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Can’t teach? Then cause learning.

December 31st, 2014

by Robert G. Ketchum, Ph.D.

“I cannot teach anybody anything; I can only make them think.” – Socrates

 The history of teaching in America is defined by the perception of the low value of teachers. In the 1890’s, Horace Mann advocated the hiring of female teachers since they could be paid less than men! And, he added, would focus on bringing “love and order” to what were then viewed as disorderly male-led classrooms. High expectation liberal arts school educated teachers were replaced with normal school (dedicated teacher education schools) graduates. For two hundred years, America has talked of the importance of teachers while deriding their lack of knowledge and skill. Now we have shifted toward the ultimate expression of a high-stakes testing approach to school-based learning that may finally eliminate intellectual inquiry from the teaching profession. Successful answers to a narrowly defined set of exams will drive teacher behavior. Poor student test results could put newly minted teachers, faced with the burden of student loans for a four-year teaching degree, on the street looking for a new occupation. That risk will drive all classroom behavior by teachers.

In the current conversation about education, everyone is an expert, particularly elected officials. This claimed expertise often comes from having been through school. Not unlike claiming expertise in surgery–because you once had a surgery. Those who have not (and would not) teach in a classroom usually make the policy decisions regarding education.

If Socrates was right, what does that mean for the expanded effort to force ever more knowledge into the heads of students–in shorter periods of time? Should teachers just talk faster? How does project-based learning, long the foundation of career and technical education, fit in this environment? Adult working life is often a steady stream of projects. These projects are executed in a collaborative environment with ever increasing access to knowledge and information. Remembering is obsolete in many fields of endeavor.

The evidence is clear that technology deskills the workforce rather than increasing skill. Have you read about the new target tracking rifles on the market? For the still high cost of purchase, any inept hunter may become one of the most accurate shooters in history. This technology represents another area of human skill that will enter decline. New evidence confirms that pilots who rely too much on automated flight technology, and become ill prepared to deal with emergencies requiring human pilot skill. Don’t let anyone fool you with the message that rising technology drives higher skill levels.

The role of education in our economy is a complex picture. How do we persuade young people that a large debt load is a good price to pay for higher education? How do we assure that K-12 education produces graduates that can feed himself or herself, while navigating a changing economy?

How we respond to these challenges will help determine the economy our children will face. I met this week with a visiting scholar at the University of Idaho from China. She is an educator in career and technology education, and is researching how the USA develops its career and technical education teachers. Her research is part of China’s broad effort to expand career and technical education in the face of economic needs. China is faced with a need to rebalance the numbers of university graduates that have flooded China’s job market, a large task indeed.

I am reminded of Socrates, no one can teach me anything; I can only be caused to think.

Previously published in the North Idaho Business Journal

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