There is no greater challenge than to stand in front of a classroom and to reach a diverse group of students. The ability, the talent and the support that is required to pay more than lip service to the claim that teachers are in fact teaching, is uncommon at best.
As we seek to develop a better understanding about what it means to be an effective teacher, we should perhaps study the experts in the art of challenging received opinion. In particular, Socrates embodied the standards that every competent scholar values, and it is perhaps prudent to examine his contribution to the field of education. His many credits include the fact that he admonished us to think for ourselves, to ask the right questions, to accept our ignorance and finally, he boldly claimed that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Socrates essentially developed methodology and technique which demonstrated the power of the dialectic and earned universal and timeless approval in the process.
We can dismiss Socrates for the sake of the politically correct view that his methodology is confrontational, or we can accept the simple fact that the pursuit of knowledge demands intellectual discipline. Needless to say, if we dismiss Socratic methodology, we essentially sustain the level of arrogance and pretense that Socrates exposed, and what is the point of that? Clearly, if we are talking about education, it is not even remotely possible to credibly claim that the man who promoted the individual pursuit of knowledge was confrontational. Socrates betrayed the ignorance of the “the keepers of truth” and defined the meaning of education in the process, he did not confront anything beyond ignorance. In particular, the most effective way to draw knowledge is to examine and to expose the implications of student responses, and every competent educator, consciously or not, uses the methodology and the techniques that Socrates made famous.
Confrontation relates to imposing expectations, not to exposing ignorance. Good teachers are not confrontational, and bad teachers, whether they are mere incompetent or special interest advocates who impose expectations, do not know the difference. In 1580, Montaigne, a keen, French intellect, defined the stark contrast between those who teach and those who impose their convictions when he said:
Our tutors never stop bawling into our ears, as though they were pouring water into a funnel; and our task is only to repeat what has been told us. I should like the tutor to correct this practice, and right from the start, according to the capacity of the mind he has in hand, to begin putting it through paces, making it taste things, choose them, and discern them by itself; sometimes clearing the way for him, sometimes letting him clear his own way. I don’t want him to think and talk alone, I want him to listen to his pupils speaking in his turn. Socrates, and latter Arcesilaus, first had their disciples speak, and then they spoke to them. The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.
Voices that echo the practice of effective teaching include Doctor W.A. Mackay, who perceptively described the condition of education as it existed in Upper Canada in the 1840’s, when he said;
They [teachers] knew little of the theory of learning. In the main they erred in applying themselves to the repression of the evil in the pupil, rather than to the development of the good. It is said of that great teacher, Doctor Arnold, of Rugby, that his aim in teaching was not so much to impart knowledge as to impress upon his pupils a sense of the value of knowledge, with a view to stimulating them to seek it. The pioneer teachers were far from being Arnolds, and yet their motives and aims were undoubtedly good. They certainly did not, in their ideals, rise above their environment; and like all teachers of that generation, they had strong faith in the efficacy of corporal punishment.
We have come a long way since the 1840’s. In particular, Dr. Northrop Frye, Canada’s very own answer to the the intellectual authority that Socrates claimed, was a social visionary who deserves widespread acknowledgment. In his book, On Education, Northrop Frye speaks to us "as a teacher whose main focus of interest has always been the classroom", and he discusses a pre-eminent teaching career that spanned the depression, the second world war, the cold war, the 1960’s, the 1970’s, the 1980’s and the beginning of the 1990’s. Like Montaigne and Dr. Mackay, Dr. Frye essentially confirmed the dynamics of effective teaching when he said: "The more mature the student, the less the teacher becomes the dispenser of learning, and the more he becomes a transparent medium of it. In the primary grades the teacher is an apparition from a strange and mysterious adult world; by the end of secondary school he should have become a fellow-student." Every great teacher emphasizes the need to pursue knowledge, because scholarship ultimately defines the quality of educaion. In the words of Northrop Frye; "The majority of competent scholars are also competent teachers, and become so without benefit of any instruction in teaching. Those interested solely in teaching, on the other hand, often find that their lack of interest in scholarship increasingly isolates them from the classroom as well as from every other aspect of university life."
One of the obstacles which has made it difficult to apply the lofty ideals that reform-minded educators emphasize is the tendency to polarize freedom and discipline. It is a tendency which contains extremely serious negative implications because it defies the psychological precept that growth is the integration of seemingly opposite values. As it relates to education, scholarship is essentially a product of freedom in the presence of knowledge and discipline is the only avenue towards acquiring knowledge. Indeed, the freedom to learn and the discipline to provide the opportunity, are mutually interdependent. Freedom without discipline is chaos and discipline without freedom is indoctrination. It is both essential and vital to put freedom and discipline on the same plane when dealing with education because the failure to do so produces a system that is high on pretense and regulation and low in the quality of education. A recent letter to the editor of the New York Times (January 23, 2000) reflects the essential problem that teachers in the U.S. currently confront, when educators and regulators lock horns. In the words of a concerned teacher:
One of the most unattractive features of teaching in public schools is the plethora of moribund bureaucratic regulations imposed routinely by states desperate to appear as if they are doing something to improve public education.
As my more talented and dedicated colleagues and I struggle daily with Byzantine state regulations masquerading as "standards," we cannot help but wonder if a dose of academic freedom would not do more to welcome creative and innovative individuals to the profession than would additional state regulations.
Like our American counterparts, we are forever reminded that the zeal to regulate is far more prevalent than the effort to supply our teachers with the resources they require, to become more effective educators. Needless to say, the undirected initiatives of individual teachers are entirely responsible for any improvement that does in fact materialize. We can call the unresponsive regulations that bureaucrats impose “standards”, but if we apply these gimmicks to the world of business, we will produce the equivalency of “bankrupt” schools.
Standards are difficult to impose, and Dr. Northrop Frye essentially illustrates the complexity when he says;
It follows that such a cliche as "teaching the student to think for himself" is not a simple conception either. In ordinary social experience, thinking for oneself is a matter of putting one's expressive energies into socially acceptable forms. In real thinking we first study a given subject long enough to enable its laws and categories to take possession of our minds, after which we may move around the subject with some freedom. There is no real thought outside such disciplines.
The need to hire people who are qualified to meet complex challenges is obvious, but there is an extreme lack of leadership in the area of identifying teachers who "walk the talk". In the final analysis, schools will never improve unless they manage to bridge the gap between rhetoric and practice. In my experience, too many students reject the value of teacher training and when new teachers are derisive about the value of the education they receive, how can they possibly develop the skills they require to teach? If they can't even respect their own professors, how can they ever respect their own students? Beyond the arrogance of the failure to learn from proven scholars, the lack of individual initiative exasperates the effort to hire people who are qualified to teach. Dr. Northrop Frye essentially highlighted this additional roadblock, when he said;
Most of these [university] students will, inevitably, be processed rather than educated, and for the really keen student in the future the great difficulty will be, not to get to university, but to get his proper education instead of processing.
If we fail to hire the best teachers, we will invariably fail to meet the challenge to deliver quality standards, and Dr. Frye's insight suggests that the barriers towards the achievement of excellence in education grow in direct proportion to the level of declining scholarship. In the words of Dr. Frye:
I have been facing groups of students for thirty years, and have never ceased to be impressed by the amount of sheer courage it takes to keep on studying and ignore the infinite resources of anti-intellectual suggestion. I have watched students resisting the temptations that came through all the guises of the second world war, the cold war, the atom bomb, the McCarthyist witch-hunts, and have finally seen the enemy enter the university itself. It is students, today, who repeat the formulas of the ignorant and stupid of a generation ago, that the university is a parasitic growth on society, that academic freedom is old-hat liberal rhetoric, that because complete objectivity is impossible degrees of objectivity do not matter, that the university seeks for a detachment that ducks out of social issues, that scholarship and research are all very well but of course aren't real life. It is not an accident that the more extreme this attitude becomes, the more closely its social effects come to resemble those of the youth movements set up by Hitler and Stalin. For the totalitarian impulse is the primitive impulse, the longing to turn to the narcotic peace of society's version of truth and reality, where we no longer have to cope with the conflicts of intellectual freedom and social concern.
In the recent past, the performance of schools in North America has been defined in terms of low student achievement which has not significantly improved from one year to the next, and if we fail to attract the best teacher candidates, performance will invariably further decline. In 1968, Living and Learning, the report which defined the aims and objectives of education in Ontario, determined that "improvement in the selection and education of teachers is fundamental to the improvement of education in Ontario," and that will always be the case.
Historically, the progress of education in North America has been reduced to a perpetual tug-of-war between reformers and traditionalists. During the 1920’s, a reform movement based on the ideas of progressive educator John Dewey initiated a movement that sought to humanize a system which was basically rigid and unresponsive. By the 1940’s, vigorous condemnation by critics who complained about the undisciplined, unorganized curriculum challenged the opportunity to give progressive ideas the opportunity to mature. In the 1950’s, John Dewey was re-discovered by a quiet, progressive movement, but schools were too highly structured to tolerate widespread reform. In Canada, the reform-oriented 1960’s also fell victim to the widespread condemnation that they emphasized “process” and neglected the fundamentals. In the meantime, the fact that process and the fundamentals are essentially equal partners, was largely ignored. In the final analysis, it is the urge to learn and the discipline to provide the opportunity, which determines the quality of education.
The tug-of-war that polarizes freedom and authority is not productive. According to Dr. Frye, “we notice that as soon as we enter the world of intellect and imagination, the whole notion of an opposition between freedom and authority disappears”. The tendency to polarize stems from the faulty perception that individuality and creativity are in conflict with the welfare of the group. But when we deny creativity and individuality, we fail to adapt, we fail to grow and we fail to teach. Every reform movement was essentially a response to the belief that schools systematically destroy the natural urge to learn, and mindless structure cannot possibly restore the urge. At the very least, good teachers understand the challenge, and Dr. Northrop Frye identified the qualities that enable them, when he said:
The difference between a good and a mediocre teacher lies mainly in the emphasis the former puts on the exploring part of the mind, the aspects of learning that reveal meaning and lead to further understanding. In English, this means that ensuring that a child knows the meaning of what he reads as well as the mechanics of reading; in social and historical studies it means understanding why things happen instead of that they happened; in science it means; understanding central principles illustrated by what without them would be a bewildering variety of unrelated phenomena. Unless there is a reason and system to give direction to the memory, education burdens the memory; and however resilient a child’s memory may be, nobody is going to keep a burden in his mind an instant longer than he is compelled to.
Beyond the need to educate, teachers face the additional challenge of dealing with school violence. With CNN on patrol, parents are increasingly concerned about school violence, and that will certainly be a serious potential threat as long as schools fail to teach the 3 r’s: Respect for self, Respect for others and Responsibility for Actions. Between the ages 5 and 18, children will spend about 14,000 hours in school, and the refusal to tolerate violence demands consistent, comprehensive policy, not rhetoric. As parents spend less and less time with their children, it is increasingly important for teachers to learn more and more about their students, to be able to provide a level of guidance which maximizes the opportunity to promote healthy development. It is an immense challenge without fixed rules, beyond the general agenda that mutual respect should be consistently promoted and encouraged and all forms of bullying should be consistently challenged. The obvious intent is to diffuse hostile rivalries, but that is certainly not the only form of violence that inhabits our schools. It didn’t make the evening news, but consider the case of an elementary school child who was assaulted and sexually molested by a boy who was resourceful enough to sneak into the girls washroom. Imagine the trauma that her family is still enduring, and that should place the increasing need to teach the 3 R’s, in its proper perspective.
Unfortunately, the meaning of the word “respect” is so distorted, that the rhetoric is exceedingly difficult to apply. Indeed, we will probably never create a school environment where everybody is granted the opportunity to fulfill his or her potential, until we begin to acknowledge the power and the essence of the word “respect”. Some people act like respect is something that has to be earned and that can be measured, but if that is really the case, what is the meaning of the word self-respect? If we cannot learn to respect others, we cannot possibly claim to have genuine, self-respect, and like the word success, which can be erroneously measured in terms that are subjective, the substantive quality of the word “respect” is ultimately personal. But in terms of the ability to learn and to teach, respect is a fundamental, common currency. Effective schools subconsciously or deliberately manifest the understanding that respect is always expected and always received. The notion that respect has to be earned is widely exaggerated and fundamentally destructive.
It does not take very long for an environment where respect is not expected, granted and received, to be dominated by hostile rivalries with fundamentally distorted views about appropriate conduct. In particular, the growing divide between those who appear to have respect and those who are perceived to lack it, has been known to produce intolerable levels of resentment.
The willingness to tolerate individuality is the fundamental quality that is required to control resentment. Indeed, beyond tolerate, we should embrace and even celebrate individuality. Individuality is essentially a feeling which has to be developed, it cannot be taught, and that is why it is so critical to produce a healthy, functional school environment where discipline is linked to personal development. The zeal to impose control is a manifestation of a school environment where teachers do not receive the support they require and where students expect to be threatened and intimidated, to provide teachers the opportunity to earn their pay.
In the words of my former professor, discipline is a matter of perception, and in that case, the issue is too complex to be sorted out without consulting William Shakespeare, who said;
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
The courageous stand on principle while cowards impose expectations. It takes great courage and resolve to break the bond of imposed expectations. In the meantime, we all struggle to adapt, and in the absence of clear, consistent expectations, we ultimately impose control by bullying instead of by encouraging understanding. When self-restraint is not the common practice, we have no choice but to be obsessed by the need to impose control and to call the process discipline. But genuine discipline is about how students behave when the teacher is not in the classroom. When we essentially teach students to expect to be bullied, we inadvertently suggest that bullying is the norm and that they have the right to be irresponsible when the teacher is away. In essence, we squander the opportunity to teach discipline and we simultaneously fail to produce an environment where students take pride in their work and claim ownership for their own behavior.
Given leadership, support and resolve, discipline is not a dysfunctional imposition, it is a clear understanding. In 1969, an exhaustive U.S. high school poll conducted by Louis Harris and associates discovered that young people are “willing to be taught, but not to be told. They are willing to abide by the rules, but they will not abide by rules that put them down. They are aware of the need for authority, but not impressed by it for its own sake”. Young people have not changed very much in that respect, and if the rules are clearly defined and consistently applied, discipline will take care of itself.
Our challenge is to abandon the tendency to think that creativity and individuality are in conflict with the group welfare. Indeed, without creativity or individuality, we fail to rejuvenate, we fail to grow and we fail to teach. The mind needs to be nourished and cultivated, and the crusade or the mission to change it is essentially the practice of confusing education and “thought control”. John Stuart Mill described the extreme manifestation of squelching individuality when he said; “even despotism does not produce its worst effects so long as individuality exists under it; and whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of man.” Mill clearly defined individuality when he said; “The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”. Poet E.E. Cummings identified the challenge of maintaining individuality, when he said; “To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else -means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
A final question that all educators should probably contemplate is; What doe it mean to be educated? The question is complex. Personally, I am of the belief that if you read books like About Education and The Double Vision by Dr. Frye, and you understand it all, you are on the right track. On the other hand, you do not have to read Northrop Frye at all, to be “educated”. After all, Dr. Frye did not rely upon himself for his education. He relied upon “the imagination of great poets, the visions of great thinkers, the discipline of scientific method, and the wisdom of the ages.” Moreover, he encouraged all of us to assume our responsibilities as citizens, and suggested the following criterion, as a measure of whether we are educated. In his words;
It is not the humanist’s inability to read a textbook in physics or the physicist’s inability to read a textbook in literary criticism, but the inability of both of them to read the morning paper with a kind of insight which is demanded of educated citizens.
There are many paths that lead to the very same road and when we arrive, we will probably be confident enough to understand the wisdom behind Dr. Frye’s claim that “that there is no real difference between criticism and creation, nor between education and vision; there is only our failure to abolish the difference.”
Finally, distortions, bias and misrepresentations are too common for comfort, and Alexander Pope’s Essay on Critisism is clever pause for reflection. In part, the essay reads:
Of all the causes which conspire to blind
Man’s erring judgment and misguide the mind,
What the weak head with the strongest bias rules,
Is PRIDE, the never-failing vice of fools.
Whatever Nature has in worth denied,
She gives in large recruits of needful pride;
For as in bodies, thus in souls we find
What wants in blood and spirits, swell’d with wind:
Pride, where wit fails, steps in to our defence,
And fills up all the mighty void of sense.
If one right reason drives that cloud away,
Truth breaks upon us with resistless day.
Trust not yourself; but your defects to know,
Make use of every friend-and every foe.
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
These shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,
While from our bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind;
But more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
So pleased at first the towering Alps we try,
Mount o’er the vales and seem to tread the sky,
The eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last:
But, those attain’d, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthen’d way,
The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,
Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
A perfect judge will read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ:
Survey the WHOLE, nor seek slight faults to find
Where nature moves, and rapture warms the mind;
Nor lose, for that malignant dull delight,
The generous pleasure to be charm’d with wit.
But in such lays as neither ebb nor flow,
Correctly cold, and regularly low,
That shunning faults, one quiet tenor keep;
We cannot blame indeed-but we may sleep.
In wit, as Nature, what affects our hearts
Is not th’ exactness of peculiar parts;
‘Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all.