Who Knows Who Knows Best

Mrs. Betsy Devos, the current U. S. Secretary of Education, recently gave a speech about ten minutes from my home, in Huntsville, Alabama.  As best I can tell from following on social media, the majority of her speech centered around giving parents, teachers, and students the autonomy to make decisions about their education.  Here is a quote posted by the U. S. Department of Education on twitter:

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Why am I afraid?  These questions make me quite nervous.  As an educator who has been in the middle and high school classroom for the past twelve years, I worry about the message these questions send to our communities, schools, and households.  

Why aren’t all teachers allowed the autonomy to guide their students?

Because teachers don’t always know what’s best for their students.  There. I said it. I do believe teachers want what’s best for their students and work extremely hard to provide what they believe is a wonderful learning environment.  However, just wanting to do what’s best doesn’t make it the correct thing to do. For instance, a lot of well-intentioned teachers still proliferate the learning styles myth in their classroom.  The belief that a student is an auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learner has been a somewhat constant belief since I began teaching.  However, there is no evidence that this belief leads to a better classroom or more learning. I would contend that believing I am any one of the three major learning styles might hinder learning. If information is presented in a way that isn’t a student’s style, they may believe, incorrectly, that they cannot learn this information because it wasn’t presented in their style.  

This is but one example of how teachers might not know exactly what’s best for their students.  There are several other myths similar to the learning styles myth that I see mentioned daily on twitter and facebook.  So, to allow teachers to simply do what they like in the classroom…I’m not sure that’s the correct thing to do.

And I do not believe it the teacher’s fault that this happens.  Take a quick search of many university’s education department webpages and you’ll see mention of learning styles.  It’s what we’ve been taught, why wouldn’t we believe it?  Teachers, including myself, need continual assistance and professional development to improve the classroom.  We need to better understand how students learn and how to better tailor our instruction. Researchers are constantly learning more about the brain and cognition and classrooms should be leveraging this information to benefit our students.  Currently, I believe there is a lack of evidence-informed professional development available for teachers. We (teachers) are overrun with the next greatest tech gadget or cool fad, without evidence of its effectiveness. This needs to change to improve learning in the classroom.  Perhaps the U. S. Department of Education could focus on this?

Why aren’t all parents allowed to decide the education that’s right for their own children?

Because all parents don’t know what education is correct for their child.  How could a parent possibly understand the ins and outs of education? Teachers attend a university for several years to earn their degree and you believe a parent is on the same level as the professional?  I currently have a child in 1st grade and, although I have a Master’s degree in education, I wouldn’t begin to know how to properly teach my elementary school son or know whether he needs a private, public, charter, magnet, online, boarding, parochial, or Montessori school.  I just don’t understand how Secretary Devos believes all parents will have all of the information to make this incredibly important decision for their child.

Why aren’t all students allowed to pursue learning in ways that work for them?

Because most students don’t know how they learn best.  Given the choice, many students would choose the path of least resistance when it comes to learning and studying.  Studies have shown a propensity for students to choose ineffective methods of study (rereading and highlighting). They simply don’t know the best way to learn.  If you were to give middle/high school Blake Harvard the option of choosing how I want to learn, I’m choosing the option that involves the least amount of work or the option that allows me to work with my friends.  Secretary Devos, at what age do you propose we allow students to choose their ‘way of learning’? Kindergarten? Middle school? High school? This is a dangerous line of thinking and I don’t see how this could possibly better education in America.  

Secretary Devos, please understand that I believe (hope) we have the same goal: to make education in America better for all students.  We certainly have different ideas on how to accomplish this. You want to create more options for everyone and believe that teachers, parents, and students all know what’s best for students.  

I want to use evidence to make the classroom more efficient and effective.  I want the U. S. Department of Education to focus on getting research of what works to the classroom; close the gap between the researcher and the teacher.  I want teachers, parents, and students to better understand how we learn. I want learning strategies that have shown effectiveness to be explicitly taught to students and applied in the classroom.  I want

But what do I know?  I’m just a classroom teacher with a Master’s degree in Secondary Education and twelve years of experience as a full-time classroom teacher.  You are the United States Secretary of Education with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Economics and zero years of experience as a full-time classroom teacher.


6 thoughts on “Who Knows Who Knows Best

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  1. Love this, Blake! ALL departments of education from the Department of Education, to the universities, to the schools and classrooms need to start looking at teaching and learning as the science that it is, and using evidence-based decisions rather than the latest trend…or advice from the “expert”. At the very least, people in charge of making these decisions, especially at the highest levels, should have significant experience in the education, and have significant knowledge on what the latest research is telling us about teaching and learning.

  2. So the next plane you get on let’s allow the pilot’s mother to choose the flight plan! (Jet reference intended)

  3. As a teacher who also earned a doctorate in Science Ed, I applaud this calling out of the Emperor wearing no clothes. There are people who know better than others on specific topics. I do know better how to educate students in physics than my local representative, as much as he hates that.
    And yes there is so much bad info out there related to teaching. I am appalled at my admin, with their Ed Doctorates (so they should know better?), who do not critically evaluate any new program that they tend to like and do still push the learning styles nonsense.
    With only 4 years to learn their subject matter and pedagogy, new teachers cannot have a full understanding of how people learn and all teachers need good professional development. What we have, instead, is flashy power point presentations spouting little generalized tricks with cute names rather then delving deeply into why that method could work under what set of circumstances and the limitation of it.

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