Letters To The Editor
The well-meaning attempts on the part of the 600 educators who met at Harvard University last month will, I predict, come to naught ("Emerging Interest in Reasoning Skills Marks Meeting on 'Critical Thinking,"' Education Week, Aug. 29, 1984).
The "decline in reasoning and problem-solving skills among the nation's students" did not take place, as the article states, in the last 10 years. There never was any sustained or effective effort to teach reasoning and problem-solving skills in any subject.
The research done by James Barth and myself at Purdue University during the last 20 years on the history of the social-studies movement in this country has led us to the conclusion that, despite attempts ranging from John Dewey's 1910 How We Think to the present, schools do not teach decisionmaking, problem-solving, or critical thinking.
Dewey's fondest hope in the first half of this century was to create a revolution in teaching that would move teachers away from a combination of indoctrination in culturally approved values and rote memorization of atomistic and disconnected concepts.
The 1916 Social Studies Commission, without defining what they meant by "social problem," nevertheless recommended the study of social problems so that future citizens would exercise rationality and the kind of decisionmaking thought to be appropriate to a self-governing society. Indeed, there is an unbroken history of reformers and philosophers in education making the same point: Students need to be taught critical thinking, reasoning, and analytical skills.
None of these requests for more thoughtful teaching has succeeded. For the most part, schools were never designed to teach thinking or analytical skills or any of the dozen other similar aims advocated by critics. Schools were designed to accomplish many goals--to unify throngs of European immigrant children, inculcate patriotic devotion, develop character and discipline, and provide docile workers for the factory and workplace. But none of these is compatible with the acquisition of independent critical skills. They are indeed the very antithesis.
Should the Harvard conference yield yet another round of reformers, they will in due time suffer the same fate as that of academic reformers of the 1960's and 1970's who wanted to teach the analytical skills of the various disciplines. The efforts are unlikely to meet with formal objections from teachers, administrators, or other educators. Schools will, however, continue to do as they have for the entire century: While acquiescing in the need for training in critical thought, they will continue to teach in the same fashion, what Lawrence Metcalf of Illinois University calls "relentless indoctrination in right belief." One need not be either the Oracle of Delphi or Cassandra to make such a gloomy prediction: A look at the history of reform movements in this country, I think, will lead anyone to the same conclusion.
S. Samuel Shermis Associate Professor Department of Education Purdue University West Lafayette, Ind.
In his recent Commentary ("'Snoopervisors,' Critics, and Mentors: The Plight of Beginning Teachers," Education Week, Aug. 29, 1984), Paul Woodring expresses serious doubts about the "unconventional wisdom" of the system that uses supervisors to observe and evaluate teachers, especially new ones, and cites three problems that are inherent with supervisors. I find it difficult to accept his premise in each--that teachers are so weak they must be sheltered from a system of supervision that is accepted in almost every profession or other occupation.
The student teacher is observed by two people: the teacher who consults with the novice every day and the college supervisor who comes two or three times per semester. The main evaluation comes from the regular classroom teacher who, in turn, consults with the college supervisor. Surely we hope that our colleges will choose a person well qualified to evaluate a new teacher. If not, our problem lies with that college, not with the system.
Mr. Woodring's second concern is that evaluating a teacher based on one hour of observation is like judging a novel by reading only several pages from the middle of a book. Am I to understand that even when teacher and supervisor meet before and after a class is observed, no valid judgment can be made? This cannot be compared with reading a few pages of a novel and offering judgment. Besides, it is not necessary to eat the whole egg to find out whether it is good or bad.
The third difficulty gives me the greatest concern. Mr. Woodring compares the reaction of a teacher being observed to that of an actor suffering from stage fright. Has Mr. Woodring ever read a review written by a newspaper critic who states that it is not fair to judge an actor because he probably suffers from stage fright? Also, would anyone like to be the patient of a surgeon who becomes nervous during an operation when the chief of surgery walks into the operating room?
The system of teacher observation can function properly when teacher and observer have received proper training. If a teacher knows when the observation will take place and what the main focus of that observation will be, training plus preparation should overcome the nervousness that any novice may experience. The teacher who cannot overcome that problem may not be the most suitable person to stand in front of a classroom.
I want to see the teacher giving the best performance. I know what the worst one is. The observation is to build on the individual's strengths and improve the weaknesses.
Good teachers have something in common no matter what their subject matter. They radiate enthusiasm and confidence, they are well organized, they waste little or no time, and they are aware of everything that goes on in their classroom. All these traits can be observed by a qualified administrator and supervisor.
Isolating a teacher from administrative supervision is not necessarily the answer. The teacher-supervising system is doing well, but we may need some closer supervision of those who do the supervising.
Henry S. Baum Principal Cody High School Detroit, Mich.
I have read and studied each issue of Education Week I have received. However, because of the very issues you have touched upon in your articles, I have resigned from my teaching position and will no longer be subscribing to your newspaper.
My particular problem was the lack of awareness and support from my school's administration--I could have been playing tiddly-winks with my students. The only times they visited my classroom were to check on physical items such as leaking roofs in the new building. Tossing an extra class to me solved their problem and I could "do what you can."
Burnout? Perhaps. What had been a daily challenge became a slogging through hoping to get to the paperwork.
There are few professions or work situations that offer the rewards of teaching--that electric pulse when one student suddenly "gets it." I miss the planning for new ways to present basic materials. I miss the kids.
But I do not miss being ignored or considered less important than a lost basketball or an order of paper towels.
Thanks for the pleasure of reading the wide variety of articles in your paper.
A. Carman Clark Former 7th-grade teacher Thomaston Grammar School Union, Me.
In the last paragraph of the second column of my Commentary ("Recognizing Writing as the Key to Learning," Education Week, Sept. 5, 1984), "... red-penciling makes teachers feel like they are doing something" takes the place of my "These are easy to spot, and red-penciling them feels good." Following this grammatically incorrect substitution only two sentences farther along, the article makes the point, "Correct English is important, and there's no use pretending it's not."
This may seem trivial; but given the context, the troublesome becomes grievous. I fully expect to hear about it from readers who know me, and I shouldn't be surprised if you hear, too.
James M. Howard Jr. Former Editor Basic Education Westport, Mass.
Editor's note: We agree, and we feel bad (right?).
A picture of Pope John Paul II on your front page is an attraction for the readers of your newspaper ("Activism Spurring Politics of Church and State," Education Week, Sept. 19, 1984). I was disappointed, however, to find such negativism toward funding in any way for nonpublic schools. Diversity in education presents a good challenge to all in education. A closer look at what is happening in all schools becomes urgent when there is good competition. I was upset to find you "using" a very good, holy man's picture to draw the attention of readers.
Sister Anne Francine Principal St. Luke's School Baltimore, Md.