What’s in a name

This post is a reproduction of my contributions to a discussion on Quality Teaching had on yammer.com. After a series of newspaper articles recently talking about sacking teachers and issues of Quality teaching and teacher QUality its made me revisit my opinions on these terms, and I find they haven’t changed…

I’m staking a claim on language used to describe teachers and championing the use of Effective and Ineffective as the words of choice for describing a teacher’s practices.
Other terms have been thrown around, primarily Quality and Efficiency.

Quality is out. It’s a word that exists almost entirely in subjectivity, meaning that the definition can change and what counts as quality today might not count as quality tomorrow. The Quality Teaching Framework is a valuable document, however the use of Quality in the title is entirely arbitrary, and an attempt to connect the word Quality to something tangible in teaching practice. The document would still be as valuable if it was called the “Effective Educational Practices framework” but ultimately Quality Teaching Framework is a nice, marketable package. Quality is out.

Efficiency is also dangerous. Efficiency implies using minimum, or at least minimum required resources. It implies a cost-saving mindset that, as I have argued elsewhere, has little, if any, place in education. Sometimes its necessary to overspend, over invest or otherwise use resources in a way that might be seen as wasteful – but we all know that sometimes targetting one student or a group of students with additional resources can help raise standards for a larger group. It’s the mentality behind Teachers Aides, learning support staff, etc. Supporting the kid who is least academically capable might seem like an unfair arrangement when the top kid in the class gets no extra support – but when you consider the benefit to that student of having the more difficult students managed appropriately, then you realise that efficiency, hell, equality! isn’t as important as it first seemd. Efficiency is out.

The we come to effective. I aspire to be an effective teacher. By definition, one who has an effect. And in qualifying, I hope to have a positive effect, because everyone has an effect, positive or negative. But in the phrase Effective teacher, or more appropriately, Effective teaching, ‘effective’ qualifies the verb of ‘teaching’ so to be effective lies in doing the job of teaching. This means that being effective is to achieve the desired outcomes of teaching – improving the skills and knowledge of students, supporting their learning, and making them feel safe and supported in order to take risks with their learning.

In being effective I also need to balance my understanding of pedagogy, DET policies, student welfare needs and myriad other considerations that shape a students learning experience and that frame the environment within which I am trying to effectively achieve those desirable teachingoutcomes.

So I say Vote 1 for Effective Pedagogy and Effective Teaching practices!

On a tangent from the discussion of Quality Teacher vs Teacher Quality – the whole ‘Born or Made’ debate connects very closely to an issue that is close to my heart. My wife and I have had some very… thorough… debates on this topic, and I fear I may stand on the cusp of extremism in my beliefs on this issue.

The concept of an ‘intrinsic’ personality or human nature that is instilled in us from birth is something I have great trouble accepting. There are somecharacteristics of human beings that may shape their personalities that have been proven to have a genetic basis – such as asthma and other chronic diseases, a susceptibility to addiction (e.g. alcoholism), congenital birth defects and other things, BUT what about the very concept of a human beings personality? their values, motivations, behaviours and goals?

Not being an expert in the field of biology, I have to form my opinions base don my own experiences, research and my interest in the subject, and I acknowledge that as a potentially limiting parameter of my opinions, which is also why I raise the topic here, given that it has such a strong relevance to teaching.

I am, as I said above, almost fanatical in my belief that environmental factors and experiences play a dominant role in the shaping of personality. In saying that, I want to acknowledge that I define environmental factors as anything that influences the foetus from that point a few weeks after conception at which it starts drawing nutrition from the mother. Foetal alcohol syndrome, ‘drug babies’ (a nurse I know tells horrible stories of babies born with heroin dependencies), and recent studies into the effects of anxiety during pregnancy on the brain chemistry of offspring (so far only tested thoroughly in animals) all demonstrate that children can be ‘shaped’ during pregnancy. These influences may manifest as behavioural tendencies in a newborn child, but could they be considered ‘intrinsic’ personality traits, or the effect of environmental factors?

There is a lot of debate over Aspergers syndrome and other forms of autism – elsewhere on this thread there is a long running debate about theories of dietary influences on Aspergers, and here are also a lot of theories about lack of exposure to social interactions with parents during the first 2 years of development having a major impact. Only one thing can be said conclusively – a common genetic link/cause has not yet been identified, however absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The same debate rages on about many elements of human existence. Rebellious behaviour, homosexuality, criminal tendencies (I love C19th theories about the ‘criminal brain’) and what bothers me about the ‘born that way’ argument is the usually dismissive and denigrating tone in which such arguments are applied. “They can’t help it, they were born that way”.

What bothers me about that is two-fold.

1, because it implies a negative view of a particular state of being, something ‘other than normal’. This mind set has some validity when talking about actual congenital, genetic or hereditary conditions that can be measured against a mass-population baseline of ‘normality’, but when applied to behaviours, values, sexuality, etc, you most often hear the genetic argument brought up in terms of ‘its not my fault’. Whether by the person themselves, or more commonly by their parents or other caregivers trying to abrogate ‘responsibility’ for the state of the individual. The negative implications of this thinking are so forceful that itt’s painful to hear! the implication that the behaviour in quetsion is somehow ‘wrong’ and that someone must be ‘blamed’ or ‘held responsible’ so the focus is then shifted to genetics or the idea that the person was ‘born that way’. In this way, Genetics has become like the late 20th century version of saying ‘its Gods will’ – thus divulging any personal responsibility.

2, because it is an abrogation of responsibility that permeates our society. When I hear teachers say ‘he’s just a bad kid’ I get a little cranky. When I phone parents to discuss behaviours and hear them say “What do you want me to do about it?” or in the case of one parent I deal with regularly who said “We think our eldest son got all the good genes”, then I get a little more cranky. this vague notion that we all have our personality and behaviours stamped on us at birth by some fairy-godmother concept of genetics seems ludicrous to me, especially with what science has discovered about brain plasticity, the development and treatment of neuroses, psychological conditions such as post-traumatic shock, etc. all of which indicate the capacity to change a human beings personality and behaviours during their lifetime make it very hard for me to accept the argument that ANYONE can be ‘born that way’. Why its such a problem is that it ties into the concept that NO ONE IS RESPONSIBLE! I see this attitude manifest in the world of litigation and insurance (my wife used to work as an insurance lawyer, and some of the stories I’d hear were beyond laughable).

As teachers, isn’t our profession based on the very idea that the environment can make a difference? otherwise what would be the point of training in behaviour management, using strategies of positive reinforcement, and all the other things we do to shape behaviours and engage students in learning?

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