Shulman. For that fact, with the exception of two paragraphs on the Normal School and early schools of education, there is a historical and cultural flatness to the discussion of teaching. One gets the sense that teaching is strictly a technical pursuit. There is no mention of the other factors that contribute to good teaching, from value systems to a love of the subject. Nor is there a reflection of the long and rich discussion of teaching that, in the West alone, goes back to Plato.
I’m not laying the blame for this narrow treatment on Ms. Greene, for she is rendering a current big buzz – though I wish she would have been a bit more critical of it. The sad thing is that we have come to this place where influential school reformers and policy makers conceive of building a better teacher in such mechanistic terms. This is our new common sense about teaching and learning.