Those That can not do…Education, teachers and Psychology

I have to admit that before I became an academic, I believed this phrase was true “Those that can not do, teach.” This despite coming from a family of academics. Of course, now that I am on this path, I see that there are many passionate, smart, committed people who could do many other things besides teach and be successful at it. However, there is some truth to this adage, as there is with every adage. Academics tend to write for their own audience and never seem to be able to reach beyond their own peers. Their research often seems to be impractical with no long term goal of application. Many academics have no idea how to “sell” what they discover, and hence people like Malcolm Gladwell can take their research and repurpose it for a popular audience.
On the other hand the areas that academics study serve an enormous purpose for society. If not for research scientists, many people would be ignored and marginalized and many advances would never happen because in the short term, they would seem to yield so little result.

Indeed, that is what I think has happened with teaching. Our society is so focused on big picture, immediate results that we want everything bigger, faster and better, often before it is ready. And this seems to have happened with many of the excellent ideas that have come from psychology with respect to educational interventions. American society wants results now and if we can’t get results then we’re on to the next thing. So funding dries up while a promising intervention is just getting its feet wet.

The  New York Times article this weekend on proven strategies to improve teaching was an important start. Other research points to teacher inquiries whereby teachers meet once a week with each other JUST to discuss teaching. No administration issues, just sharing strategies that work. And then once they adopt the strategies, recognizing that these strategies have changed their student’s abilities. In other words, taking credit for the change, owning that they make a difference in their student’s lives rather than blame others for the student’s inability to learn.

These interventions based on research are important and help society. Without the academics studying education and learning, we would probably still all learn from recitation. Psychology examines how we do things, why we do behave as such, and then searches for ways to do it better or to replicate the success. This is very important. However, what we can do better is to focus on getting the research out to people who can use it in their everyday lives. Looking for partnerships between academics and teachers, academics and parents, academics and administrators.

In addition, and this is a societal problem, we have to remember that change takes time. It can’t happen right away and adjustments will need to be made in order to improve practice. Scale doesn’t have to happen right away. I learned this in business when I ran a small company that grew too quickly — the infrastructure wasn’t there to support the growth and the company fell apart.  This new proposal detailed in the New York Times article today seems it may be too much.

Education interventions should be allowed to take the time they need to perfect methods and to learn ways to communicate effectively their methods. Once this has happened, growth should happen at a slower pace, 5-10% most a year in order to adjust to new concerns and to build a team that can effect the change. It’s no good growing if you don’t have enough trained teachers to do the work.

This change would require patience, willingness to accept failure, and an ability to learn from mistakes and not giving up. It’s not really in the American make-up. But imagine if it was. Perhaps we need some research scientists to study that 🙂