Friday, January 22, 2010

Theodore Sizer on the importance of coaching

Ted Sizer wrote the 1984 educational classic, Horace's Dilemma, which explored the American high school. It seems that despite the very best intentions and efforts of high school teachers, administrators and communities, little change has come in the last 25 years since Sizer's book was first published. While schools wrestle with the challenge of imparting measurable knowledge, it seems the important thing is not knowledge but skill.
"Schools that always insist on the right answer with no concern as to how a student reaches it, smother the student's efforts to become an effective intuitive thinker. A person who is groping to understand and is on a fruitful but somewhat misdirected track, needs to learn how to redirect his thoughts and to try a parallel but somewhat different scheme. Simply telling that person that he is wrong throws away the opportunity to engage him in questions about his logic and approach. Well-directed questions by teachers can promote ever more effective intuition, albeit often by a process that is difficult to ascertain. Nonetheless, like aspirin whose precise functioning we do not understand, it works.

"Schools value strictly orderly thinking. The computer, with its special form of algorithmic "reasoning," reinforces this predilection. Some adults in schools dismiss all other kinds of thinking as playing around making mudpies. For them, intuition and imagination are not really serious pursuits. The trial-and-error procedures involved are too messy. accordingly, they get short shrift in far too many schools, with sad costs to the individuals and their communities.

"In sum, these skills--reading, writing, speaking, listening, measuring, estimating, calculating, seeing--an the basic modes of imagining and of reasoning should be at the core of high school work. They should pervade all subjects offered and be visibly and reviewably part of the school program."
Sizer goes on to point out that the most effective teaching is in the form of coaching. It is a lot like what happens in shop class or on the athletic field. The student must have a foundation for what he or she learns through doing, through action. An effective coach offers encouragement and guidance through which real skill is lifted to a higher level.

If we want education to blossom in America, and I believe we deserve it, we will place the arts (including woodshop) as central to education, making the entire education of our students "hands-on." While some as Sizer suggests, will think it messy, do we prefer to waste our time, teaching, and money on something that just won't work? ...that is near guaranteed to not work for most students in the first place?

In other words, what is the good of knowing stuff if we know how to do diddly squat?

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