Friday, January 11, 2013

Artisanal Teaching

Was joking a few weeks ago with @guster4lovers about maybe we should call the variety of methods of which the "flip" just seems to be the glomming on word artisanal teaching.  Since that day, the thought has really stuck in my mind very strongly.

There is hardly a person in education, whether a pro-charter reformer, or a staunch public school supporter who doesn't feel that something is broken.  There are disagreements at the fundamental level as to what that is, money, teachers, etc.  But one thing that a lot of folks would agree on is that the way schools currently run is based on an old model.  (Yes, there are folks that advocate a return to 19th century methods as well, I will ignore that!)

Particularly in public schools, but having taught in private, it isn't a whole lot different there, the de facto set up is the factory model.  I.e., we can dispense the most learning to the most students by working in the same efficient ways in every school, in every place, for all students.  Everyone starts at the same time, goes for the same amount of hours, takes mostly the same classes, entirely dependent on age level (which, wow, is a post for another day).

This model considers students to be replaceable parts in a well oiled machine.  This is another reason that we have this weird obsession with using business models in education, as though there were a product to produce.

Students are not commodities, they are not products.  When you commoditize them, you dehumanize them.

This sent me back to the word that I almost hate to use because the word artisan has a "hipster" sort of flair that I pretty assiduously avoid.  Plus, my use of it makes it sound like there is still a product to be created, which is probably a fair argument.

I think the difference though is that in the artisan mindset, each product is theoretically created, not produced.  There is art and craft involved.  If you've ever worked in a factory, which I have, there is no art and craft, there is deadline, there is amount produced, there is workflow.  At one point I could cap 12 gallon bottles, box them, tape the boxes and stack them in 28 seconds.  And then do it again, and again, and again.

I have days like that teaching too, where I feel like I'm doing the same lessons, that each class is another class, but those are bad days.

On most days, I think about the personality of each class, (yes, whole classes have personalities!), and especially of the students within it.  Some students barely need me to stop, check in with them, check their work, pat them on the back and move on.  Some want to ask me a hundred questions.  Some want to talk to me about a video game or a movie before I can refocus them.  When I am an artist, I don't try to force them to all act the same, to all learn the same.  Last semester I had 3 classes, all of the exact same subject, at wildly different points, and within the classes, individual students are groups were at different points.

I love it...

This is an odd secret to reveal on a blog, especially since I teach science, and not just any science, but one governed by rules, Chemistry.  But I still consider myself as someone who teaches more by art than by science.  Oh, I have data out the wazoo, spreadsheets, item analysis, average # of students that missed whatever question.  Generating numbers isn't difficult.  Even using the numbers isn't that hard.

But to get a student to visualize a VSEPR model, not to memorize it, but actually visualize it, that takes art, not science.  It takes continued attention to the ingredients that go into the art, solid content, enthusiasm, some high tech methods, and a sprinkle of benevolent sarcasm.  I have literally read books on how you should teach science and other subjects, and they generally want me to buy into their method, as though dough in San Francisco is the same as dough in New York.  That's not true for bread and it is exponentially more not true for people!

A naysayer (say, myself 10 years ago) would say, that's nice hippie, but we have thousands of kids to educate, or a teacher might say, yeah, but I have 30 kids in each class.

I do too.  The fact that I have 3 children doesn't mean that I can't love them as much as if I had only one. Yes, it is tough to give the same one on one attention, but it is doable.  Don't get me wrong, I love class sizes of 20, but that's not the world we live in in public ed.  Leverage your resources to make it work, investigate, try new things out.  See what works for others and adapt, or try it out and feel free to discard it.

Try a new palette, use some new ingredients, be an artisanal teacher this semester, not another worker on the line.

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