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How Teachers Think

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I wish there was an education version of Jerome Groopman's new book, How Doctors Think, to help us understand how teachers make decisions about students' learning difficulties. The Groopman book examines the thought processes of various doctors, focusing especially on how -- and why -- even the best of them tend to get things wrong when diagnosing patients. As Groopman shows, the errors (up to 24 percent in some studies) have common causes: doctors aren't listening carefully, they're thinking of their previous patients, or they rely on experience rather than using statistical guidelines. Are teachers any better or worse at making tough decisions with little time and lots of uncertainty? More important, what are the error patterns in their decisionmaking?
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Gosh this is perfect timing! But I want a book about the way that education reformers think. (and I think I'd rephrase your summary a little. Yes Groopman and others emphasize listening over past experience, but I don't think he wants us to use statistics in the way you imply.)

Above all, if we want to borrow the medical model we should respect the prime dictum - FIRST DO NO HARM.

Second we need professional ethics that prohibit teachers, and other education professionals from cooperating with methods like excessive standardization when they damage children. Today, based on minimal evidence the accountability hawks are trying to leverage 7% or so of education money in a manner that could kill two of the great traditons of the world, liberal arts and public education. As with doctors, educators could use less hubris.

Of course, we need an evidence based debate on standardization. The best format would be based on the hypothesis that standardized tests are like chemotherapy and we need to carefully weigh benefits and costs. And if it turns out that today's standardized tests are closer to leaches and draining blood, maybe we can permenantly move on. Even the founder of New York's data driven crime fighting, Chief Bratton, in a different context, just said that Guilianni doesn't understand that data driven accountability is like chemotheray and if you keep it up too long, it becomes poison.

Next, numerous writers including Groopman if I recall correctly, have shown that computerized models to reduce hosprital costs and insure quality, have actually raised costs and increased errors! The main reason was that hospitals, like schools, are far too complex for today's programs. Secondarily, programmers give too much weight to the concerns of high prestige surgeons and don't listen near enough to nurses and doctors closer to the action. As I recall, (and of course I'm simplifying and paraphrasing)Groopman was consistent with other research saying that computers are beneficial - even today - when we're not too busy. But when it really gets busy, that slow us down and reduce effectiveness. Today, like Deborah Meiers, if its a choice between a human's judgement and a test, I'd go with the subjectivity any time. And that's not even close - today. For the near future, our best bet is to invest in providing time, and support, for collaborative decision-making.

Yes, the teaching profession in many ways is still in the 19th century. But unless you have a magic wand, I don't see how we can replicate the medical miracle which took a century after investing resources that dwarf our educational investments, and do it OVERNIGHT.

If we read educational research with the care that we read medical research (and of course they should read it more carefully in the medical world)we would already be scrapping NCLB. Then we could recruit more talent. If teachers got a fraction of the respect as doctors ...

Lastly, and most importantly, and on the issue where we would agree, we teachers don't listen near enough to students. (You in the education field are even worse at that ... Add up all of the recent conversations between inner city students and the experts who testified on NCLB. I probably listen to students more in a week than they have in months or years.)

But the fact remains that we do not listen to teens like we should. Teaching is an art not a science. My biggest responsibility is to read students' body language and really listen to the varied ways they communicate, and then make subjective decisions about the best approach and the best rate of implementing it.

Finally, the way we train teachers is backwards. We shouldn't tell young teachers to "Do whatever it takes." As in Groopman we need to teach them to deal with the tragedies inflicted upon our kids and mourn. I'm afraid we also need to mourn fro our profession and what NCLB is doing to democracy in America.

John Thompson
Oklahoma City
54 year old regular classroom teacher who is in it for the long run

By the way, this is a fast and furiou spost so I might be grouping some of Groopman's other NEW Yorker writings with this book. But after reading him, Malcolm Gladwell and Atul Guwande in New Yorker and the why the explain the wrong-headedness of the crude Accountibility of NCLB supporters, I had to fire it off hot. And in doing so I almost overlooked tanother error in the Education Trust/Heritage Foundation approach. Effective medicine requires us to look cold-bloodily at our mistakes, achnowledge difficulty, and face hard truthes.

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