Teaching, Simple or Complex? (Beyond Maps and Apps)

In the midst of pandemic back-to-school time, a lot of people who aren’t teachers seem to have a lot to say about teaching. Some of them, the people who always bash teachers, are bashing them twice as hard because teachers are a little trepidatious about, you know, possibly dying because they are being forced back into the classroom.

Some of them are people who want to sell programs and apps that will somehow help teachers and make teaching easier. Some of them are people in education at the state and district level who have either never been in the classroom or who may have forgotten what it’s like to be in a classroom.

I think a lot of what’s being said about teaching and learning and returning to the classroom is based on a very simplified model of what teaching is.

I once had a colleague whose wife worked in the financial sector. She did not respect her husband’s job. She apparently thought teaching was easy and overpaid. I’m not sure how they stayed married – or if they stayed married. I’ve lost touch.

Apparently her idea of teaching was this: you assign textbook chapters, lecture a bit, give quizzes that are easily scored, give an end-of-chapter multiple choice test that is – again – easily scored, and boom, you’ve done your job.

I know there are teachers who teach according to the model I’ve described above. Most of us have had teachers who use this “assign and assess” model of teaching at some point in our educations. But is assign-and-assess what good teaching really looks like?

On the surface, I believe most people would say No. Most people would agree that this model of essentially downloading and uploading information into and back out of students’ heads is extremely reductionist. That learning of this kind isn’t engaging in the now and doesn’t stay in students’ minds into the future.

Yet at the same time, teachers are pressured in many ways to teach exactly this way. They are pressured by curriculum maps, pacing guides, and mandates that encourage us to “cover” material. I would add at this point that we are also pressured to think about teaching this way by technology and education companies eager for schools to buy their products.

Most educational apps work under the assign and assess, download facts and regurgitate them model. They are either designed to present information (often in some variation of a PowerPoint slide show like Nearpod or a video lecture like Khan Academy) or to quiz for factual recall (things like Kahoot or Quizlet). Well, that’s not all, actually. There are also apps that allow us to remind students to do their assignments or to keep tabs on their behavior to better control it (Remind and Classroom Dojo). I find these approaches a little suspect as well.

The assign and assess model is alive and well in part because it sells. It is easy to sell products that match the assign and assess model, because it is, admittedly, simple. And simplistic.

But think about the best classes you ever took – I suspect you can remember them. And I suspect they were more than assigning and assessing. Do some real reading about what teaching could and should be like, and the shallowness and hollowness of this approach and the maps and apps that cater to it becomes apparent.

This summer I started my second year-long session of The Art of Reflection and Response, a workshop for teachers that my local museum sponsors. It meets a couple times in the summer and then on occasional Saturdays throughout the school year, and it is beautiful. This summer we read a long excerpt from my favorite teaching book, The Courage To Teach by Parker J. Palmer. When he talks about teaching, you realize that is is more than assigning and assessing. This summer I also re-read Teaching As a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner and again, their take on what teaching is and does goes so far beyond assigning and assessing.

Real teaching involves so much more – or should. It involves human interaction and relationship. It involves social and emotional learning. It involves motivating students to see beyond the surface features of grades and credentials to actually value knowledge itself. It involves connecting what you are teaching to students’ lives and to the world around us. It involves getting students to really think rather than just comply.

It involves the delicate balance of challenging students’ thinking without being actively antagonistic to their points of view. It involves mediating relationships in a class setting between students of different backgrounds and view points. It involves raising ambiguities that force students to think more deeply about your subject. It involves being a model of an educated person, and a model of a person educated in the field you are teaching. I dabble in so many kinds of writing in part to be a model for my students.

Teaching involves knowing how to engage students, and even how to entertain them. It involves using a variety of activities to not only keep class interesting, but to get students thinking differently. It involves getting students to not only think differently, but to think about their own thinking – their own biases and assumptions, and the ways in which the world around them shapes their thinking in ways they take for granted. It involves invoking student curiosity and wonder, and inspiring them to ask good questions.

It also involves practical things, like managing papers, including restroom passes and student work. And of course, everything I’ve just discussed is only scratching the surface. If you are a teacher, you can probably think of dozens of other things that go into teaching.

In the midst of this pandemic, of course, we are now being asked to add to our roster of activities to juggle, things like sanitation, social distancing, mask-monitoring… and, um, teaching in-person and online simultaneously.

The people who are so down on teachers, who think we have it easy, generally have a simplistic model of teaching in their heads: We assign and assess, download and upload, feed and induce regurgitation. They don’t even want to hear that there’s more it than that. They want to maintain that teaching is easy and teachers are lazy.

The creators of apps want teaching to be simple because it sells apps. The elements of teaching that go beyond the simplistic can’t be reduced to an app or put on a maps. They are the human elements, the messy elements.

They are the things that make teaching worth doing at all. And of course they are all in jeopardy right now. As I go back to my classroom later this month, some of my best teaching techniques – small group discussion, pair share, moving around the room, allowing students to move around the room, will all be unsafe. It will take real creativity to find work-arounds to teach how I usually teach.

If we force teachers to teach simplistically, we can’t complain that their teaching is simplistic. If we want teaching that is real, engaging, complex, and thought-provoking, we need to stop promoting simplistic, standardized, assign-and-assess teaching.

You can’t really have it both ways. But apparently a lot of people think you can.