Symphony 47

Theory

Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.

Like most cliches, this one was based on truth. Most people know only the first two-thirds of it, and use it to laugh at the incompetent teachers. Teachers, who know the whole phrase, use it to laugh at incompetent professors of education.

Education is a curious discipline; being essentially without content, it abounds in theories. Neil was more fortunate than most elementary teachers in that he had not had an undergraduate major in education. He had majored in English literature which, although it too abounds in theories, has at least some content. He had not taken any teaching courses until he was back for his masters, again in literature, and then he had taken only the minimum necessary to get a credential.

Even those few courses had shown him the emptiness of most educational theories. Each was a partial solution. Each theorist staked out a particular set of behaviors, explained them, and then proceeded to act as if he had explained all behavior. Since each theorist staked out a slightly different set of behaviors, each theory was right within self-imposed limits. The arguments between theorists could go on forever, since no theorist could either prove himself fully right or his opponents fully wrong.

It was like sociology, but without sociology’s sense of its own limitations.

None of this would matter very much if it remained academic, but educational theories have a profound effect on the real world. Professors of education teach their theories to their students and send them out into the world as their champions. For those who remain in teaching, this is no long lasting tragedy; experience will show them the limitations of any theory. Unfortunately, some teachers move too quickly into administration before they have time to become disillusioned by their pet theories. Worse still, when professors of education serve on state curriculum committees or run for state superintendent of education, they have the opportunity to enshrine their theories as received wisdom.

A pendulum effect results from this. An individual teacher can try out a theory and quickly determine whether or not it is useful in his or her classroom. The ponderous weight of committee politics stretches the period of try-out and disillusionment over years. Any new panacea will go through the same steps. First it will be the hot new idea. Converts will flock to the new banner, and form action committees. These committees will begin a process of political action that will eventually land them in power. Once in power, they will begin, first by persuasion and then by coersion, to see that their theory becomes required practice. All of this takes years. By the time the new theory is enshrined in law and in the educational frameworks that govern the schools, it will already be far along the curve of disillusionment out in the real world. New committees with new ideas will already be starting the process all over again.

This would be bad enough, but the “new” theories are basically variations on old ones. A teacher with thirty years experience can not only recognize a “new” idea as an old friend (or enemy), but can accurately predict the next sad steps as the theorists try to shore up the crumbling edifice of a decade of work.

Neil was only as interested in theory as circumstances forced him to be. It was theory that had set up the classes he taught. Three years ago at Kiernan he would have been teaching reading for one hour to a set of students who were all of similar ability level. If they were reading at a third grade level, their textbook would have been of that level. They would have had language and spelling as separate subjects. more Monday

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