In Search of What We Do

Prescriptions for good teaching contribute to the devaluation of education and educators.
By John Schlueter

A recent issue of the National Education Association’s newsletter for higher education, Advocate, carried a piece on using Bloom’s Taxonomy to foster “deep learning” that was written by a trio of experienced professors. Clustered around this central article were reports on several disturbingly familiar issues: full-time faculty layoffs at colleges and universities, union-busting tactics, and part-time teachers struggling to stay afloat—including one woman who has been forced to live in her car. After reading through this newsletter, I was struck by the apparent connection, one we have not previously seen, between our reliance on inadequate models to describe teaching and learning—such as Bloom’s Taxonomy—and a general devaluation of higher education in American society.   

For those who don’t know (or need a refresher) Bloom’s taxonomy, first formulated in 1956 and revised in 2001, supposedly describes a student’s cognitive development and is usually presented in the form of a triangle.  The base of the triangle is composed of “lower-order” skills (memorization, recall) while the upper levels detail “higher-order” skills (evaluation, analysis). Although the influence of Bloom’s taxonomy is felt most strongly in K–12 education and in colleges of education, where it has reached the level of dogma, it also often surfaces in the most public of course documents in higher education—our syllabi—as the basis for measurable student outcomes and course objectives. Michael J. Booker, in his article “A Roof without Walls: Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy and the Misdirection of American Education,” describes how the taxonomy works its way into the foundations of higher learning: “Since our community college was up for accreditation, we were trying to get our proverbial ducks in a row. We knew that assessment was a major issue for accreditation, and we’d paid an experienced consultant to provide us with assistance. Assessment, we were told, involves objectives. The objectives need to tie into measurable outcomes. Those outcomes need to be expressed in verb-first propositions about student behavior. Those behaviors need to reflect Bloom’s Taxonomy.”

Although Bloom’s taxonomy provides the framework for creating course objectives, it is only the tip of the iceberg (or triangle?) wherein the classroom experience is reduced to methodology.  Every educator has been bombarded with “best practices,” or a packaged method of teaching which, because “data” has shown that it has worked in another classroom in another school for another teacher, will make you a better teacher.  However, such management tools do not make us better teachers (we already were, and are, really good at what we do); rather, these tools help create the ground upon which cheap teaching labor is justified.  If good teaching can be packaged into a set of practices communicated through simplistic diagrams or prescriptive rules, then what we think of as a really good teacher is the one most willing to put these practices to use. 

To make matters more complicated, teachers themselves often lead efforts to package teaching as a set of portable practices. I recently read a book called Teaching College: The Ultimate Guide to Lecturing, Presenting, and Engaging Students for a professional development in-service at the institution where I teach. The book, written by Norman Eng, contains many useful tips. But its metanarrative is disturbing. In his introduction, Eng appeals to the oft-cited and oft-misunderstood book Academically Adrift, in which Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa make the case that students aren’t learning much in higher education.  Eng does this in order to argue that college and university professors need to be taught how to teach—hence, the necessity of his “ultimate guide,” which supposedly can turn any mediocre teacher into a “pro.” Though well-intentioned, this effort to improve teaching through taxonomies, best practices, and “ultimate” guides actually turns teachers into replaceable parts (anyone can be a great teacher if you do these things), and turns teaching into a competition (who among you is doing these “great” things in your classroom?). 

Although there is plenty I don’t know about teaching, I do know that models or rules can’t adequately describe what is happening in our classrooms. But how do we describe the genuinely good teaching that we are doing? The stakes are high. If we continue along the bureaucratic route, reifying and reinventing models and best practices, then we will continue to reinforce the unspoken but powerful assumption that the proper dissemination and standardization of such prescriptions can substitute for finding and funding good teachers.  

So, again, how do we tell the story of what’s happening in our classrooms in a way that does justice to teaching and learning? We do have a guide, and it is not Benjamin Bloom, but his student, Elliot Eisner. In his 1983 essay, “The Art and Craft of Teaching,” Eisner is also reacting to modern “prescriptions” for teaching, or what he calls a “teacher-proof curriculum.” For his part, Eisner is trying to hold fast to what he calls “the artist in the classroom.” As a former student of Bloom, Eisner is well versed in the science of education and cognitive development, and he understands the value of that scholarship—but he does not overestimate it. For Eisner, recognizing the art and craft of teaching means that we “recognize that no science of teaching exists, or can exist, that will be so prescriptive as to make teaching routine.” In other words, Eisner locates the gap between prescription and demonstration, and that gap is where the artistry of teaching is to be found.

We must begin to tell the story of what happens in this gap. In fact, it is storytelling—or “qualitative data”—to which we must turn to communicate to ourselves, to our institutions, and to the public at large what it is that we do. This is exactly what Chad Hanson calls for in “The Art of Becoming Yourself.” Hanson describes attending a graduation ceremony at White Earth College, a Native American tribal and community college located in west-central Minnesota where each student was required to tell and record a “graduation story.” Hanson was not attending as a teacher; rather, he was there as a consultant-evaluator for the Higher Learning Commission while White Earth College was going through accreditation. But for Hanson, telling a graduation story makes complete sense, precisely because, like teaching and learning, thinking cannot be separated from the thinker: “Educators spend a good deal of energy testing critical-thinking ability and, frankly, are frustrated with the results. One reason we have difficulty producing critical thinking is that we separate thinking from thinkers. We treat critical thinking as if it were a free-floating ability when, in fact, it is a function of oneself or one’s identity.” Like Eisner, Hanson understands that you need students’ stories to comprehend what, and if, they have learned, even as those stories become their own realization of how they have changed. The same holds true for teaching. And if, as Eisner argues, no science can make teaching routine, then we need these classroom stories to understand what it is we do, and how to do it better.

Without understanding what it is we do in our classrooms—and understanding how to tell that story—we will continue to allow narratives of failure to dominate the public face of education. Bryan Caplan’s The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money is one example of such a narrative that has been recently making the rounds in the press. A professor of economics at George Mason University, Caplan argues that we should defund public education because, although we’ve been trying to fix it for, well, forever, we haven’t had much luck. For Caplan, colleges and universities don’t produce educated citizens as much as they give degrees to students. In an article for The Atlantic, Caplan refers, of course, to Academically Adrift while describing the lack of learning that takes place in college. As for his own courses, he admits, “I try to teach my students to connect lectures to the real world and daily life. My exams are designed to measure comprehension, not memorization. Yet in a good class, four test-takers out of 40 demonstrate true economic understanding.”

I want to take a closer look at the “story” he’s telling about his own classroom. The first sentence—“I try to teach my students to connect lectures to the real world and daily life”—is the “prescription.” The next sentence—“Yet in a good class, four test-takers out of 40 demonstrate true economic understanding”—refers to “demonstration,” or the task that is meant to test whether the learner has learned and the thinker has thought. But if learning cannot be separated from the learner, then the “demonstration” of it in a test or essay, although necessary at some level, will tell only a partial story (for example, notice how students, otherwise known as human beings, become “test-takers” when run through the prescription-demonstration mill). Or, in Eisner’s words, the reality of needing to demonstrate what was learned often leads us to replace what is “educationally significant but difficult to measure” with “what is insignificant but comparatively easy to measure.” The rest of the teaching and learning story—indeed the most “significant” part of it—takes place in what happens in the gap between these two sentences. But if we (teachers, students, and administrators) can’t locate this gap ourselves, then we can’t tell the story that is there; and if we can’t tell that story, then we will not be able to counter the narrative of failure that too often dominates the face of public education.

I bet that if we looked into Caplan’s classroom, we would find great teaching. Indeed, as Eisner argues, it is precisely when “rules cannot be used to decode meaning, and when prescriptions cannot be used to control practice, [that] the teacher must rely on art and craft.” I’m also betting that if we can get to what is happening to students in that same classroom, we would also see great learning. So, I want to propose a resolution: that we begin to wrestle the narrative of what happens in our classrooms out of the grip of what we might loosely call “the science of education.” We need to locate the gap that will always exist between prescription and demonstration and tell our stories from that space—to each other, to our institutions, to the public. In doing so, we will not only understand what it is we do more deeply, but we might also begin to help our society revalue higher education and commit the financial resources necessary to help more adjuncts move out of their cars and into offices.

John Schlueter teaches English and composition at Saint Paul College. His email address is [email protected]