What is the right way to eat? What is the right way to teach? I am putting these two questions together for a reason: The approaches we have been using to stay fit, lose weight, and get healthy have a lot in common with the approaches we are using in education to improve teaching and learning. The result? The more we rely on science and research and standards—be they the Common Core State Standards, or otherwise—the less nutritious our education diets have become. A close look at how we get our food and how and why it has lost nutritional value offers a good analogy for what’s going wrong in education.
The journalist Michael Pollan, who for many years has been studying our eating habits and the food system that supports them, identifies a number of problems at the root of what’s happened to the contemporary diet. One of the major culprits—"nutritionism"—is our increasing reliance on science to dissect our food and tell us what to eat. As Pollan points out, the problem with this scenario is twofold: Food and what it offers is simply too complex to break down in a way that we can reassemble it and get everything our bodies need. And the search for antioxidants, vitamins, and other specific nutrients has opened the door for manufacturers to create edible food products with all the “right” ingredients, market them to us as healthy, and then cash in. This isn’t nutrition, and it certainly isn’t food.
There is a strong argument to be made that what we are serving up in our schools isn’t food, either. Just as the problem with today’s American diet begins with an overreliance on isolated nutrients, the problem with American education begins with an overreliance on isolated standards. We wrongly imagine that a curriculum based on a definitive cataloguing of skill sets will yield a rich education diet, but mostly it doesn’t.
What it does yield is an often very expensive set of materials from publishers who go to great pains to reassure teachers and their districts that, for example, all of the common standards are covered. All teachers have to do is open the package, slam it in the microwave, and set it on the table. This isn’t teaching, and any learning that happens in the process is often just an accidental byproduct or the result of a herculean effort and ingenuity to ignore and supplement, as necessary.
As a former teacher trained to use various standards-based curricula, I found the whole experience frustrating and unappetizing, and I am urging education leaders to stop relying on standards, stop looking at research-based approaches, and stop evaluating materials. What they should be studying is Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked, in which he exhorts Americans to get back into the kitchen and do some home cooking. What we need in our schools are great cooks, not more standards or greater and more complex curricula.
As any cooks worth their salt can tell you, preparing wholesome and appetizing meals is not learned overnight. It often comes from long hours, days, and, indeed, years in the kitchen, apprenticing until the chefs in our lives allow us to assume more responsibility. By toddling beside our mothers (and one hopes, our fathers), we learn how to shop for what’s in season and what’s fresh, and judge appropriate ingredients so that the flavors work in concert. Much of this knowledge is passed down from master to student, some is learned from books, and the rest through trial and error. Unfortunately, the way teaching is structured—the very job itself—makes it impossible for teachers to develop their practice in a similar fashion.
To be specific:
Teachers work alone. They spend five to six hours of every single workday in a room with children. Any efforts to get teachers to learn from one another, share ideas, or work together are sideshows that occur on the margins of their days. I was dragged through these exercises. They yield little but snide jokes and hurried efforts to produce something on paper that will satisfy administrators so everyone can go home to face a mountain of essays to grade (alone). We need an overhauling of the entire teaching structure so that instead of working untethered, teachers can work in teams, sharing genuine responsibility for student learning.
Teachers are not properly mentored. When a teacher comes to work, she is often told she will have a mentor. The mentoring, however, typically takes place after the students have left the classroom. During the school day, the new teacher is alone and struggling without engaged adults to show her the ropes. (Note: The key word here is engaged.) Both mentor and protégée need to be equally invested in the outcome. If they aren’t, the mentor’s role is reduced to a kindly, disinterested neighbor who suggests you try a little more seasoning before returning to her own pot roast.
Teachers have no career path. Most teachers will be doing the same thing on the last day of the job that they did on the first. When I left teaching almost 30 years ago for the first time—I’ve since returned twice—and began a career in publishing, this was the reason. I saw the years stretching out ahead of me, locked in that same room with the same students, and as much as I loved the work, this scared me. I wanted a multidimensional career that would allow me to develop in my field and continue to work with students without always, always being on the front lines, alone.
My vision of a great job to reach for? A master teacher leading a team of three or four educators at different levels of experience and expertise—a chef and her sous chefs—working together to oversee the learning of the same group of students. Ideally, we not only would be responsible for cooking up the curriculum, we’d also have the discretion to set the ebb and flow of our daily work.
Unfortunately, many in education who are reading this will protest that education is, in fact, moving in the direction I describe. They might suggest, for example, that we consider the whole new phenomenon of teacher-leaders and teacherpreneurs—yes, that is a new buzzword. But look closely at these roles, and you realize they are few and far between and last only briefly. They give a teacher some time off to sit on a committee or lead a community effort for a semester or two, while also being responsible for maintaining most of the daily classroom duties.
Just as the problem with today's American diet begins with an overreliance on isolated nutrients, the problem with American education begins with an overreliance on isolated standards."
The sad truth is we are scaring the great cooks away from education. Teaching, as currently conceived, is a job that only the most profoundly dedicated and self-abnegating or uncritical or uncreative would want to commit to as their life’s work. You want high-quality education for your children? You have to attract high-quality teachers.
The team-based model I have outlined might require investing more money in teachers. But it would also free up a brave district to spend considerably less on the fancy materials and attendant elaborate trainings. Michael Pollan makes the point that we have outsourced the job of feeding ourselves to corporations. We have done the same thing with learning.
There is magic in cooking, Pollan says, pointing out that the words “cook,” “butcher,” and “priest” are equivalent in Greek, and that they share the root word “magic.” Learning, true learning, is magical. And yet, teaching isn’t any more mysterious or special than preparing good home cooking was decades ago. And there are many people out there who can and are, in fact, aching to do it. Many of them are already in the classroom, and others would be attracted to the profession if they could truly dig in and make a difference. Let’s free them up to do some real home cooking and see what magic they can make.
A version of this article appeared in the August 28, 2013 edition of Education Week as The Best Education Diet? Real Food, Prepared Well