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One Way (Part One)

Almost once a year for the last 25 years, I’ve listened to some expert or other explain there is one way to teach, only one way to teach, and that anyone who wasn’t teaching that one way was simply not doing things correctly. The new way was far better than every other way, there was no doubt whatsoever, and anyone who questioned the validity of this method had no business pretending to be a teacher.

One year, a woman came and explained to us that portfolios were going to revolutionize schools. The kids would do work, it would all be placed in portfolios, and the portfolios would be available, right there in the classroom, for anyone who needed to see them. Anytime you wanted to check the progress of any kids, you could simply look in their portfolios, and there it would be. What more could anyone ask?

The following year, the same woman came around and raved about cooperative learning. The students would work in groups and help one another. Every day would be a marathon of learning. A teacher asked whether this involved portfolios. “Portfolios are out,” the woman responded curtly. Several months later, some Very Important People came to my classroom and noticed my kids were sharing books. They complimented me profusely on my use of cooperative learning, and I decided it was best to thank them without explaining why I’d embraced this particular methodology. Actually, I only had 15 books for my 34 kids and was doing the best I could under the circumstances.

A much-ballyhooed method is the workshop model, heavily favored by the city’s Department of Education. Teachers give a mini-lesson and then the kids work in groups to reach various goals. A colleague of mine recently complained, “I spent 20 years trying to perfect the developmental lesson, and they turned the tables on me just like that.” If the developmental lesson works for him, and for his kids, why force him to drop it?

Sometimes they take old methods and paste new names on them. Perhaps this is so appropriate people can take credit, or perhaps the creators just haven’t been around long enough to realize it’s the same old thing. It doesn’t really matter. The only thing all the methods have in common is that they are indispensable, and the only ones that can possibly work. Last year’s indispensable methods inevitably turn out not to work at all. The same research that proves this year’s methods are the only ones that can possibly work demonstrates without question that all others cannot.

There’s likely merit, and lack thereof, in all methods. I’ll try most anything once. However, if it doesn’t work for me I’ll hesitate to repeat it. In fact, some things work for me that do not work for my colleagues. And some things work for them that do not work for me. Doing any one thing exclusively, without variation or allowing for the possibility of change or improvement, is not likely to be the best teaching method for anyone.

Isn’t it possible that teachers have different voices, just as writers have different voices? Just because I love Joseph Heller, does every fiction writer in the world have to emulate him? Isn’t there a possibility that, since teachers have different personalities, we might be able to reach kids in different ways? One of my favorite colleagues endears herself to kids by calling them “honey” and “sweetie.” This works for her — I’ve seen it. Yet if I were to try it, I have a strong suspicion I’d quickly end up in the rubber room.

Why can’t we take a little bit from here, a little bit from there, find out what works for us, and then use it? The notion that any one methodology will supplant or replace all others kind of defies belief. As long as we reach the kids, and as long as they can learn from us, what difference does it make how we get from point A to point B? (Actually, I’d argue there’s more to teaching than getting from point A to point B, and this point seems to utterly elude those who push particular methodologies-but that’s another topic altogether.)

The problem, perhaps, is too many people are paid too much to figure out what makes things work. They need instant results or they’re likely to need real jobs in the very near future. As far as I can tell, few such experts are working teachers, and even fewer are smart enough to figure out there’s more than one way to skin an apple — or teach a kid.

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First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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