Sunday, March 8, 2009

the experts verse the teachers

the science goddess blogged about the great divide between the practice that is in the classroom and the "experts" that are telling us what to do. she sums this up excellently.

my grad school frequently talks about the gap between research and practice and as i'm preparing for my comprehensive exams i'm going to have to be ready to write an essay on what can be done about the gap. and of course, i have mixed feelings on this. some of the research i've learned in my grad school has been remarkably helpful to my practice and i don't think i would be surviving my first two years as a special ed teacher if i hadn't had it. other is, well, just research, and frankly, is taking place so far away from the classroom that i have a hard time taking it seriously.

a few years ago when i was a classroom teacher a very well respected university asked our school to pilot a science curriculum they created based on research on gifted and talented programs. not fully understanding what this project was going to entail i was one of the teachers who jumped at the chance to participate in it. (nobody told us it was an intense 3 year study we were signing up for). but as a classroom teacher it sounded incredible. we were going to get trained in these research-based practices and be given a curriculum and materials that would make it possible to use them in our classroom. in theory it was incredible.

then it began. first of all they talked to us like we were idiots, which, was frustrating but we can get past (sadly teachers become use to this). but very quickly, as we began to leaf through the curriculum, we realized how far off it was from anything we could accomplish. but saying that only led us to be labeled as "not having high expectations" and "being old school and not willing to try new things" or being "anti-best practice". which, if you know anything about my school, you know we are not any of these things.

let me tell you, what we were doing for this study was far from best practice.

some elements of it were great. i was in love with it in the beginning. i was frustrated that my coworkers were being nay-sayers. but that ended fairly quickly and i joined their frustrated camp, my hopes of being given good materials slashed.

some of it was simple things that showed how out of touch they were with schools. they were confused why we thought we wouldn't have time to set up a science laboratory for our first graders. "Can't you do that during your prep period?" they asked, "can't your aids do that for you?"

our aides? what aides? during our planning- you mean that 20 minutes when we can respond to parent emails, respond to other teacher's emails, go to the bathroom, and prepare for the other subjects we have to teach during the day. i'm not kidding, i really wanted to set up microscopes for my kids, i just didn't have the time.

but we did it.

they also wanted our first graders to prepare the slides themselves. using a bent paperclip as a scalpel they wanted them to dissect a piece of a leaf, use the water dropper and put one dot of water on a slide. have you ever tried to get a first grader to only use one drop of glue? the phrase 'dot, dot, not alot' comes to mind. it still doesn't work. they still don't use just a drop. but we tried it. we did. it was a disaster. as high as my expectations were they just didn't have the fine motor coordination to do prepare the slides themselves.

the next day we prepared the slides for them.

the best day was when the professors from this university came to our schools and had us do the experiments they wanted us to do with the kids. my table of first grade teachers sat down to do an intense experiment we would be expected to do in our classrooms. it involved nail polish remover and litmus paper and other things i can't remember. but halfway through the poorly written instructions we couldn't understand the nail polish remover ate through the plastic cup they'd given us to use. nail polish remover covered the table. they hadn't even tried the experiment themselves to find out if it worked, or thought about the chemical reaction nail polish has with certain plastics. let alone thought about what would have happened if we had tried this experiment with our class and nail polish remover had ended up on the first graders' tables. do you know how many kids would have tasted it??

yet we endured 3 years of this. we simplified the lessons, gave them our feedback and endured their comments about how our thoughts weren't valuable because we didn't have high enough expectations for our students. (this may be very unfair of me)

the program (which did not take many of the recommendations we made) is now available for sale and people buy it because it is research-based.

i went into the whole thing hopeful. i wanted it to work. i wanted to be in love with this curriculum. i wanted to bring research based practices into my classroom. i wanted to learn how to be a better teacher. feed me information!!

i came away jaded and frustrated.

i hope that other university researchers spend more time listening to teachers, and invest more time in the classroom with students. the professors who visited missed out an a huge opportunity. our think tank of a school showed up willing to work hard and learn. we showed up already buying into what they were saying.

but first the professors assumed we were "just teachers" and started off with a lack of respect for our opinions. they presented us with condescending activities (they even repeated an entire session once. they forgot they'd already done it with us and made us do it again).

when we asked questions like, "how would you like us to teach a child who doesn't speak english how to follow this vocabulary" they told us that by asking that question we were limiting our students. when we asked for material our children would be able to access instead of the small font size an high vocabulary that was above our children's reading level they became more frustrated with us. they disrespected our time, our knowledge abour our own children, and our knowledge about child development.

they started with us in the palm of their hand and through their own actions they led us to be just another set of teachers frustrated by professional development.


The Science Goddess said...

This story makes me sad and angry. Like you, I've discovered that grad school has provided me with the perfect opportunity to learn theory and also put it into practice within my classroom. But there are some who go to grad school...then get a job as ed profs...and never once have to apply theory to real situations. And yet, their voice has more weight in educational conversations than teachers. That is so incredibly backwards.

Last week, one of the ed profs in my meeting suggested that teachers would really need a 6-week course in inquiry. I wanted to suggest to him that he spend 6-weeks full-time in a real elementary school...then come back and talk about what is realistic and necessary.


Hugh O'Donnell said...

That was a post and a half. I'll be emailing your URL to my administrators.

Pretty scary if you think what you're describing could be the norm for research-based education programs rather than an outlier.

Currently our district is doing a big-time literacy project (90 minutes!) in half-day kindergarten, and from what I'm hearing, it ain't fun for the kids or the teachers.

But it's research-based, you betcha.

We are watching closely.

Anonymous said...

What Hugh said. I am always sad to try a new "research-based" program and have it fail. Thus far, I have been blaming my relative youth for the troubles. Perhaps, some of this is the programs that I'm trying.

Thanks Jenny.

Angela Watson said...

LOVE this post! You've been featured (again) in this month's accolades at The Cornerstone:

not another arrogant American said...

Further, I have to ask (and I have), how frustrating this must be for the students - having the "experts" constantly forcing new ideas at them year after year. Find one that works (generally) and let the improvision happen at the level that knows when it is needed, in the classroom, with the teacher.

Teacha said...

Your story made me so very sad! Like others have sad, I think that the education professors and programs have been out of the classroom for so long they haven't gotten a chance to experience this new generation of kids. Yes all kids are the same. But have they really thought about the impact of media and technology and how they have changed our students. I keep thinking, "oh, how I'd like to really go back to really prep ed students."

And, I was just telling someone that a lot of the research lies or is skewed. It's frustrating b/c we PAY a lot of money to become teachers and then we get in the classroom and are ILL PREPARED to handle what is there. I tried to do a lot of research based techniques, but they often end up being modified. Now, I do what works.

Right now there is a ST in my classroom. His University Supervisor is pushing group work. All of my classes can handle group work. Except 1. Alot of the research pushes using group work. This class can't handle it. No matter how I set it up. No matter the stipulations set forth. It just doesn't work. Basically, RESEARCH CAN NOT ACCOUNT FOR THE DYNAMICS in a classroom. Yeah, it may work some places, but not everywhere. And research is often sold as It works everywhere. Also, it doesn't account for the limited resources.

This Brazen Teacher said...

This was a great post. So why am I so pissed that I read it?


Lola said...

"Just a teacher" says so much.

When I was at Harvard Grad School of Ed., I attended a symposium for Harvard grad school Christians about education. Sounded cool. My carpool mates introduced ourselves and our fields--and it went something like this:
"I am a linguist at FAS."
"I'm an astrophysisist there."
"I'm a middle school teacher at HGSE."

The driver of the car said, "A teacher? Why are you coming?" I was so shocked I blanked. The linguist came to my rescue with pointed sarcasm: "Yes, why ever would a teacher be interested in education?"

He rescued me that day, but over and over we teachers hit this.

It's why I balk at being called a "school teacher" and insist that people refer to me as an EDUCATOR.

Loved this post. Thanks for letting me vent.