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Who’s Teaching Who?

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The NYT published an article titled Teacher Training, Taught by Students. The break in alliteration suggests more than a stylistic shift; it foretells a transition taking root in some of today’s urban classrooms.

The article tells how in a Newark, NJ school the students are teaching the teachers how to teach.

Referring to her student, “She’s the boss of me; she’s teaching me,” Ms. O’Bryant said.”

This article highlights an underlying problem that educators are increasingly recognizing. In many classrooms across America, teachers are apparently doing more talking than listening. The way classroom instruction is administered today fails to acknowledge children, and is failing to teach them. Educators must reconsider their training and seek new ways to teach. The new form of teacher training many urban schools are presently adopting seems to address this debilitating condition.

Assata M. Wilson, 13, an eighth grader, said she felt important because her teachers wanted to hear what she had to say. Too often in class, she said, there was no time for that.

But what would an instruction model that “listens” to the student look like? Some might ask, “How would you dialectically engage students?” But, perhaps that question is too moderate. It is not radical enough.

Rather, the proposed model many urban schools are practicing came from National Urban Alliance trainers as they were observing kids interacting on a Newark school playground. The trainers observed how quickly the kids taught one another, and decided to experiment with this in the classroom.

We are told by Ms. O’Bryant, “It makes you think about really hearing the kids,” she said. “You can learn from them. They have their own language.”

As students take their instructional posts, teachers–who were once called “instructors”–are being forced (by the experts) to yield yet another yard of pedagogical territory–with smiles on their faces.

What rings true in this article is that teachers should listen. Students must be able to leave the classroom knowing that their “teachers wanted to hear” them. But there is more than simply “listening” at stake here. While proponents for such “student-led teacher training” may acquiesce a form of dialectic, a type of conversation to take shape between students and teachers, suggesting that the form and content of the dialectic ought to be pre-determined and purposed by authoritative voices such as the instructor, or even tradition, would outline a proposal contrary to the kind of experiment described in this article.

What is intended by teachers learning to listen is not a dialectic taking place between student and teacher, but a kind of instruction that flows in one direction. The kind of educational experiment detailed in this article traces the looming form of a pedagogical shift. We are being told that teachers do not educate students, but students educate teachers. And for what are the teachers being trained? What now can they possibly teach students?

What about the students? Who are they being taught to “listen” to? And by whom are they being taught?

Children will not always be children. Once we sacrifice the adult upon the altar, we abandon our children to a rudderless craft at sea.

“Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”

I am reminded of what G. K. Chesterton said in What’s Wrong With the World,

There has arisen in this connection a foolish and wicked cry typical of the confusion. I mean the cry, “Save the children.” . . . This cry of “Save the children” has in it the hateful implication that it is impossible to save the fathers; . . . Now I am concerned, first and last, to maintain that unless you can save the fathers, you cannot save the children; that at present we cannot save others, for we cannot save ourselves. We cannot teach citizenship if we are not citizens; we cannot free others if we have forgotten the appetite of freedom. Education is only truth in a state of transmission; and how can we pass on truth if it has never come into our hand? . . . It is vain to save children; for they cannot remain children. By hypothesis we are teaching them to be men; and how can it be so simple to teach an ideal manhood to others if it is so vain and hopeless to find one for ourselves?

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