Education Opinion

The Human-Proof Classroom

By Peter Greene — July 22, 2015 4 min read
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I am a big believer in having a teacher toolbox chock full of many and varied tools. I also believe that just because a tool doesn’t work well for me, that doesn’t mean it can’t work for someone else.

Nevertheless, there are some approaches that simply don’t belong in a classroom ever.

Take scripting. Scripted lessons have been with us for a while, even before the folks at EngageNY decided that having teachers travel in lockstep through units was somehow a good idea.

Scripting has always had apologists. Way back in 2007, Georgia teacher educator Michelle Commeyras took to the pages of the Phi Delta Kappa magazine to make a half-hearted case for scripting. Commeyras traces the modern scripted lesson back to Siegfried Engelmann and Carl Bereiter, “who in the 1960s developed the direct instruction method of teaching reading to raise the academic success of inner-city children.” This is unsurprising; rich school districts will be looking for teachers who know what they’re talking about, not those who need a script.

Commeyras shared my attitude--at first. But she insisted that the more she watched teachers work from scripts, the more she saw good teachers who made individual choices. In other words, they worked over and above the script. Beyond the script. Off the script. Which is kind of my point. If you need a script to work in a classroom, you don’t belong in a classroom.

Commeyras was writing in 2007, before the newest, biggest wave of reformsterism hit the beach like a tanker full of whale carcasses, each one of those carcasses stamped “teacher-proof.” Publishers promised programs that could not be bollixed up by a teacher. Just open the box, hand out the materials, read the script, and deliver the content.

Commeyras offered an analogy that has been oft-repeated--it’s just like having an actor read a script, bringing the character to life through the actor’s choices, movement, reading, and action. Different actors can still make different choices; Ryan Gosling and Mel Brooks would make very different Hamlets.

But the actor analogy doesn’t hold up. Actors and playwrights collaborate to bring a character to life, to put a living breathing human in front of the audience. Manufacturers of teaching scripts are doing the opposite--doing their best to erase every tiny piece of real, live human from the teacher’s performance. Shakespeare wrote lines and it makes all the difference who reads them. But it’s supposed to make no difference at all which “actor” delivers a Success for All lesson.

But reading Edushyster today made me realize just how much worse things have gotten. Amy Berard’s account of being coached in the No Nonsense Nurturing school of schooling is profoundly horrifying, with Berard forced to work with an earpiece so that her edu-coaches can admonish her to stop using inflection and personality in her speaking while being sure to “narrate” the class aloud, a technique so ludicrously mockable that, in fact, her students started mocking it.

I had no choice but to go look up the masters of No Nonsense Nurturing, and it’s a dark, sad picture. I found plenty of thick websitery to wade through, but some kind soul has distilled a presentation down to the high points, which is less depressing than reading a full syllabus.

There is literally nothing here you haven’t seen before. Don’t be an enabler. No excuses. Give precise instructions. Keep your vocal affect flat. Lee Canter. A color-coded behavior system. Attention-commanding signals (like a hand clap and response). Ignore negative behavior, but visit “consequences” upon it (unless you reach level Red, in which case send the kid to the office). Oh, and “be authentic” (which they must have been skipping over the day they told Berard that her voice was pitched too high).

There are two striking features of this program.

The first reminds me of the knd of management training we used to mock at my old summer job, the kind of training where folks are taught to mimic the behavior of carbon-based life forms (always use the other person’s name to address them). It’s not that some of this is not correct. It’s that if you need to be told to do it, you probably will not do it well, at all. If you are focusing on positive behaviors according to a system instead of according to sense, you’re probably doing it in a highly artificial and ineffective way.

But the other feature I’m struck by is how this goes scripted lessons one better. Our old goal was to teacher proof the classroom, but NNN also minimizes the importance of the individual student as well. Like the no excuses schools that it fits so well with (one of the endorsements comes from a KIPP school boass), it demands that students take their places as cogs in a machine.

The reformster dream is not teacher-centered learning or student-centered learning or even curriculum-based learning. This is a classroom centered around a content delivery system, and every one-- teachers, students, parents, strangers on the street-- is to submit themselves to the system.

On the NNN summary I found these two statements of belief parked unironically side by side:

I have to earn the respect of my students.

I expect 100% compliance from all of my students, 100% of the time.

Compliance and respect have nothing do with each other, but systems demand compliance. Teachers muct comply with the system. Students must comply with the teachers. The content and testing will be designed for easiest compliance. Our content delivery module will be teacher-proof, student-proof, and just generally proof against all of the relationships, feelings, humanity and individuality that humans cart around like a pile of messy, unwelcome baggage. All will serve their rightful master-- the system.

The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.