Some Follow-Up on Teaching

Yesterday's Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson struck a chord with a lot of people, and has spread a good distance on social media, which is gratifying. Given the delocalized nature of modern social media, though, it means I'm having essentially the same argument in five different places via different platforms. In the interest of consolidating this a tiny bit, then, let me post some follow-up stuff here.

-- The most charitable interpretation of the tweet I objected to is that it's meant as praise for good students. The idea being that good students will learn in the absence of good teaching, and even in the face of bad teaching. Which, you know, is a nice idea, but I have a bunch of problems with it.

The biggest problem I have is just the "not because... in spite of" format of the tweet, which is unnecessarily negative in my opinion. If I were to write, say, "Young astrophysicists don't succeed because of good role models in the field, but in spite of bad ones," I'd have a bunch of middle-aged astrophysicists in my face saying "What'd we ever do to you, man?" And they'd be right to be upset, because it highlights the bad side while minimizing the constructive efforts of good people. If you want to praise students, there are ways to do it directly, without pushing good people down.

This phrasing also points up a problem with an alternate formulation of the same basic argument, namely that good students will be fine no matter what. Which is kind of implicitly ruled out by the "in spite of." You don't talk about things happening "in spite of" actions that have no power to effect them-- I wouldn't say that "In spite of bad weather in Central Europe, I managed to drive to my office today," unless I was being obscurely ironic. Saying that A students learn in spite of bad teachers grants that bad teachers have the power to stop those students from learning. And talking up the ability of bad teaching to push students down while simultaneously waving off the ability of good teachers to lift students up is insulting to the profession as a whole.

-- On a political level, there's also a serious problem with the whole "Good students learn no matter what," line, which is that it slides very easily into "These students who aren't learning must have something wrong with them." And in that direction, you find a vast, sucking swamp of noxious classism, sexism, and racism. Given the gross inequities of our educational system, and society in general, that's not a good place to be going.

-- Sticking with a larger political level, I'm not really willing to "cut some slack" to a well-intentioned but badly executed attempt to praise the character and abilities of good students. There is a large and very active effort to denigrate teachers, particularly public school teachers, in this country, for a whole host of bad reasons. An inadvertently insulting remark by a person of Dr. Tyson's stature (in a media sense, I mean, though I gather he is a fairly large man) contributes to this bad climate in a way that has a far greater impact than a stupid tweet from a lesser light.

-- There have also been a fair number of arguments that I have a skewed vision of the educational system thanks to a privileged upbringing. While I will stipulate that as a white male, I'm free from a lot of corrosive bullshit that afflicts students of color in inner-city schools, it's not like I went to swanky elite private schools my whole live. I grew up and went to school in Whitney Point, NY (of course it has a Wikipedia page), in northern Broome County, which is, shall we say, not one of the more high-end Zip codes in New York state. It's a rural area, mostly dairy farms, with a smattering of people who commuted to Binghamton for white-collar jobs. My high school didn't actually close on the first day of deer-hunting season, unlike many of the surrounding schools, but it was pretty sparsely populated on those days.

So, while I didn't suffer the worst of the disadvantages that our education system has to offer, I wasn't in an area blessed with an overabundance of educational resources-- I took three AP exams in high school, and for two of those I was the only student in the class. If I had to guess, I'd say it was probably pretty average, but that would be only a guess.

And despite that not-so-elite location, the vast majority of the teachers at the school were dedicated, hard-working folks who genuinely cared about helping their students learn. So I'm fairly comfortable with applying that description to the teaching profession more broadly.

-- There have also been the regular assertions that arbitrary percentages of teachers are just horrible, generally with accompanying anecdotes. And while I don't want to disparage the lived experience behind those anecdotes, I would also point out that measuring "bad teaching" is really hard to do. Even people who do this professionally-- and I say this as someone whose current job responsibilities include evaluating the teaching performance of a number of my colleagues-- generally do a very bad job of it. The easy methods of "evaluating" teaching are generally pretty terrible, and the ones people agree work reasonably well are impractically difficult.

And on an anecdotal level, the situation is much, much worse, because education is a highly individual thing. Learning a new subject requires getting facts and procedures into the brain of a particular individual who does not already know that stuff, and everyone is different. While the oft-cited "learning styles" stuff is a little dubious, scientifically, it survives because there is an intuitive sense in which it seems true-- what makes a particular subject "click" for a particular person won't necessarily work for another. And that creates all sorts of problems when it comes to individual teachers-- a lot of the "bad teaching" stories we hear about are at their core primarily personality conflicts. Somebody whose sense of humor just doesn't mesh with that of their teacher can end up having a very bad time, while other students will absolutely love that same teacher.

And there's also a major "snapshot" problem with individual evaluations of teaching. Some of the teachers you think were terrible might in fact be very good at their job, but having a terrible day, or even a terrible year. If you happen to catch a particular teacher during the year he's going through a nasty divorce, say, you might find him grumpy and irritable, while previous and future generations of students find him warm and caring. Because you're only seeing a tiny snippet of what that person is really like.

So I think most judgements of who is and isn't a "bad teacher" need to be taken with a barrel of salt. I'm not claiming it's impossible to figure out who isn't good at their job-- as I said in a comment to yesterday's post, if you want to know who the bad teachers are, ask the other teachers in that school, who work with them over a span of years and have to deal with the same students. But the perspective of a single student or parent based on a single small set of interactions just isn't remotely sufficient to make that determination.

-- In the same vein, I've heard from a bunch of people who talk about how they spent their whole school career surrounded by incompetent teachers and learning in spite of them. Formal education is a giant waste of time, classes are pitched only to the mediocre students at the center of the bell curve, and Dr. Tyson is right that the truly exceptional gain nothing from teachers.

My response to that starts with the point that I know exactly what that's like. I spent my entire pre-college career holding down the far right edge of the grading curve, often to the active irritation of my classmates. I know exactly what it's like to be bored in a class that's pitched at students below my level.

But at the same time, I can't honestly say that I've ever taken a class where I learned nothing from the formal instruction, or only learned in spite of the worst efforts of the teacher. Have I had classes where I learned less than I might've with a different teacher? You bet. Have I had classes where I probably could've learned more reading on my own? Sure. Have I had classes where I thought the teacher was holding me back with pointless drudge work? Yeah.

But you know what? When I thought that, I was being an asshole. Because the fact is, I probably wouldn't've bothered to do the drudge work necessary to learn the basics. And while I might've gone farther in some classes had I been pushed harder, getting those basics down is not nothing. Looking back from an adult perspective (and the perspective of someone currently charged with teaching intro physics on a regular basis), I can't honestly say that even the worst of the teachers I ever endured was worse than no teacher at all.

I can honestly say that I was an insufferable little jackass for a few years there, though...

More like this

I think you meant "..was better than no..." in your penultimate sentence.

By marciepooh (not verified) on 13 Jan 2015 #permalink

Some teachers nowadays still manage to do a good job in spite of the toxic standardized test mania that had taken over our education system....

Maybe I read 140 character communications too literally. All I see from Tyson’s tweet is a simple logical argument. Straight A students get As in all their classes. Not all teachers are good. Not all teachers are bad. As a result, it is a fallacy to argue that students earn straight As “because of” good teachers. Straight A students most likely had good teachers and bad teachers. Ergo, the quality of the teacher makes no difference to the student’s outcome (i.e. an A in the course). It is likely that the student had bad teachers along the way and kept earning As regardless, even in classes that built upon material the student failed to learn in a prior bad teacher’s class (e.g. bad calc 1 teacher, good calc2 teacher). That’s where the “in spite of” comes in. Obviously, other factors go into making a straight A student (i.e. family, friends, financials, etc.), and it is the sum of those factors that more directly correlate with straight As than a highly improbably 100% exposure to “good teachers”. Your analogous tweet, “Young astrophysicists don’t succeed because of good role models in the field, but in spite of bad ones,” is not an apples-to-apples comparison. The key to Tyson's tweet is "straight As". This is not to be confused with "good student" or "successful student." Had Tyson left out the "straight," then I would agree with your objections. A more analogous tweet would be, "Madison Bumgarner's postseason brilliance has continued not because of poor hitting, but in spite of good hitting."

Context for the tweet:

TYSON: And there I am, getting grades all over the place, but I know my interest in the universe and I owned a telescope that I bought with money I earned by walking dogs, because I live in a huge apartment complex. And 50 cents per walk, per dog, and that accumulated quickly. I bought a camera, a telescope. I taught myself astrophotography. I did all this.

I took classes at the American Museum of Natural History at Hayden Planetarium, advanced classes for adults in modern astrophysics. I did all this, but none of that showed up as a high grade on an exam in school. So, there I am, and teachers complaining about my social energy, as though that was something bad, and, oh, he's disruptive. Not purposely, I just had energy, right.

So my elementary school wanted me to come back - because I was already well-known by then - to talk and say what a great education I had. I said no. That's not the talk I would give. I would say I am where I am today not because of what the teachers said about me or did for me, but in spite of it. And I don't think that's what you want, so I will decline. Invite me back one day, and I'll talk just to the teachers, all right, and then I'm happy to tell - give - you know, tell them what they should be looking for, perhaps, in their students.

Also consider - now, see you've got me started here. Also consider that if you a straight-A student in your class, that student has straight A's not because of teachers, but in spite of teachers. That's what having straight-A means. It means you do well, no matter the teaching talent of the teacher. That's what straight A's mean. So if you're a teacher and you put forth your straight-A student as though you had something to do with it, you are deluding yourself.

DAVIES: Right.

TYSON: The greatest teachers are the ones that turn a B student into an A student, or a failing student into a B student. Then let's talk about your teaching talents.

Thanks for the context link, which casts it in a slightly more favorable light. I continue to disagree, for the reasons described above. And I especially disagree with tweeting out just that one line without any context or explanation.

EC #4


The good/bad teacher argument always seems to start somewhere in the middle, when it should start with the question of what we are trying to achieve.

A common complaint is that "teachers take education courses so they don't know the subject". Well, I don't know, do we expect elementary school teachers to have doctorates? In mathematics, for example? To what end?

I think what Tyson needed was for the school to have a psychologist able to support/train teachers in recognizing developmental levels beyond what they might have learned in some undergrad class. Or at least a master teacher good at that stuff filling the role.

For elementary teachers, you need better education courses, at least, and what you really need is more like medical residency, not some short practicum.

Orzel says "personality" clash but I would say it's the teacher not correctly characterizing the student, and adapting the student's experience to fit. (And I'm not saying that's easy to do,)

For elementary teachers, you need better education courses, at least, and what you really need is more like medical residency, not some short practicum.

And as long as we're dreaming, I'd like to see science research budgets adequate to support our researchers.

I'm not saying you're wrong. But implementing your plan takes resources: money to pay the mentors and psychologists, and additional salary money for these better-trained teachers. Resources that most school districts in this country don't have. There is also a good argument to be made that our education programs aren't doing a good job of preparing our teachers to teach, but that's a separate debate.

I do agree with Tyson's follow-up: "The greatest teachers are the ones that turn a B student into an A student, or a failing student into a B student." That's more or less what I was trying to say in the last thread. But I agree with Chad that this does not come out at all in Tyson's tweet.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 14 Jan 2015 #permalink

Eric, #7

Yes we need money but the question is whether existing money is being spent effectively to achieve the goal-- which can't be done without knowing the goal.

As soon as you say "teach", you invoke a particular paradigm.

Assume, arguendo, that we can call one teacher the cause of the transition from B to A or F to B. How did it work? Was it because the teacher was particularly skilled in class control, or presented interesting lectures, or had an innovative syllabus? (The latter I understand is difficult to do these days.)

I think you can see my point-- the purpose of 'teaching' should be that *every* student is different at the end of the year from what she was at the beginning. That requires a particular kind of focus, in the early years at least.

You know, apropos of what you said about being an asshole...

I have come to believe that anyone who disparages the intelligence of their teachers and fellow students has rather missed the point. Yeah, once in a while my physics teacher was a bit behind as far as I was concerned. But you know what? That isn't all that you learn, and if you can't learn anything from somebody the problem is you aren't listening.

I teach a martial arts class on occasion. And there's an old saying for people who get their black belts: "You have gained the skills and earned the right to start learning." This isn't just to express badassery. The point is that learning the art is a lifelong process; there is no end to it, and one can always be better. More salient, one can always learn from others, especially your students. Nobody knows everything.

I have had "bad" teachers and professors. But I would never say they didn't teach me anything or that I was so damned smart that they can't tell me anything, not at this stage of my life. (20 years ago was another matter). I've certainly had professors who I felt were better educators (I measure it by how much I retained from the class, crude I know). But I try to recognize that they sometimes have to cover a lot and maybe the styles didn't mesh well for whatever reason.

I'm slightly uncomfortable with the claims that it's difficult to judge bad teachers - mainly for the inherent asymmetry of the statement. I'm guessing most people who would raise objections to "bad teacher" anecdotes would let "good teacher" anecdotes go by uncontested. If you discount peoples' anecdotal experiences with "bad teachers" saying "well, it's a personality clash" or "he was just having a hard year", then it's somewhat disingenuous to permit personal anecdotes about "good teachers".

Yes, Mrs. Henry inspired you in the subject, but perhaps the rest of the class was turned off by her over-saccharine enthusiasm. Yes, Mr. Jones really connected with your entire 6th grade class, but maybe he was just having a great year - it could be that most years he just punches the clock.

@zebra -- true that. Before we critique our education system it's important to ask ourselves exactly what we want it to do.

And the sense I get is that there are several answers to that, and everybody wants their answer to be the one, and schools are caught in the middle. "Do THIS" no, "Do THAT!" "Don't do THIS but only with THAT and only when THIS doesn't conflict with my worldview,"

Pile on that the fact that the people running the system in any give jurisdiction are often political appointees. Oh yeah, there's a recipe for success! Give the job to the guy leaving in four years or less! Who has a vested interest in just about everything except education. Right-o.

No wonder so many educators throw up their hands and say "screw it."

@zebra - we don't want elementary education teachers to have PhDs in their subjects, for the most part, and pedagogy and educational psychology are particularly important at that stage. But... we also do not want elementary education teachers to be phobic about the subject they are teaching, and, consciously or subconsciously, imparting their fear to the students #maths

By Steinn Sigurðsson (not verified) on 14 Jan 2015 #permalink

Steinn #12

I get a whiff of math-wars cordite here, and I am always willing to return fire. However, that's just another example of what I am talking about and what jesse expands on.

What's the goal? Is it possible to have a discussion without devolving into circularity? That means stating the goals without including the method...?

I generally agree with Chad, both in his original critic and that the context of the tweet helps but doesn't it still isn't a great quip. If, in my opinion, Tyson had tweeted either "I am where I am today not because of what the teachers said about me or did for me, but in spite of it," or "That’s what having straight-A means. It means you do well, no matter the teaching talent of the teacher," (both from the but quoted by EC @#4) his meaning would have been clear and not nearly so troubling.

(P.S. - Please forgive my first comment. Lingering pregnancy brain and 9 weeks of sleep deprivation have impaired my reading comprehension skills. With 3 nights of 6+ continuous hours of sleep under my belt I now see the "can't" at the beginning of the sentence.)

By marciepooh (not verified) on 16 Jan 2015 #permalink

It occurs to me, given the transcript, that Neil mustn't tweet (all) his own stuff. It's a poorly chosen phrase - he appears to have meant "regardless of the quality of the teachers" generally, but "in spite of" in the context of his own personal education experiences. It's an easy linguistic slip to make in the context of an interview, but I can't see Neil seeing that as his intended message if he personally wrote the tweet.

As for the good teacher/bad teacher thing, I'd simply observe that we should be talking about good TEACHING, a more objective topic than the hearts and minds of complex individuals.

If we're going to believe that most teachers are good, and that most stories of Bad Teachers are incomplete, I think it also behooves us to have faith that most students are good, and most stories of Bad Students are incomplete. Especially stories of Bad Students who have too much energy, and don't look exactly like teachers expect someone who "holds down the right end of the grading curve" to look like.