About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On Teaching

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.


  1. Mike- I needed to read this right now. I am working on something and would love to talk more about the technical/managerial focus.

  2. Are you Mike Rose from Pacific Palisades who was in the USAF?

  3. I have been saying the "love" word for years...as a teacher since 1973 and after having been inspired by Rudolph Steiner, founder of the Waldorf Schools in the 30's. It is love and human connection that inspires and helps other humans learn and grow. I used to teach college in Hawaii. One instructor was excited in the 1980s about computer programs that would "teach" the basics of grammar and writing, so instructors could be sitting behind a desk supervising. A lot of money was spent on computers and designing this fancy classroom. I happened to teach his students in the subsequent courses who were very upset that they had had no human contact, and they had to force themselves to come to class to get their credits. They hated it. Over and over they would tell me, "When I read the book I do not get it, but the minute you start to discuss this, I understand it in seconds." I knew it was because of the "L factor" love and caring which no computer can convey. It is something akin to an aura of confidence and knowledge that a teacher has which is conveyed through the ether to students. Some years later at the Univ. of Hawaii, a committee hoping to explore the essence of teaching, invited me to add my input to this discussion, and I said the "love" word. My comments were rejected and were never included in the final report@! I knew love and care were what students needed more than facts and technology, but the world was not ready to hear it. Why? It is not quantifiable, it cannot be measured.. like everything in science, if it does not fit the scientific paradigms.. throw it out! Maybe when we can accept the heart-math, we will be in a new world where real progress can be made. But until then we are stuck with a limited paradigm which not only stifles education, but medicine and exploration into everything. So I guess my advice would be to say "Get out of your head and into your heart. The answers are all there."

  4. I wonder how much of the diminishment of the human and relational can be traced to the lack of trust in our fellow human beings which seems to permeate our society, Mike. As we have created structures that work to ensure our safety (laws, police, oversite organizations, rules, protocols, etc), we seem to view our fellows with ever greater suspicion. We raise our children in fear and suspicion, justifying it by the steady stream of news about abuse of children. It comes to seem reasonable to try to remove the human as much as possible from the activities of daily life.
    Judgement is replaced by policy, reason by protocol. So, Mike, when you fret about teaching being treated as a purely technical pursuit, you take a stand against something that is a trend in our society not just in education.

    Let's face it, there is a lot of pain involved in schooling. Students are not allowed to do whatever they want whenever they want it. They are pushed to do things they'd rather not. We make them speak publicly; we make them reveal their areas of ignorance; we take them out of their strengths; we group them with people they don't like; we expect them to adapt to teacher personalities that don't fit well with theirs. School is stressful. Think of the strain a family Thanksgiving dinner can put on you, now imagine having it 180 times a year. Is it any wonder that the current "reformers" would rather focus on the brownness of the turkey than on how to get Aunt Jane to stop making snide remarks about Aunt Harriet's children?

    But, of course, you are absolutely right. Thanksgiving dinner is REALLY about coming together as a family and renewing the ties that bind. And school is REALLY about becoming fully human by interacting with each other. School not only reflects society, it creates it. As we reject Dewey's democratic school, we also undermine our democratic ideal. The elevation of test scores and diminishment of the human and relational is not only brainless and mindless, it is (as your respondant "Old Teacher" points out) heartless. And if we value the ideal of democracy, we need to fight it with everything we have.

  5. Mike - Several years ago, at a faculty, school board,and community planning meeting, my principal bluntly said, "People have the mistaken notion that schools are run democratically. That can't be otherwise nothing would ever get done. Imagine getting consensus on having a test? Or, useable, asked-for student, faculty or community input on policy, conduct and procedures? "
    That got almost universal acceptance - except for me.
    "Wait a minute!" I demanded forcefully enough to qualify as a shout. "Do you realize what you're saying? You'er telling almost everyone here they are irrelevant. You'er admitting teaching civics is a shame - that a single vote doesn't count, that elected officials don't pass laws, create policies, or expect voluntary compliance. Why do we have student elections - as a real process or as a make-believe exercise?"
    As I watch our political system stumble over itself, I am not surprised. How many 180 days sessions does it take to embed the realization that American public education is a de facto ruse?
    I continued. "Why don't we get consensus on tests? Why don't we hold valid elections, give authority to elected officials and expect compliance to rules and regulations? it wouldn't be easy, especially at first. But how else can we expect our kids to grow up to be the citizens we expect them to be if we feed them a pack of lies for 13 years and then magically expect them to walk across the stage, take a piece of paper and automatically turn into responsible, law abiding people who run the world?
    "That will never work!" ordered my principal.
    "How do you know? What are we afraid of,chaos here and now, or chaos when we are old and need our kids to take care of us? Which is more serious or dangerous? What is it that we expect our schools to be? What is education?
    One support beam in this structure called education is philosophy. I can't count the number of times over the years I've heard teachers say the equivalent of - philosophy is a bunch of hooey! Not having a philosophy is having a philosophy.
    I think (my generalization) that most people in education suffer from theory blindness cause by eclecticism. Go to a teacher's convention and walk around the exhibits area. One message is - whatever you need, we have the solution packaged and ready to go.
    One of the places education could make a real change is at the teacher education education level. No teacher should be granted a license without answering the question - orally and verbally - What's your theory?

  6. Mike,

    Thanks, and this is sadly familiar. How often have we seen such mechanical treatments of education the past decades, in one form or another? Science and the social sciences have won out over the humanities once again.

    Your psychiatrist and his use of drugs reminds me of another issue that concerns me, the medication of our "achieving" students in our "better" schools. Many students are getting prescriptions to ADHD drugs so they can perform -- and the New Yorker wrote a piece some time ago defending this practice. Students at my son's middle school routinely started the day with double cappuccinos. And stacks of energy drinks have replaced beer cans in dorm rooms. We are addicted to performance.

  7. "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."

    Hi Mike. A friend just turned me onto your blog (through the Berkeley suggested reading). Can you suggest a book that teaches the pedagogical practices you prefer? specifically, this example of addressing grammatical errors in student writing?

  8. In response to "Dane meets Simone:

    There's a long tradition of the approach I was referring to, but the best place to start is with Mina Shaughnessy's classic Errors and Expectations.

  9. I came across you blog tonight via a mention in a Larry Ferlazzo tweet. I enjoyed reading some of your posts, and going down memory lane. I'm the Mark Hall in Possible Lives.

    Thanls for your posts.