I sometimes am perplexed, disappointed and frustrated because so many practices in teaching are so stable in spite of the fact that there is so much evidence that what we would like to happen in classrooms and what happens are so far apart. A professor in Japan sent questionnaires to 9,000 adults with numerous questions about their experiences in learning English. Around 90% indicated that they thought that their English classes at all levels were a complete waste of time! In the US I have seen studies by various professional groups that show that more than half of high school students are bored with their classes much of the time.

Obviously surveys show only part of the picture. I meet students everywhere who love most of their classes and their teachers. Of course one option is to record, transcribe and analyze classes which students and teachers find gratifying, stimulating and in which both learn a lot. But this option has not been widely utilized as far as I know. A former student of mine has just submitted a proposal to request funds to do just this using among other techniques point of vision video cameras. I might have the jargon wrong but video cameras are mounted on the foreheads of participants so we can see what they are looking at all the time.

I am a bit consoled, or perhaps distracted by articles I read in other areas. I just “What the black box can reveal” in the April 18th edition of the Guardian. Stuart Jeffries says that the US Navy has been using ejectable black boxes for many years. When a plane crashes the black box bobs to the surface and is easily retrieved. The 787 apparently sends out the information that is recorded on the black boxes in real time. In this way, engineers on the ground can diagnose immediately what corrective measures can be taken. And in the unlikely event a plane crashes, there is no need to find the black box since all the information is available on the ground because it has been recorded and stored live as the plane was flying. Why haven’t these changes been made? Stuart Jeffries suggests two reasons: inertia and cost, realizing that the reasons are more complex. The money that has been spent on trying to find Flight 370 would have paid for changes in many planes. And the amount that airlines have spent in the last decade to have business and first class seats designed is a great deal more than installing ejectable black boxes.

Another article I just got to reading in the 17 March issue of The New Yorker is titled “New SAT practice questions” is a kind of spoof about the exam. After I read the spoof, I read “Big Score–A mother’s SAT panic” in the 3 March issue of the New Yorker. In both pieces we see the narrowness of the exams and how the original intent of the exam has been distorted. The initial goal was to enable high school students outside of New England to have a path to enter Ivy League colleges by providing an exam that showed that students from public high schools in the Midwest, for example, had abilities that would enable them to do well at Ivy Leave colleges in science in particular.  Fortunately, from my perspective, many of the top US colleges are dropping the SAT from their admission requirements each year.

The most distressing example of not seeing what is going on from a different perspective, which is the theme of the previous paragraphs is an article in the 31 March issue of the New Yorker called “Sacred and Profane”. Jenny Allen not only describes the siege of a religious group in Texas but as her subtitle indicates, how the FBI negotiators were blind! “How not to negotiate with believers” is his subtitle–his refers to Malcolm Gladwell. During the negotiations, two professors who were experts in the beliefs of those in the compound told the FBI that the usual ways they negotiated would not work.   They suggested alternative conversations over and over. But the FBI continued their standard practices that they used with terrorists and criminals. But the people in the compound were neither the professors kept insisting. Well, the FBI did not change their practices. And many innocents were killed by them as a result.

How much extra does it cost to try an alternative? In the case of teaching, most small changes would cost nothing and many would save money–not buying textbooks, wall charts–but having students bring to class materials they have already bought and want to learn from and drawing murals, etc. on walls and used newspapers.

Einstein has reported to have said, “Doing the same thing in the same way with the same result is insanity.” Well, we do that with evaluating teachers on the results of test scores of their students, of evaluating teachers through visits from supervisors, principals, etc., of evaluating teachers on test scores on licensing exams. We do that with records of flights, we do that SATs and we do that in negotiating with groups such as the one that lived in a community in Waco Texas.

Let’s continue to see how we can find ways to move in small steps to try alternatives rather than continue to be trapped by convention, inertia, or whatever you want to call not trying alternatives.

Happy Spring.

John