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Telling Is Not Teaching

From time to time, college professors weigh in on ways to improve public schools. It always amazes me that their views are taken so seriously. I say that because what passes for sound pedagogy in higher education in all likelihood would be a total flop in K-12 classrooms.

The latest evidence for my skepticism is a piece written by Gary Gutting, a professor at Notre Dame University ("Who Should Teach Our Children?" The New York Times, Jun. 7). He maintains that "a high level of intelligence, enthusiasm for ideas and an ability to communicate" assure effective instruction. His reason is that the best professors possess these characteristics.

I don't doubt for a second that these factors are helpful for success in the classroom, but I seriously question whether they are enough. To put it differently, I think Gutting is terribly naive. In most colleges, lectures still remain the primary way of teaching. Professors may be bright, enthusiastic and articulate in lecturing, but lecturing by its very nature does not allow students to achieve high-level cognitive outcomes. If Gutting had read Benjamin S. Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, he would know what I'm talking about because it classifies educational goals in six steps from the lowest level (Knowledge) to the highest level (Evaluation).

In K-12, most students lack the discipline to be passive learners. As a result, the best that lecturing would accomplish with these students is the transmission of material that would be largely based on straight recall at testing time. But what about higher levels of learning? Can telling ever be as effective as other strategies? When I was an undergraduate at an Ivy League university, most professors relied strictly on lectures. What they did essentially was to provide students with practice to become outstanding stenographers. Students dutifully took notes and then demonstrated their knowledge by repeating the notes on the mid-term and final exams.

Gutting further demonstrates his naivety by asserting that if conditions in K-12 schools were better, top doctoral candidates would flock to teach there. By better, he means salaries and working conditions. Even if this Eden were to materialize, I don't think it would be enough of an incentive to attract top talent. They might stay for a year or so, but they would quit because of frustration or burnout. It takes creativity to hold the attention of students for five classes a day, five days a week. It's not possible to sustain creativity under that schedule.

Editors don't publish essays written by teachers in K-12 about ways to improve instruction in universities. I wish they would show the same respect for teachers by not publishing what professors write about improving instruction in K-12.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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