Ed School TnT 1: Social Study Method

I am very angry.

I’ve been away from this blog for months, first because I started graduate studies in education, second because I became very sick after a minor surgery (not COVID!), and third because I had to resume my teacher training.

However, notice in the previous sentence that I switched from the aspirational ideal of “graduate studies” to the duller term “teacher training.” I have lost all respect for my professors and program.

Though I am supposedly in a well-ranked graduate program (complete with 500-level credits!) designed to help people with bachelor degrees acquire a teaching certification, I sometimes feel like I’m back in grade school: we have weekly journaling activities, pause class for 10 minute “mental health checks” during one-hour sessions, and – this is no joke – listen to professors read aloud from the textbook “because kids like [it].” Assignments have included watching movies, playing online quiz games, and making Instagram posts (!!!) instead of writing essays.

I am not a child; at my most restrained, I would describe much of the program as an insulting waste of time completely disconnected from the practical, adult realities of teaching. Sometimes I wonder why I should even listen: having worked three years as an assistant teacher, I have more primary and secondary classroom experience than some of my professors, experts in the sociology of education rather than education itself. At this point, I am only sticking through it to fulfill the bureaucratic requirements of a teaching certification and out of a sunk-cost mindset that it’s too late to get a refund. Maybe then I reveal my biases too soon: at its worst, the program sometimes even makes me physically, viscerally angry. I am not a fair source. But really, why should I be? I’m spending thousands of dollars to make an Instagram post? UGHHH!!!

It’s infuriating.

So, I am starting an irregular series on this blog to record my most frustrating experiences: Ed School TnT (trials and trivialities), so titled because

1) it is a real trial. For the first time in my life, I hate class and dread going to school, even though it has moved online due to the pandemic. I do things I would have scolded myself for as an undergraduate: texting in class, skipping readings, and dashing off assignments without any concern for quality (for one PowerPoint, I left two slides with default “insert text here” labels. I got 100% anyway).

and

2) it is absurd. The topics covered in my courses are either trivial and obvious (see examples in this post) or repeated so many times as unchallenged mantras that they become so (a future post). I am not learning. But that doesn’t seem to matter – every class is pass-fail or close to it, meaning that no matter how shallow my learning or how poor my output, I pass if I appear to try …though in honesty, I quit trying long ago. With such low standards, and such obvious course content, why should I bother?

For this first post, I want to give some flavor of the trivialities of the program to demonstrate how little practical value my classes offer aspiring teachers. The best place to start, I think, is the most rigorous and difficult course in the program: “Social Studies Methods.” Though, as you maybe already caught in the title, given the low standards, I don’t have much respect for even this “practical” course.

Let’s start simple. Too simple… for one assignment the professor asked us to watch a 90-second video of a teacher “cold-calling” in class. We then had to write an analysis considering “what words or phrases does [the teacher] use to invite students to communicate their understandings.” The answers? The teacher asked “What do you think” in a pleasant tone and then praised students for responding. That’s it. That’s what we “learned” about the “method” of cold-calling. As I scream in my mind almost every day throughout this teacher training, isn’t all that obvious?

When I suggested that such observations were – dare I say – obvious, I received a rebuke that teachers must do everything in the classroom “with intention,” that they must dissect a lesson down to its individual movements and timings. In the above example, I shouldn’t just ask students what they think like a normal person. As a professional, reflective practitioner, I should first consider the most effective means of eliciting a response, then ask. Except when reflecting on the problem for more than the moment it deserves, I settle on the question “What do you think” asked in a pleasant tone. What good is reflection if the topic is so shallow?

When designing a lesson, the idea of intention becomes a bureaucratic cudgel. In my plans, I can’t simply write “ask students to stand in front of the room.” No, I must have clear, crystalline intention: “2 minutes: ask students to stand by their table groups. This method prevents traffic jams.  Direct students to the front of the room; place markers so they that know where to stand.” Expanded out to a whole hour-or-longer class period, this can result in the 1,000+ word blocks of text required to pass some teacher qualifying exams. Sorry I ever wrote my plans in a few dozen words on a quarter-page of scrap paper when I had to prepare three to four classes a day. But as a good reflective practitioner looking back, I realize the brevity never held me back…

Beyond the snide griping about bureaucracy though, I’ll take a less hyperbolic point about the importance of intention, perhaps instead refocusing on the broad need for classroom methods to align with educational goals. But a million times more: that broad point is obvious while all the accompanying methodological minutia is quickly corrected through real-life experience. Returning to the “2 minute” example, a fresh teacher might make the mistake of calling everyone up to the front in a mob maybe once. Afterwards, they’ll learn to slow down. We don’t need to delineate the exact method of calling students to the front; only the most oblivious people would need to “reflect” on the problem. Why does this graduate-level “methods” course include explicit instruction on something so simple?

However, my frustration comes less from the absurd detail of the course than the lack of big-picture considerations. Of course intention matters when choosing methods. However, let’s reverse the logic of that idea: when a course covers only one major method (here, the “focused inquiry”), what range of intentions will we be prepared to address?

To give an example, at the beginning of the course, the professor showed us what he considered an excellent focused inquiry lesson through which students would use induction to develop a definition of the word “protest” by reading primary-source descriptions of historical protests. But after reading the actual inquiry materials, I objected: this all looks great in a university seminar or, maybe, an advanced placement course. However, in an ordinary high school classroom, I have kids learning English as a new language, I have kids reading well below grade-level, I have kids who can’t focus enough to flip through a graphic novel, and I probably even have one or two special education kids. In other words, how do I push the whole class through a difficult inductive inquiry that requires substantial cognitive maturity that they may not all have? Or, on a more immediate issue, what do I do when students can’t read such difficult primary sources with words like “alienation” or “estrangement?”

I asked this. The professor replied: “Ask them.” Ask them to use context clues or personal experience to develop a definition or, less literally, ask them to summon up the cognitive skills already within themselves to construct their own meanings (in the education jargon, the pedagogy of “constructivism”). We are told to take on faith that all students are equally capable: lead them, don’t tell them. It’s inquiry within inquiry, induction all the way down!

However, the answer ignored my challenge: I have kids who can’t or won’t read the material. They don’t yet have the prerequisite skills for primary-source-focused inductive learning. What good does a strict commitment to constructivism do for them? Are there alternative methods that might better address the needs of struggling students?

The professor lectures, always, that we should not lecture. Citing the Marxist educator Paulo Freire’s “banking model” of education, a good teacher should never “deposit” information in students’ heads through direct instruction. I am to “facilitate learning,” not “supply knowledge.” At the same time, the professor also exhorts us to “differentiate,” in education jargon, to address the individual needs of every student. It derives from the assumption that not every student benefits from the same method. Intentional teaching will thus recognize the need for a diverse range of activities in the classroom. But not in this course: there is only focused inquiry.

That is my fundamental problem with the methodological emphasis of my teacher training. For all of my professors’ intense, often excessive focus on diversity (this semester, I have two redundant seminars that function like anti-racist sensitivity trainings. Last semester, I had two others. One is sufficient.), the intellectual diversity in my courses is pathetically narrow. Despite constantly telling us to adopt different teaching methods for different students, the professors only focus on their pet method, singular. They advise us to prepare for diversity but don’t match their own instructional practice to that need. The course fails by its own standards.

When considering the program as a whole, the methods course looks even worse: though designed to give teachers the tools they need to succeed in their first year in the classroom, the program has handed me a toolbox which, when opened, reveals nothing but a hammer and a number of dated instructional manuals on pedagogical theory. Now, I don’t doubt that that hammer — the focused inquiry — works in some contexts. But good god, why spend an entire semester learning it? The course is called “Social Studies Methods” with an ‘s.’ Please, cover something else!

I have one last infuriating anecdote that might, um, hammer that point home.

After the professor first introduced the concept of focused inquiry, I asked about what I saw as the most fundamental challenge in the process: how do we find good primary sources when we will often need to teach standards outside of our content specialty? For example, I said, I could easily write a focused inquiry with primary sources for Japanese history. But I wouldn’t know where to start for, say, India. How do we build a focused inquiry on topics for which we have little knowledge? Are there alternatives to the method? He laughed and rolled off an answer: Google it. Teachers only need to know their content better than their ignorant students; they don’t need to know it well. I just about screamed. Luckily, I was muted on Zoom.

By the end of the course, perhaps I will have perfected the method of focused inquiry if only because our professor teaches little else. But that says nothing my ability to create a good one: without strong personal content knowledge on the wide range of topics required to meet American secondary social studies standards, I will lack the resources necessary to perfect the craft. Even if I could excuse this teacher training for giving me a single hammer (I cannot.) when someday I might need a wrench or a screwdriver, what good is it without any planks or nails?

[In the next post in this series, I hope to address that problem: the shocking, continuous ignorance demonstrated by my professors]

6 thoughts on “Ed School TnT 1: Social Study Method

  1. I certainly don’t envy you having to experience all this, but it’s undeniably entertaining to read. Your “2 minute” example in particular was hilarious. It’s as if your professors think that formerly being a student in and of itself taught you nothing about how to teach. You couldn’t possibly have passively or actively observed that… That “Google it,” anecdote does comes close in hilarity though, if hilariously infuriating. Looking forward to more!

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  2. I don’t have any experience teaching, but I have plenty of being a student, and I definitely remember what I thought of teachers who couldn’t answer questions and would stick to their programs. I shall not reveal my thoughts.

    Seriously, it’s good to hear back from you. I rad the blog tagline about being sick and worried (a little) until it changed again. It’s not so good to hear about wasted studied, or rather the actual hearing is entertaining, but the realities it entails aren’t pleasant. At least I don’t have to go through the course. I’d suck at making an instagram post…

    As for promoting diversity and then sticking to your pet method, that’s the academia I know. It seems to be international.

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    1. In my constructivist heavy program, it isn’t even the problem of not being able to answer questions. Rather, that sort of content competency is taken as secondary if not irrelevant — we should instead educate through inquiry, by presenting the students with certain data or scenarios to develop the skills necessary to assess knowledge rather than simply give them knowledge. As a result, the course is all method because, in their model, good teachers should first instill good methods in their students; an ‘expert teacher’ is one that uses ‘best practice’ methods. But it just seems silly to me… We don’t think of scientists as experts in the scientific method, we think of them as experts in certain content disciplines: chemistry, physics, economics, anthropology, whatever. Methodology is of course important, but that focus goes too far in my courses.

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    2. Well, I’m Austrian. If you want to teach anything other then Elementary School you need a university degree. I’m not sure what it’s like now, as things got re-arranged drastically shortly after I graduated, but back then aspiring teachers would have the same courses as diploma students like me, plus a set of didactic coursed (which I didn’t have to take), and some practica in schools. So I suppose I’m taking it for granted that you have to know what you teach.

      The source-material + induction method has been around even when I was a student, and I hated it, because it usually amounted to “guess what the teacher is thinking,” while also telling you that you’re now smarter because you learn to think. Just straight out giving us his interpretation would have been quicker. Alternatively, it might amount to the same couple of “honor students” spouting banalities to a quietly nodding teacher (who I was never even sure if he really listened).

      The best teacher I ever had was a Latin teacher who had real passion for his subject, kept showing us or telling us about traces of Roman history still around, and kept making cross references to modern Romance languages which he insisted he didn’t speak (but could tell us more about than the designated teacher probably could). He also knew how to listen.

      So, yeah, from what you tell me what’s most annoying seems to be that they present you with an ideal student that’s rarer than a unicorn, while you’re supposed to spot them on every seat. I may be misunderstanding, though?

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    3. No, that’s about my problem. Inquiry learning is supposed to be more… engaging? or fun? And it really might* be for some students! But as I often ask in my courses, when is it most and least appropriate? The answer I get is that it’s basically always appropriate: all of our clinical observations have been on high-school classes that use nothing but inquiry learning. However, I’m just not convinced that every student enjoys, learns from, or even comprehends the process. The obvious example I always use is English Language Learners. What good is an inquiry process when they just don’t have the language ability to read the sources, discuss them, and then write reflections? That might sound like an ad absurdum argument, but America has so many immigrants that it’s a real, practical problem.

      * (I say might because we haven’t read a single study about its effectiveness. Professors declare it “best practice” on authority, which frustrates me probably more than anything else in Ed School. We’re graduate students. Show us the evidence. Why aren’t you using inquiry methods in your own courses?)

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