TEACH! comments

So I watched TEACH! (terrible title); this isn’t a review, but some comments for anyone who’s seen it.

Matt Johnson

I sure hope E. D. Hirsch went bowling, or at least took a bathroom break during the early Matt Johnson segments. Ten year olds decoding tedious paragraphs about the weather. And poor Johnson telling them, “We have to find the main idea” and something about details and support. I was screaming “content! background knowledge!” And that’s from someone who thinks background knowledge is a tad less than the panacea the CK folks assure us it is.

Then, just as I’m about to despair, we see him asking the kids what a thermometer is, and you can just see the one little girl perk up. Hey, she knows that. And then he breaks the word down, and “Oh! measure heat!”—let me tell you, that “ooooh!” is teacher crack. Later, one of his students tell him she isn’t too interested in the books she has to read for class. But books on cooking, hey. So he starts finding books that have the background content knowledge his kids already have. That little girl gets her book on Chinese cooking and we get to see her big smile. (Of course, Matt moved the needle much more in math—where were those lessons?)

I can’t tell if Guggenheim understands what happened, or if he just gets lucky in that moment.

Shelby Harris
The teacher chosen for the Academy promo is the teacher who initially declares, “By nature, teachers are control freaks”. Uh, no, honey. You’re a control freak—and while yes, control freaks are thick on the ground in Teacher Land, Shelby is an extreme case. So the rigid authoritarian has to let go and turn it all over to the great God Khan.

And if case you haven’t noticed, just a tiny bit of bias on my part against Shelby, who certainly seems like a nice, caring teacher. But in addition to having a generalized distrust of control freaks in the classroom, I get impatient with teachers who think they have The Answer, which is whatever their New New Thing is. To her credit, she is willing to try something new. But then she becomes a convert. I’m with the many math teachers who think Khan’s curriculum is largely useless, but I can understand if Guggenheim wants to get in right with the current darling of the reform movement. Still, was any objective viewer convinced by her enthusiasm? I’d be more willing to listen to a teacher running down its pros and Khans (snerk).

Were those certificates she handed out at the end from the Khan Academy? So she was spouting all those impressive percentages without mentioning that they weren’t from a state or national test? Iffy, if so.

I did learn something new about Khan Academy, although again, I’m not sure Guggenheim understood what he was showing. Shelby’s adviser kept on pushing “peer tutoring”–that is, let the kids who already understand the material help the kids who don’t. (or “let the smart kids teach”, as the kids think of it.) Google “Khan Academy” “peer tutoring” and it’s clear that KA pushes peer tutoring as a significant advantage of the flipped classroom.

At Stanford, we spent a whole course and then some on complex instruction, which is a key attribute of heterogeneous classrooms. Students do group work and accept responsibility for the learning of everyone in their group. Reasonable people can, I suppose, disagree, but I’m not the only one who sees complex instruction as an attempt to reduce the achievement gap, first by giving out poor grades to the stronger students who don’t get with the cooperation program and good grades to weak students who participate or get the markers or whatever, and then by homogenizing learning, slowing down the progress of the group to reduce the upper end of achievement. Key among its features was the expectation that “everyone is smart in some way” and that one way students who “happen to be good at academics” can be smart is by explaining the subject to their peers until they get it–that is, peer tutoring by another name.

I argued strenuously against peer tutoring then. Why are some kids always being used as tutors? They should be getting math instruction appropriate to their abilities, not filling in for teacher. As a parent, I’ve objected strenuously to it, and I know many other parents who likewise aren’t crazy about their kids being a fill-in for the teacher.

I’m curious that this aspect of Khan Academy isn’t investigated more. And I don’t mean the happy speak about kids helping kids. Does it work? Are kids used as peer tutoring making progress? Any control studies about advanced kids progressing more, less, or the same when they are expected to tutor as when they aren’t?

Joel Laguna

Half of his kids passed the AP World History test, which suggests that his students were, in fact, pretty good. Many low income schools have zero pass rates. So while I salute Laguna’s achievement, his suggestion early on that all his kids were failing strikes me as overstated. Clearly, a lot of them had the goods.

While I’m delighted to see that a history teacher focusing so much on writing, where was the collaboration with the English teachers? Is it something he tried but couldn’t get buy-in? Does Garfield have an honors English class? Our school has a dual AP English/AP US History class, but AP World History is usually for sophomores. I can still see all sorts of synergy that could have happened. Instead, what we get is his UCLA ed school prof telling him about “student centered” vs. “teacher centered” instruction. Apparently, Joel is the only teacher in California who made it through a credential program without hearing of this, a concept that ed schools preach daily. Or perhaps he had chosen against this method for other reasons and his professor was encouraging him to return to it.

In fact, that was a problem with both Laguna and Harris’s transformation. We aren’t given enough context. Knowledgeable viewers can fill in the blanks. But if Laguna’s students were challenged by writing deficiencies (which again, is unclear), then student-centered projects on interviewing the man on the street weren’t going to get it done. I did notice the “Does this make sense?” repetitions, which (gulp) I’ve been guilty of back in my first years. Nice touch.

When I went to the Garfield High School website to see if it had an AP English program, I noticed something odd: Joel Laguna isn’t in the staff directory. I found what was left of his old webpage, but it appears he isn’t at that school anymore.

Lindsay Chinn

In every way, Lindsay’s story was my favorite. It’s one thing for kids to “catch up” in seventh grade math, quite another to teach advanced math successfully. Khan Academy won’t do the trick. Then, we saw a genuine innovation by an interested, supportive administrator—not something he saw in a professional development class, not something he was sold by a publisher. Get all the kids up and working, make it impossible for them to hide out and avoid work. It may or may not work, but it wouldn’t do any harm, and how often does that happen?

But notice that she did not teach the entire algebra curriculum. She couldn’t do it. She improved numbers for her kids in certain topics by dramatically slowing down instruction. You know how everyone is tsk tsking the fact that math teachers aren’t teaching the class advertised in the curriculum, how algebra courses aren’t actually covering algebra, and so on? This is what it looks like. Not a bad teacher, kicking back and just taking three years to cover what should be covered in one, but a teacher who has a choice between teaching a few simple algebra topics thoroughly, hoping the kids will remember more of it. (Which they often won’t, but that’s a different story). It’s a teacher who wants to give her kids a sense of hope and competence, rather than adhere to a rigorous schedule imposed by people who don’t have much of a clue as to what many kids are actually capable of.


That’s the overwhelming reality presented by the film. All four teachers are dealing with the same challenge. They aren’t thinking through better lesson plans, or wondering how they can work with their high achievers, or collaborating to put together interdisciplinary projects to integrate curriculum. Each teacher is handed dozens of students who aren’t capable of working at the course’s intended level. Each teacher knows that he or she will be blamed if their kids don’t see progress. (And of course, high school teachers have that same problem times five, since only one class was shown for both Chinn and Laguna.)

The most overwhelming problem in education today is dismissed with banal phrases like “students need to catch up” or “students start off behind”. We have a diverse society, and tons of evidence that demonstrates a diverse cognitive environment. We don’t know what grade level is. We don’t know what cognitive ability requirements are imposed by algebra, writing historical analysis, or reading Shakespeare.

If we accepted student ability level, if we stopped treating it as a deficiency that must be corrected, think how far we might go.


4 thoughts on “TEACH! comments”

  1. Oh, well done. I also noticed many of these things in watching–Lindsay was, by far, my favorite teacher in the pack, too–and props to her administrator who (unlike 3/4 of his colleagues, these days) advised a kid-friendly strategy: teach ’em so they can learn what they most need.

    Guggenheim also got away w/ turning every one of the teachers’ stories into a Big Success because the general public (and lots of teachers, let’s be honest) didn’t have a clue that the “data” he was citing was cherry-picked (if one test doesn’t yield the right results, try another) and massaged to the nth degree.

    He was also wise to leave out charter-vs-TPS arguments, unions and TFA. Just try to find out if any of these teachers was ever part of a TFA-like “adventure teacher” program. The information is not readily available.

    Sticking with my original diagnosis–the film was subtle, touching and insidious–but appreciate all the points you made here.

    1. I really liked that administrator’s willingness to try something different, as well as his ready acknowledgment that they wouldn’t achieve everything. He was much more interested in finding out what *could* be done, rather than complaining about what hadn’t been done.

      The only metric I trusted was the AP passing rate. All the rest of them were either cherrypicked or relative to some other standard. For example, I wonder how many people picked up on the fact that Lindsay only taught some of the course? And the fourth grade readers are going to start fifth grade behind. Again.

      I wasn’t so much disagreeing with your diagnosis so much as adding comments.

  2. I’m completely with you on the “peer teaching” thing. In fact, I’ve said much the same thing that you did. I hope this is another teaching fad that goes away.

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