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Pedagogy of the Compressed: When Teachers Take on More Responsibilities

Joining us this week is guest blogger Alex Baron. Alex currently teaches high-school geometry and algebra, while also serving as program director at the Urban Leaders Fellowship. He has previously done research on cultural differences in pedagogy and taught pre-K and kindergarten for KIPP.

Remember when you made that important 20-minute presentation? Remember how much time you put into the PowerPoint, the scripted words and gestures, the jokes you pretended were extemporaneous? Those presentations required hours of preparation to convince someone, somewhere, of something.

Now imagine that you had to create two or three different presentations each day. Each presentation is now an hour, and you do a total of five per day.

A couple final parameters: Your presentation(s) are about proofs in Euclidean geometry. And your audience consists of hormonally complex adolescents who mostly despise math and have numeracy gaps that precede your time with them.

Good luck.

This is the job of teachers. And, with all my heart, I love my job as a math teacher at a big traditional high school. To me, teaching and learning enable deeper appreciation of the world. The more we learn, the more we can intelligently marvel at the awesome things and more effectively address the awful ones. When a learning experience inspires awe in a student, teaching is a gig of unparalleled fulfillment.

Thus, when I can dedicate my time to the creation of meaningful learning experiences with students, the job truly feels like a gift. Unfortunately, mandatory teacher responsibilities outside of lesson planning seem to multiply by the day. A few examples:

The Good Stuff

  • Calling parents to discuss a breakthrough moment in their child's day
  • Creating engaging activities (e.g., bingo, jeopardy, or casino games to practice probability) to review for upcoming tests
  • Observing other teachers to learn new ways to hone my craft

The Less-Good Stuff

  • Logging each parent conversation in a district record-keeping system
  • Completing assessment protocols to demonstrate that each test question targets state standards
  • Attending endless "professional development" sessions. Need I say more on this one?

Phone call logs, assessment forms, and myriad other documentation require lots of energy from teachers. From physics conservation principles, we know that energy cannot be added or removed from the universe. That is, what appears to be "new energy" somewhere is, in fact, energy that has come from somewhere else in the system.

In teaching, newer responsibilities simply accumulate atop the old ones; the energy required to complete those new tasks does not—and by the laws of physics cannot—arise from nothing. In most cases, that energy is transferred from the true stuff of teaching, which involves deep learning experiences and relationships with students. This creates a pedagogy of the compressed.

That's bad news for all. If a science teacher wants to painstakingly prepare a lab involving chemical fires in order to re-ignite students' curiosity about the natural world, then the teacher should be able to do so without burning herself out on extraneous tasks. These days, however, instead of taking time to arrange chemistry workstations, many teachers are forced to dole out chemistry worksheets instead.

Thus, this compression of pedagogy also results in shallower learning for students. Students spend more time answering relatively empty questions rather than asking profound ones. Writer and social-critic James Baldwin noted that "children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them." If we want students to produce sophisticated and thoughtful work, then we must give teachers the space to do the same.

It is worth noting that, even in the best circumstances, to teach any subject is necessarily to compress it. For example, AP World History crams the 12,000 years of human history since the Neolithic revolution into nine months of school. Even a U.S. history teacher has to cover 241 years within a 177-day school year.

In my class, I expect students to learn several millennia of mathematical discoveries in an infinitesimally small amount of time. Pythagoras did not derive his theorem (i.e., that a2 + b2 = c2 thing) in a week, but students are expected to simply memorize it in a day and move on.

I don't know what we can do about this compression (besides teaching less stuff with more depth). Human beings have racked up a prodigious record of ingenious discoveries, and we want to share as much as possible with students. That's admirable. If we have to compress hundreds of years of literature into a single high-school course, then I will (try) not (to) object.

However, I do object to additional compression of teachers' time for non-pedagogical tasks—especially when many teachers already have second jobs to make ends meet. (Can we really expect gains in student outcomes without gains in teacher incomes? We'll save that for another time).

In sum, when determining whether to add a new task to teachers' loads, we must ask ourselves not simply whether a new task is important; rather, we need to ask whether the new task is relatively more important than the task from which the requisite energy will be transferred. It is not clear that we are asking this question, though it's very clear what's at stake when we don't.

Alex Baron

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