March 07, 2006


Controversy 101

...After the Jay Bennish story broke last week I figured that I would pass on making a post dedicated to the story, but would opine if the topic came up in a discussion. I’ve changed my mind, however, because this topic is one that has more than one aspect to it.
...In the wake of Mr. Bennish’s digitally-recorded lecture we’ve found ourselves with two major topics that merit consideration. First, what is a teacher’s role in the classroom? Second, what kind of reaction would we have seen had Mr. Bennish’s viewpoints been from the far-right instead of the far-left?
Teaching Strategies
...Mr. Bennish’s ordeal has brought to the forefront a discussion on what a teacher’s role and responsibility is in his/her effort to educate and foster intellectual development. It has also helped to illustrate a philosophical gap that exists not only between the American public at large, but more specifically within the ranks of those of us who work in the public education system as educators.
...Is the instructor supposed to facilitate analysis and critical thinking, or are they supposed to tell students what they’re supposed to think? Should they encourage interaction to understand why a student came to a conclusion, or are they supposed to tell the student what the conclusion is right from the outset? I’m not ashamed to say that I support the former in each of these questions. Standing in front of a classroom of 10th graders and preaching for half an hour has never been conducive to learning. Many professionals seem to agree.
...Thus far, some of us who are in public education and have been critical of Mr. Bennish have expressed concern over his approach of teacher-centered instruction—in lay terms, lecturing—of this particular lesson. While taking my Methods of Education class as an undergraduate, I became accustomed to hearing my professor explain the importance of understanding that instruction for 15- and 16-year-olds who are stuck in an uncomfortable chair for seven to eight hours a day is far different than 22- or 23-year-olds listening to a college professor for an hour and twenty minutes.
...Indeed, we were informed that students will quickly lose interest in the learning process if the teacher spends most of the time talking, or if he/she takes the opposite approach and has students do the majority of the work on their own, offering little input. Essentially, there must be a happy medium.
...The Social Science Education Consortium seems to agree. In their Teaching the Social Sciences and History in Secondary Schools: A Methods Book (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 1996), they cite the following as three characteristics that are, in their words, “especially important” for teaching strategies:
1.) Learning is not a process of transmission but a process of construction. This view, based on research in cognitive psychology, holds that people, as learners, “construct our own understandings of the world in which we live…by synthesizing new experiences into what we have previously come to understand” (Brooks and Brooks, In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms, 1993, 4).
2.) Classroom learning is a “social process that the teacher works to facilitate by helping students make sense of their experiences and further their understanding of the world” (Powell, “The Constructivist Approach to Teaching in Action,” Teaching About the History and Nature of Science and Technology: Teacher’s Resource Guide, 1994, 34).
3.) Individuals learn most effectively in different ways. They have learning styles—“characteristic cognitive, affective, and physiological behaviors that serve as relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact, and respond to the learning environment” (O’Neill, “Making Sense of Style,” Educational Leadership, 1990, 5).
...Given these “especially important” characteristics for teaching, would we not have justification for our questioning the effectiveness of a rather lengthy speech (by Mr. Bennish or any other teacher)? Apparently not, if we were to consider the staunch support for his approach.
...On the other hand, is there another issue here? Is the majority of criticism directed at Mr. Bennish across the country based upon his lecture itself instead of his giving a lecture? Is the substance of what he said—not how he said it—the real reason that so many people’s ears have perked up over this story? Even more, is the substance of what he said the real inspiration of those who are currently supporting him?
The Message
...For a moment—for the sake of argument—let us suppose that Bennish’s viewpoints were on the opposite side of the aisle. Let us suppose that he was preaching the gospel of capitalism, preaching against socialism or communism, and telling his students that anyone who doesn’t like George W. Bush might be “unpatriotic” or “un-American.” Similar to what has happened in real life, let us suppose that a student grew tired of listening to such right-wing rants and decided to record the lecture.
...I dare say that we might have a similar situation to what we have now, only on opposite sides of the fence. Liberals would be crying for Bennish’s head on a silver platter; conservatives would be yelling, “We need more teachers like this!”
...I say this because we’ve seen such a situation occur up to this point; the only exception is that the ideological perspective is vice-versa. Conservatives are outraged because Bennish used his position to tell students that Bush and Hitler were similar and that capitalism has been a scourge on humanity; liberals are happy to see an instructor tell his students that a Republican president has similarities to a genocidal maniac and that their least favorite economic system is detrimental to humanity.
...To put it bluntly, one side heard what they hate and one side heard what they love.
...The only thing for which Bennish should be officially reprimanded is his questionable presentation procedure. Standing in front of a high school classroom for an extended period of time and giving a speech on your views is frowned upon by both principals and education professors who evaluate future teachers. Had it not been for this situation finding its way into the national spotlight, Bennish would have otherwise been asked by either his department chair or his principal to re-evaluate his teaching strategies.
...This situation doesn’t merit Bennish’s dismissal, even though he should have, indeed, used a different approach to discussing these topics. It obviously doesn’t merit some of the irresponsible and asinine threats made by people who didn’t like what he had said (some news reports mentioned that Bennish has received death threats over this; the student who taped the lecture has also received death threats).
...On the other side of the coin, those people who are supporting Bennish simply because he said things that they like to hear are no better than the people who want him fired over what he said. Would they be coming to the aid of a high school teacher if he/she suggested that the Earth Liberation Front had similarities to the KKK or if he/she discussed the 7,000,000 Ukrainians who starved to death during Joseph Stalin’s forced famine of the 1930s? I’m thinking no.
...I stand by what I said on another blog in reference to this story: Good teachers do have opinions on subjects and feel strongly about them; they can bring those opinions out at times in the classroom, too. They don’t, however, allow those opinions to guide the lesson, no matter if they’re conservative, liberal, libertarian, or anything else.
...When it comes time to vent on issues, they need to do so in another forum—not to a room of kids who have nothing to do but stare and take an occasional note.


Blogger Legally Insane said...

i like what you stand by in your conclusion. that, i think, is how good teachers ought to comport themselves.

i am thinking that another problem with education today is how to categorize students: there seems to be a push to treat them as mini-adults rather than as developing children.

if treated as mini-adults, they become what all other americans really are: nothing more than consumers. consumers of goods, services, and information.

unfortunately, in that capacity, i am afraid most students do not have the experience or training to be intelligent consumers of information. thus, a teacher who imposes his or her opinion as truth does a tremendous disservice to the student.

March 08, 2006  
Blogger J.P. said...

DL, thanks. I agree that many of these kids are just that—kids (and I don’t say that in a negative way). Yes, we’re always going to have one or two students who are intellectually developed far beyond that of their peers. They’re usually fairly easy to identify because you can tell—through their work, communication, and participation—that they’re going to stand out in no matter what it is that they’re doing. They’re the ones who make educators stop and think, “Wow. This kid is going to do amazing things when he/she gets older and spreads his/her wings.”

Most, however, are similar to your consumer description, taking with them whatever information their teachers (or other sources, for that matter) provide to them. Those are the students who are more easily influenced, and need to be shown that weighing the information is more important than accepting the information.

Now that I think about it, I know a few adults who are still strictly consumers when it comes to information. They basically consume all the information that tells them what they want to hear.

This might tie in to your blind obedience post.

March 08, 2006  
Blogger Legally Insane said...

whenever i get a chance to work with kids, i try to stress to them how big money and big politics do not want them to think for themselves. big money and big politics wants to do all the thinking for them... which explains why they can watch a commercial at two in the morning and have a craving to go out and buy a big mac.

the one thing big money and big politics would hate to have is an educated consumer and an educated voter. and by "educated," i mean thoughtful and well-informed as opposed to just being "schooled."

blind obedience is tolerated because it is so much more profitable.

March 10, 2006  
Blogger amy said...

I agree with the consumer-oriented theory whole-heartedly, and many kids of this nature definitely become adults of the same ilk (trust me, some graduate students here aren't any different from freshmen straight out of college).

Bennish's actions however, have been noted on several ocassions at his school, and he forewarned parents and students in advance of his course about his positions and outspoken-ness. While that might send out a red flag in any other school, his superiors were apparently not offput by his proactive notice to those who might consider his course. What we don't see or hear from that audio tape however, are any other classroom examples of his lectures. If every lecture of his is like what that student taped, then yes, it probably does get a little old after a week or two. But if this lecture was one of a handful of others during the semester, then I'm not sure it warrants such alarm.

There are so many good teachers out there who, when they take a stand for something (regardless of the politics involved), they get squashed. But there are plenty more bad teachers who do nothing but well, nothing and they fail to teach students adequately day in and day out, and ultimately teach for years and years. That, to me, is a tragedy.

March 10, 2006  
Blogger Legally Insane said...

amy, i think that is similar to your "fear of change" post on your blog. good teachers challenges their students to excel and they get squashed as being unorthodox.

bad teachers inspire mediocrity from their students and they get tenure.

a while ago, 20/20 did a special on how schools are failing students. shockingly tragic.

March 11, 2006  
Blogger amy said...

I like the way you put that, DL. That "schools" are failing students. I wrote a similar-themed post today (that discusses certain educational failures), if you'd like to check that out.

March 13, 2006  
Blogger Dorid Lovely said...

"Standing in front of a high school classroom for an extended period of time and giving a speech on your views is frowned upon by both principals and education professors who evaluate future teachers." Oh how I wish that were so across the board. I had the misfortune of working for an administration that for some reason thought if my mouth wasn't going the kids weren't learning. It's unfortunate that there are schools (and indeed whole districts) that are so backwards in their thinking...

amy, I think your last comment really hit the nail on the head.

March 18, 2006  

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