Saturday, 15 August 2009

La la land and netherworld

Dear Craig,

Thank you for your reaction.

I owe you an apology. I commented on your advertising of an e-book in which you set out your system to guarantee class room discipline. I did so by choosing one item out of many and I wrote a snide comment on it. That's not a very nice thing to do and, given your comment, it clearly raised your hackles.

It would have been better if I had had a look at your career and background before funnelling my thoughts through the tunnel of my vision. I would have discovered the rationale behind your advices to inexperienced teachers. A teacher who earns his living at a Los Angeles high school and who has taught at Los Angeles County Probation Camps fights in the trenches of a war. He may call a spade a spade and use it as as it was used in the trenches of the Great War: more effective than a bayonet in a man-to-man fight.

I guess I would certainly have to adapt my teaching to a situation in which I can expect a makeshift knife in my back at any time.

So I apologize.

Having said this in all sincerity, I will not budge on my stance. Though based on a man's rich experience and keen observations in the classroom, very recognizable for a fellow teacher, even from abroad, your conclusions do not cut ice with me.

I work in The Netherlands, in a rural area at a comprehensive school which was rated last year the safest school in the district by external standards. Parents and students are mostly cooperative though once in a while a father may be disgruntled or a student may respond by saying "Klootzak", which is the Dutch equivalent for "Go F*** Yourself". No riots at school, no fighting, any bully will be addressed immediately. So I work in what you call "La la land."

La la land does exist. In fact it is not limited to some school in The Netherlands, where I happen to work. I have visited schools in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, England, and the United States (Michigan). All these schools seemed to be located in La la land. They resemble my school environment in the way teachers and students communicate. All those schools offer attentive, appreciative environments where an education is the reward

In my post I denunciated an example of your advice: in La la land such a teacher behaviour is completely over the top. Here is another quote that I find extremely strange:

"This is all a judgement call–do what you think will help your classroom environment in the long run. In other words, if a student really likes coming after school to talk to you, then chatting with them isn’t going to help your case. "

You see, I like chatting informally with students, before, during and after my lessons, and I know it is helping my case a lot.

In my La la land there is a clear awareness that any group of young adolescents easily can turn into a pack of wolves when they lack a leader. Inexperienced teachers must learn to call the shots and they must learn to do so using their own personality and style. To my experience as a coach prescribing young colleagues a rigid system of techniques is useless. For example: non-verbal posturing may contradict an impeccably implemented technique which makes the teacher ridiculous in the students' eyes.

Expelled from the classroom

La la land is not located in fairyland. Of course I cannot always avoid punishment. You seem to punish a great deal by detaining a lot of students for fifteen minutes? In Dutch education a 15 minutes detention zone after school hours is just risible. One hour is the minimum to make sure that the peer group will not wait for the culprit to bike home together. A favourite punishment is sweeping the school's premises. Especially in autumn that can take a lot of time. Helping the caretaker with the vacuum cleaner heightens environmental awareness. Oversleeping in the morning too often means reporting for duty half an hour before the first lesson for a full week, just to learn to set the alarm clock. This is all done in a concerted effort by all staff to keep anyone sharp towards our targets. It helps the inexperienced teacher above all. He needs support.

I would like to end with a favourite quote of yours:

"This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."
(Winston Churchill)

At least that's something we agree on. Albeit, you seem to emphasize the unbending rule, while I prefer to look for the honour and good sense.

Kind regards,

Sunday, 9 August 2009


Today I learned from reading an interesting article on homework by Cathy Vatterott, the first chapter of her book "Rethinking Homework". An extensive review of the complete book can be found at Ecology of Education. It made me aware that homework in the United States seems to be more of an issue than in The Netherlands. Cathy Vatterot subverts some beliefs underlying the cult of homework. I agree with her on some of her arguments, I have doubts about others.

The daily chore

At least at my school homework is taken for granted by parents and students. No parent ever asks seriously whether we could do without this nuisance. Conversely over the last ten years parental problems have spawned private institutions that offer guided home work facilities after school hours. Some parents fork out a hefty fee mounting up to € 300 per month to have their child do the daily chore in such an institution instead of at home.

The necessity

Homework can contribute to learning at school. Certain tasks done at home can expedite and intensify learning in the classroom. Learning foreign languages benefits from cramming vocabulary individually at home. Interviewing grandmother brings personal oral history into the history lesson. Homework can also extend learning beyond the classroom. Our national targets for cultural education demand from students that they visit theatres and museums of their own choice in their own time. This programme has proven to be highly effective complementary to events organized by school within the school day.

Procrastinating the work

Albeit, I feel I must be very critical about dealing out home work tasks to my students. Especially when targets can be met in the classroom I consider it a personal failure to relegate tasks to home work. When home work tasks are given routinely I can see that students relax in the classroom. It gives them an excuse not to learn here and now in my class room. Their natural preference for meeting peers informally immediately takes over my class room management.

Disturbing facts

As a tutor I have inquired into the time management of my fifteen year old students when doing their homework. Equal workloads are being processed by different students in an amazing variety of time frames ranging from fifteen minutes per day through two hours and a half per day. What I find very disconcerting is the strong correlation between school success and failure and these data of time management. Students who fail to concentrate for longer than half an hour on their home work invariably score poor grades, especially for foreign languages, while students who succeed in working for a prolonged period are high achievers.

The waste of talent

This may sound reasonable to the puritans amongst us who believe in hard work as a road to success, and I surely agree that hard working students deserve their good grades, but it cannot be denied that school success clearly is gained at a place and time that are beyond control by the teacher. We cannot allow ourselves to waste talent in such a way. A school system in which homework is the leverage to success is biased against students from deprived backgrounds that don't support concentrating on home work. In addition, Dutch data on school success gives evidence that girls attain better than boys, which can be explained by differences in development between both genders. To my experience fifteen year old girls are on the average more motivated to do homework than boys at the same age.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

A fight

Tonight I listened to two British speakers, Michael Gove, Conservative spokesperson for Education and Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, brought to me by David Price's blog.

Though Dutch schooling, in which I work, and British education (Good heavens, some parents send their children to expensive independent private boarding schools? Why would they do that???) seem to be utterly disparate, these speeches made clear to me that we are in the same battle. People complain about the loss of standards (Gove) while others desperately try to build a new curriculum (Taylor).

Apparently we are in a paradigm shift all over Europe, if not the western hemisphere, for that matter. The fight is about "knowledge" versus "skills".

The issue comes down to the position of the teacher. Is the teacher willing to accept that his training may be outdated while his wisdom is needed? Is he/she an outstanding example of life long learning? If not, we will loose this battle. If yes, students will understand they need their teacher's knowledge, while helping him out with the skills needed for these new media and this new world.