Thursday, February 10, 2011

World's Laziest Teacher

From Thom Hartmann's book

Thomas Jefferson was arguably one of the most well-educated Americans of his time. He was well-read, thoughtful, knowledgeable in a wide variety of topics from the arts to the sciences,and the founder of the University of Virginia. The same could probably be said of Ben Franklin, or James and Dolly Madison. On the larger world stage, we could credibly make such claims for Rene Descartes, William Shakespeare, Galileo, Michelangelo, and Plato.

But there is this one thing unique about the education of all these people, which is different from that of you, me, and our children: none ever were given grades. All attended schools or had teachers who worked entirely on a pass/fail system.

The model of education from its earliest times was one of mentorship [..]. The teacher and the students got know one another. They interacted constantly throughout the day. The teacher knew each child, had a clear vision of each child's understanding of the coursework, and worked with each child (or encouraged them to work with each other) until the teacher was satisfied each child understood the material...or was hopelessly incapable of being educated. Because this latter was virtually an admission of failure on the part of the teacher, it happened rarely.

When a student graduated, the most impressive thing she or he could share with prospective employer was not a Grade Point Average (GPA) or even the name of the institution attended: it was the name of the teacher. [..]

This is how things went from 98,000 BC to roughly 1800 AD. Until William Farish.

William Farish was a tutor at Cambridge University in England in 1792, and, other than his single contribution to the subsequent devastation of generations of schoolchildren, is otherwise undistinguished and unknown by most people.

Around the turn of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was going full-bore. Piece-work payments were becoming increasingly popular, and many schools were beginning to pay teachers based on the number of students they had, as opposed to a flat salary.

Getting to know his students, one may suppose, was too much trouble for arish. It meant work, interacting and participating daily with each child. It meant paying attention to their needs, to their understanding, to their styles of learning. It mean there was a limit on the number of students he could thus get to know, and therefore a limit on how much money he could earn.

So Farish came up with a method of teaching which would allow him to process more students in a shorter period of time. He invented grades. (The grading system had originated earlier in the factories, as a way of determining if the shoes, for example, made on the assembly line were "up to grade." It was used as a benchmark to determine if the workers should be paid, and if the shoes could be sold.) [..]

What grades did do, however, was increase the salary of William Farish, while, at the same time, lowering his workload and reducing the hours he needed to burrow into his students' minds to know if they understood a topic: his grading system would do it for him. And it would do it just as efficiently for twenty children as it would for two hundred.

Farish brought grades to the classroom, and the transformation was both sudden and startling: a revolution as rapid and overwhelming as the Industrial Revolution from which it had sprung. [..]

Without grades, the assembly-line-classroom would not be possible. With grades, whole categories of children were discovered who didn't fit onto the conveyor belt, providing an entire new realm of employment for adults who would diagnose, treat, and remediate these newly-discovered "learning disabled" children.

Responsibility for the success of learning shifted from teachers to students: when kids failed, it was their own fault, because they obviously had a defect or disorder of some sort.

A process of sorting and discarding the misfits began (just like in the shoe factory) which, to this day, rewards the "standard" and wounds the "different."