Principal Gladhand, Dept.

In my book “Confessions of a 21st Century Math Teacher”, I occasionally mentioned the principal. I did not identify the school or the principal in my book. Nor did I even give him a fictitious name as I did some of the other actors in the book. Had I done so, however, his name would have been Principal Gladhand.

He always had a ready smile, and carried an outgoing positive personna. He was also ready with the edu-cliche du jour whether it be “collaboration” or “teachers should facilitate” or many other bromides that pass as educational advice. Readers of the book may also recall that he was none too sensitive about my desire to get a teaching job at the school after having done a semester-long substitute assignment.

I sometimes read his weekly newsletter messages at the school’s website to see what the school is up to. His latest was noteworthy in that it encapsulated the school’s–and the school district’s–philosophies about what constitutes good educational practices. I reproduce portions of it here, with irreverent but salient commentary:

“You’ll see a lot of great pictures in the newsletter this week about our science classes and all of the fun students are having working through problems. The great thing about our school is this active learning is not unique to our science classes. In our math classes, students are doing the work- not just of solving equations, but of figuring out how the numbers work.”

I still haven’t figured out how numbers work. Perhaps he could explain it to me. I recognize that the “understanding at every step” is considered essential, lest students be “doing” math without “knowing” math as the cliche goes. But there is this thing called automaticity that is regarded by the edu-establishment as “rote learning” and almost as bad as cheating on a test.

“We have always had students who have loved our electives and PE classes because they are often classes where there is way more “doing” than passively learning. When I go into classrooms on this campus, I always ask myself, “Who is doing the work in the room?” When the teacher is standing up there talking at students, the teacher is doing the work. When the teacher is asking questions of the students and having students defend their answers, it is easy to see the students are the ones doing the work in the room.”

Even in whole-class/direct instruction mode, teachers have  been known to ask questions of students. And yes, when teachers are “talking at” students it often is to provide instruction, some of it step-by-step. Tutors do this, as do the folks at Kumon, Sylvan and Huntington–a business sector that has been doing a rather good business over the past 25 years that the “teachers should be facilitators” movement has been around.

As far as who is doing the work in the room, what Principal Gladhand does not see is the work behind the apparent “non-work” of the teachers.  That is, the questions that teachers ask students may be the result of 6 hours of work that the teacher has spent at home crafting a lesson plan that brings about such questioning.

“One of our new buzz-phrases in education is “productive struggle”. We are encouraging all of our students to engage in this productive struggle. Students who have the opportunity to explore topics, come to incorrect conclusions and have them challenged, and practice new thinking and skills are more likely to master what we want them to know. Think about how many of you learned to ride a bike by listening to someone talk about it or watching someone else do it…Learning requires productive struggle.”

Yes, “productive struggle” used to be called homework, which consisted of repetitions of problems that were carefully scaffolded and ramped up in difficulty. The process of  doing such homework resulted in students achieving the much cherished holy grail of the present-day constructivists: students “discovered” things. I suspect that what people like Principal Gladhand mean by “productive struggle”, however,  is giving students a problem out of the blue the likes of which they’ve never seen, and expecting them to make the leaps in logic to solve it.

“With the right support and the right encouragement, though, this productive struggle pays off and our students are soon doing it on their own.”

Exactly! Throwing kids in the deep end of the pool, while yelling hints from the side on how to do the breast stroke isn’t likely to do anything useful. And keeping from drowning isn’t the same as learning how to swim.

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7 thoughts on “Principal Gladhand, Dept.

  1. Thanks Greg. Like many terms used in education, “Productive struggle” is one that can be interpreted in opposing ways as I indicated in the post. Appreciate the link to the paper on “Productive Failure”

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  2. Yes, I think it is one of those things in education that is a truism. It certainly has some basis in fact. But how to pin it down for clear definition and testing — thar be devils in them thar details. And much of the “theory” that has grown up around this concept just smells of edu-nonsense. It would be good to have some real data.

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  3. How true, how true. Sadly, most public school superintendents and principals that I am acquainted with seem to be cut from the same cloth as this one. Being able to gladhand around the district and get the next school levy passed seems to be their main qualification. Appreciation for the value of foundational learning is notably absent. Thank you for the hard work of writing up your experiences in order to encourage others sinking under the weight of progressivist doctrine. Deborah G.

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  4. I also believe that homework is “productive struggle”, but I will add that struggle is never a goal or a necessary or sufficient requirement for learning and understanding. The goal is no struggle, but that cannot be expected.

    Lately I’ve had to work on learning XML and programming with VBA in Excel (I normally program in C++). Just this morning I’ve been spending a lot of time Googling Excel and VBA and Shapes. It’s an awful way to learn. I’m hacking my way to a solution, but little that I’m learning forms a basis for fully understanding how everything works. Even the two 1000+ page books I have on Excel explain things poorly. Struggle is a necessity for most learning, but it’s never a goal. I would rather not struggle and just read some proper explanation that carefully leads up from the details using simple concepts. Learning by doing can be very helpful, but not from a top-down Google/hacking standpoint. I’m happy that I can hack my way to some results, but I’m not learning what I need to know. That means that everything I do and will do is slow hacking. My understanding “forest” my be growing, but it’s full of holes. A top-down concept understanding of how Excel works may be helpful, but that forms no proper basis for PBL learning/hacking of the details. I already understand the concepts, but that helps very little with the details. I need understanding the comes from the bottom up, not conceptually, from the top down. That’s what students get from traditional math textbooks and careful attention to daily individual homework, NOT from PBL group hacking in class where many students slip through the cracks, no matter how engaging it might seem.

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  5. Ugh. I hate to see lecture described as “passive learning.” Paying attention, taking notes, doing the reading or other homework, thinking and, if not answering the teacher’s questions, at least thinking about how you would answer if you get called on–all of that is work, even if the principal can’t see it happening when he walks by.

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