School & District Management Opinion

Dave Greene: Time for The Practical Wisdom of Teaching

By Anthony Cody — February 18, 2011 6 min read
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I recently featured a conversation between a former Teach For America intern and his mentor, Dave Greene. Today, we have a follow-up post from Mr. Greene, expressing some of the frustration many of us feel as a result of the current direction of education in America.


Apparently many of us need to say this more and say it out loud and in public. I am so fed up; I am even willing to quote Spiro Agnew. “The nattering nabobs of negativism” who influence education policy need to be halted. Teachers teach. Well-trained teachers teach better. Great teachers change lives. Tests don’t. Why then are we so linked to tests (and poorly devised ones at that) as the sole measure of accountability? Several authors have theories. Many (like Diane Ravitch) point out that over the past two decades education policy has fallen into the hands of policy makers bred and influenced by major corporations and the foundations they support. The Gates Foundation (Bill recently called for the end of master degree requirements and pay increases for gaining more knowledge and expertise. Of course, isn’t he a college drop out?) and The Fordham (not University) Institute are two good examples.

They still live by the standard of industrial America developed a full century ago by Frederick W. Taylor. Captains of Industry (Robber Barons) supported Scientific Management, as it was called, in order to make their employees more productive. Sound familiar? Today’s policy makers want to turn teachers into industrial employees churning students out like Ford workers churned out model T’s. Taylor and his followers turned efficiency into the justification for such changes. The industrial leaders of the day believed implementation of scientific management would benefit both workers and society at-large. Today’s policy makers have bought it hook line and sinker. Look at today’s best example. New York City schools are totally controlled by a financial “Captain of Industry” and his newest henchwoman, Kathie Black. Nowhere more than in NYC is “Taylorism” being used to run schools.

I see two notable problems with this approach. First, kids aren’t identical mass produced Model-T’s. They aren’t PCs either. They are human beings. Second, teachers aren’t industrial machines. They are professionals like doctors, lawyers, accountants, and yes, even MBA granted businessmen. They need to be treated as such. Or are we suffering another Industrial disease? (with apologies to Mark Knopfler and DIre Straits).

Barry Schwartz, of Swarthmore College, writes and talks about “Practical Wisdom.” It seems that with all the hoopla about education reform and who is right about what it should look like, the powers that be simply keep overlooking practical wisdom - do the right thing the right way for the right reason. It seems they are only concerned with who is right about deciding the right way. And, it seems, once getting the power to decide their way is right they set up iron clad rules to exclude other ways. This systemic approach also appeals to reformers because it is supposedly “fool-proof”. So any teacher who can follow the model can do it. No tinkering, thinking, or practical wisdom required.

Detailed procedures or scripts are created to ensure that young inexperienced teachers, more and more TFA recruited, will fit right in to the “right” system’s “right” way of doing education “right”. These scripts also theoretically ensure that more experienced poor, mediocre, fair, or even fairly good teachers get on board with the program the “right” way. However what do these prescribed scripts do to the very best creative and successful teachers who do not fit into the new “right”? Do they stop doing what worked extremely well? Do they stop using their practical wisdom?

According to Schwartz, one of the reformers’ new right ways is behavior modification using incentives and negative sanctioning. They believe that, in our market based educational reform scheme, self-interest (or selfishness) will get everyone to do the reformers’ right things. So we offer bonus pay for higher test scores and threaten loss of job for lower test scores as if the test scores on poorly designed tests actually matter as much as the market based educators think.

Guess what? Psychologists know that doesn’t work with kids or adults. They know it simply changes what is important to them. It changes the rules of the survival game. So, most teachers, being easily swayed by the incentives, simply stop helping kids learn and ensure they do well on the tests. These are not the same goals or achievements.

In a talk Schwartz did for TED.com, entitled Using Our Practical Wisdom, he tells a story about Aristotle.

“Aristotle was very interested in watching how the craftsmen around him worked. And he was impressed at how they would improvise novel solutions to novel problems -- problems that they hadn’t anticipated. So one example is he sees these stonemasons working on the Isle of Lesbos, and they need to measure out round columns. Well if you think about it, it’s really hard to measure out round columns using a ruler. So what do they do? They fashion a novel solution to the problem. They created a ruler that bends, what we would call these days a tape measure -- a flexible rule, a rule that bends. And Aristotle said, hah, they appreciated that sometimes to design rounded columns, you need to bend the rule. And Aristotle said often in dealing with other people, we need to bend the rules.”

The moral of this story is obvious. We need wise teachers, not scripted robots. As Schwartz put it in his TED talk, “A wise person knows when to improvise. And most important, a wise person does this improvising and rule-bending in the service of the right aims.”

Weren’t your best teachers those who had this practical wisdom? Weren’t they the ones who had character, along with certain principles and virtues that you may have not appreciated at the time? Weren’t they the ones who obviously loved their work and you as a result? Weren’t they the ones who almost always seemed to do the right things for the right reasons, the right way? And weren’t they usually creative and different from everyone else.

David Greene is a former Social Studies teacher and coach in NYC, Woodlands HS, and Scarsdale HS. He presently is a field supervisor for Fordham University, mentoring Teach For America interns in the Bronx. He is a staff member of WISE Services, an organization that helps high schools create and run experiential learning programs for seniors. He is an advisor to the Foundation For Male Studies, a HS football coach, and a member of the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action Organizing Committee.

Mr. Greene has been referenced by Christina Hoff Sommers, in her book, The War against Boys. He has given talks on the issues of boys in schools in Scarsdale and for Dominican College. He assisted in the organization of The Foundation For Male Studies’ Second Annual Conference On Male Studies: Looking Forward to Solutions. He has had work published in Ed Week on line and has also been referenced by Valerie Strauss in her Washington Post web based column, The Answer Sheet. Finally, he is a regular contributor to The Teachers Talk Back Blog and is also currently working on a book tentatively titled, So You Think You Know Education? A Teacher’s Perspective.

What do you think? Have we traded practical wisdom in our drive to make education efficient?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.