In my teaching credential program my favorite course was educational psychology. While many of my peers were eager to get to the methods courses and start learning the specifics of how and what to teach, I was fascinated by my first exposure to the theory behind learning. One of our assigned readings was a book called Making Connections by Renate Nummela Caine and Geoffrey Caine, which summarized key findings in brain research at the time and argued that they should be applied to improve instruction and curriculum design. Unlike proponents of the current fad in “research-based” methods, the authors of the book mined the findings of brain research to draw out fundamental principles to inform (rather than preempt) the decisions educators make to improve their curriculum and instruction.
The primary message of the book is that humans are relational thinkers. In other words, we learn by making connections between related experiences and pieces of information. This is one of the fundamental concepts behind integrated thematic curriculum, where lessons are organized by theme rather than subject. Instead of doing random word problems about percentages in math class and then learning about the ethnic makeup of the 13 colonies in social studies, students might use demographic data about the 13 colonies to calculate the percentages of different ethnic groups. The lines between classes are blurred, but the Caines argue that more profound learning happens, as students are able to relate all their lessons to one another and consequently have a deeper understanding and better recall of each.
My other big takeaway message from this book was that higher level thinking ability suffers dramatically when an individual undergoes the physiological responses triggered by fear and helplessness. The book goes into more detail than I will share here about the chemical cascade that is triggered by these emotions, and explains how much of our brain shuts down as the “flight or fight” functions take over. As my professor put it, we revert to our “reptilian brain” and are able to focus on little more than survival.
As much as I’d like to advance the cause of integrated curriculum, this post is really about fear and helplessness. Though the Caines had students in mind, my focus is on the climate of fear that has permeated the ranks of our country’s teachers, as top-down “accountability” measures have become the championed model for school reform. As I meet more teachers and read their comments on past posts, I am struck by how often fear dominates the conversation.
We are afraid that…
…an administrator might catch us teaching outside of the prescribed curriculum.
…we will fall behind our pacing guides.
….we will keep up with our pacing guides and our students won’t have time to master the material.
…we will lose our job if our students’ test scores don’t improve.
…we will miss out on a pay raise if our students’ test scores don’t improve.
…our school will be shut down if our students’ test scores don’t improve.
At many schools these fears underlie a fundamental tension between the administration and the teaching staff. The get tough approach embodied by Washington D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee has inspired a generation of administrators who see noncompliant teachers as the main obstacle to better student performance. Of course, many (hopefully most) principals don’t feel the kind of outright hostility towards teachers that Rhee has shown, but it has become commonplace for administrators to see their role as the enforcer of district and state mandates, rather than as a coordinator and facilitator between teachers, students and families.
The real problem is not simply the climate of fear and antagonism that unavoidably accompanies the “Big Brother” approach to school leadership, but rather the underlying notion that there is one right way to teach all children, and that someone at the district office, the state capital, or the publishing house has already figured it out. Pacing guides, state standards and high stakes testing all operate on the fundamentally laughable idea that education can be distilled to a one size fits all model. This leaves teachers to try and project the impression that they are following “the program” while covertly making the gritty decisions about how to best help each student move forward.
The incredible complexity behind teaching and learning requires more from our educational leaders than mandates. The most effective administrators are the ones who are helping their teachers deal with unique challenges in their classrooms, not pretending that they don’t exist. Furthermore, teachers who live in fear of their principal are going to be less capable of real problem solving, as their “reptilian brains” become preoccupied with surviving the school year with their jobs in tact. As brain research (and common sense) tells us, fear paralyzes, and nobody does their best work when they feel helpless.
If reading educational psychology texts doesn’t do it for you, there is always science fiction. The following is the Litany of Fear, from Frank Herbert’s Dune books. It’s a religious incantation used by an elite religious sect, and I think it sums up the problem and the solution nicely. Try repeating it to yourself the next time your principal comes in for a classroom visit with their clipboard and checklist.
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
(Well, you and the 3.3 million other teachers in your corner)