August 19, 2021

Cafeteria Duty: Blue Apron vs. the Sword in the Stone

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The education substack Cafeteria Duty wants us to remember, in the face of a great deal of freaking out, what the important factor in education is (spoiler alert: it’s teachers). They start with a question–just how bad was pandemic education, and did Zoom teaching lead to the dreaded Learning Loss?


Luckily, a 4th grade teacher from Illinois, Krystal Clifton, apparently had the same question, and conducted her own little research experiment in her classroom. She found that her “students who worked asynchronously generally performed worse than their peers who received instruction from me in real time, either online or in person.” Small sample size, sure, but here’s the money quote: “My students’ relationship with me seemed to positively influence learning, and this was one of the missing pieces for my asynchronous students.”

Emphasis mine. With Clifton present, even beamed across the wifi, her students were happier, they put in more effort, and they got instant feedback, which in turn motivated them to improve. When she wasn’t, there was passivity, mere compliance, a cursory effort to get the work done. On top of that, I would surmise that part of the low scores had to do with something called Dunning-Kruger Effect— people with low ability tend to overestimate their own ability. Hence the shock on a student’s face when a teacher hands back an essay they toiled over for hours with a big fat C on it. Students only truly learn when teachers tell them, “This isn’t good enough, champ. Do it again.”

Clifton’s experience, then, affirms what we all already know: teachers matter. I know that’s trite— a vague hashtag, a cloying coffee mug slogan, but I don’t mean it as such.

I mean it as a balm.

For, if we remember just how indispensable and inextricable to the process of education teachers are, then we might not have to worry so much about two problems tormenting us at the moment: learning loss and Critical Race Theory, particularly as it impacts public school curriculum.

Because here’s something most people don’t realize. Lessons, and by extension curriculum, are not Blue Apron meal kits — mise en place and idiot-proof to such a degree that even the most incompetent homecook couldn’t render the pan-seared scallops and red rice inedible. No, lessons, and by extension curriculum, are more akin to the Sword in the Stone — inert until activated by the right hands.

Lessons and curriculum, to say it plain, don’t teach themselves. If they could, we could just put a stack of textbooks in front of children and tell them to have at it.

Which is not to say that curriculum doesn’t matter. Of course it does. We now know that when it comes to teaching children how to read, for example, curriculum that explicitly teaches phonics works, and its popular, gooey alternative, called the whole language, which relies on sight words and cue-ing, does not, especially with poor kids.

But curriculum is only as good as the teacher standing in front of the students – no matter how well-sequenced, coherent, rigorous, balanced, and/or aligned with the standards that particular curriculum is. Or even how strong and true the standards are themselves.

Read the full piece here.

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