Friday, February 08, 2008

Educational Rhetoric and That Old Meme About Being in Schools

Teh Eduwonk has a good debating post about the rhetoric behind the NCLB debate and social studies/science education. Like most posts at that blog, it is worth reading.

But in reviewing the comments, I am struck by this statement--yet again--that commentator X needs to spend time in schools to understand schools. In this case,
Eduwonkette needs to spend some time in real schools--high and low performing. It's hard to write about schools if you don't spend any time in them, and if you don't don't understand what high-quality instruction actually is.
Eduwonkette is an anonymous blogger for reasons that are her own. However, to presume the Eduwonkette does not spend her time in classrooms is more than a bit presumptuous. Afterall, for all we in the public know, Eduwonkette may very well be a teacher, a principal or otherwise engaged in the education of our children.

But it is the tone of the comment that always offends me, that in order to truly understand education, those of us who comment and care about education must be in a classroom to truly understand education. A premise who logic is quite faulty. Let's apply that logic to two matters, one very common and one a little more esoteric.

Let us take automobile safety. Now automakers pay lots of really smart engineers and scientists a lot of money to design safety features and cars that are not just marginally safer but truly safer. These smart people (usually with lots of initials after their names, like Ph.D) truly understand car safety and could probably talk about in layers of jargon and code-speak that the average everyday driver would not be able to understand absent all those letters after their name. But that does not mean that average Joe and Jane driver don't understand car safety. After all, a car that protects them from injury or serious injury in a car accident is safe. They can understand that seat belts, crumple zones, air bags, and certain construction methods protects them, they don't have to understand how.

Similarly, if you have spent anytime reading this blog, you will know that I love soccer. I have played and hope to get back to playing soccer. That gives me an insight in to soccer that non-players don't have. However, playing soccer does not make me an expert at the game. Likewise, there is a friend of mine who has been confined to a wheelchair most of his life, who probably has more soccer knowledge in his pinky toe than I will ever amass. He lives, loves and breathes the game but has never played it. He has studied the history, the developements and the players (past and present) of the games so much so that it could be considered an unhealthy obsession. He can analyze players and teams, break down their performance and everything else without ever having played in even a neighborhood pick-up game. In short, he is an expert without being a practitioner.

What I am trying to say is two things that point to the fallacy. You don't have to be an expert at the process of teaching to understand its outcomes. When you look at most of the debates surrounding education, the goal is generally to improve the outcomes of the educational process for everyone. However, like the Joe and Jane driver, they don't have to understand all the engineering involved to understand the outcome of a safe vehicle. Likewise my friend has studied soccer and is intimately familiar without haveing played the beautiful game.

In short, you don't have to be a practitioner of any field to be able to offer an informed and educated opinion as to its mertis. Outcomes of a process are important and it doesn't take special expertise to evaluate outcomes. Similarly, intensive study can yeild insights into a field without actually being a practitioner.

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