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The “Guide on the Side” Teaching Fallacy  

There is a debate in education between those who advocate a “student-centered” classroom and those who see this clever marketing phrase as a distraction from the simplicity and effectiveness of direct instruction. In a student-centered classroom, the teacher is not in the front of the room “lecturing” (a dirty word); but rather, he or she is merely facilitating the students in their learning.

In a sense, there isn’t a debate at all.  There is instead just a distinct minority of educators and writers who are informed enough to know that the prevailing dogma around a “student-centered” class is dubious at best.  

Teachers have lost their sense of mission. 

Aside from this frustrating debate; on the ground in real classrooms, there is a more pressing concern:  Many who purport to embrace student-centered methods and hold progressive views in education do not really accomplish what could be characterized as “student centered” teaching.  Instead, they have checked themselves out of the learning process in a way that even progressive education theorists would find concerning.  And so the dichotomy is really between teaching and not teaching.

What is most concerning is the lack of teacher voice in the classroom.  This is to use “voice” in its most literal sense–the teacher is not speaking!  Besides directing students to their work and briefly explaining the assignment, there is not much else in terms of interaction.  The assignment itself is likely computer-based, group-work, and “self-directed.”   Students will work on a powerpoint, for example, in Google Classroom, or some other edu-app.  The teacher will get around to grading it eventually.  But it is never quite “attacked” in something that looks like learning in the classroom in real time.  Instead, the classroom atmosphere is subdued: The students are under control, but neither the teacher nor the students is doing anything that could be observed as education in progress.

…there is no connection; no one understands the mission, and no one particularly cares.

There is no laughing, at least there is no moment in which the students are laughing with the teacher. This is because there is no connection; no one understands the mission, and no one particularly cares. Apparently the teacher doesn’t care, or at least hasn’t figured out how to convey any confidence in his or her mission to the captive audience.

It could be that the mandates of progressive education are so impractical that teachers are left adrift trying to implement something nebulous and hard to define.  A teacher with less lofty ideas will find instruction more straightforward.

For example, in reading Shakespeare with a class, a teacher could opt for whole class reading, and assign characters to students to read out loud.  The teacher could help students to pronounce the words of Early Modern English, to understand the plot of Macbeth, and other concrete tasks.   A student-centered, ideologically compliant teacher, on the other hand, would have students read in groups. Never mind that the students would be without any intellectual leadership, stumbling through a text well above their heads. 

In another scenario, students are not even reading the same book.  They’re reading whatever book suits their fancy.  In this case, the teacher has even less to say, because he or she is probably not even familiar with the students’ books, which will as likely be anime as real literature. 

Some teachers lack the confidence to have a vigorous back and forth with students; to ask questions and then more questions, to cold call, to interrogate students’ beliefs (to the extent that they have developed beliefs).  Perhaps such teachers are hesitant to be the leader in the classroom.  Cold-calling students would be rude.  Who are we to question our students when we have already ceded our authority; and indeed have even deemed the concept of authority as crypto fascist?  

One suspects that modern teachers, particularly in the humanities, are less clear on what they’re supposed to be checking for in terms of student understanding.  If a teacher wants a student to understand how to use a comma, it is easy to see who understands the concept.  But if the goal is to make students empowered self-advocates, one doesn’t quite know where to begin.  If the teacher were to say a student is wrong, then he has just contradicted his stated goal of empowering students.  And so no one is wrong and no one is right and, incidentally, no one has learned anything.  

Anyway, 21st century skills are not defined in terms of objective, correct answers.  Instead, it’s about collaboration and cooperation.  The only time the teacher might step in then is if students aren’t playing nicely with each other, or if they have committed some other sin of intolerance.  Ironically, this incessant need to agree and collaborate is what brought us to this juncture in which the most outlandish philosophies of education are unquestioned by its credulous practitioners.  

Teachers have lost their sense of mission.  Many quit in frustration, but perhaps never know quite what was askew. I think I know.

The only instinct that is left is that of conformity; the urge to conform to a bizarre and unworkable teaching philosophy has left teachers inert, uninspiring, and rudderless.

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