In large states public education will always be mediocre, for the same reason that in large kitchens the cooking is usually bad.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
In the first instance, I am going to argue with Nietzsche’s comment: public education as a whole (at least in Australia) is never mediocre. The difference between public schools and private (well-financed) schools is only that teachers in public schools often have to deliver the same curriculum as their private counterparts, but with limited resources.
In public schools we generally don’t have whiz-bang science labs and equipment or state of the art P.E. gear (let alone nice big playing fields with green grass, proper markings and quality goal posts). Often we are using text-books or other resources that have been in the school for decades. (Case in point: My daughter attends the same high school I did 30 years ago. Her current mathematics text-book is the same one I used.)
And — this point deserves its own paragraph — teachers in public schools spend a lot of their own money on consumable resources, nice stationery items and, sometimes, classroom furniture! Believe it or not, these teaching basics are often not provided in public schools with their limited curriculum budgets.
What we do have, and rely on, is creativity, flexibility and an ability to think outside the box. Education is not about the resources used, but about the inspiration and motivation provided by the teachers.
All schools (public and private) have standout teachers.
All schools have teachers who really shouldn’t be doing this job.
To think that Nietzsche’s statement about public education is still true in all cases (large states or small) a century later is ludicrous.
However — I should like to replace the first clause in his quote (in large states public education will always be mediocre) with this one:
In large groups, teaching will always be mediocre …
‘Team teaching’ is one of the current in-words in education.
When delivered well, team-teaching is brilliant. Two teachers plan together, deliver the lesson together and assess together. It’s a win-win situation for the teachers AND for the students.
There seems to be an increasing trend towards putting several classes together in one room — all the kids sitting on the floor, no room to move, and ONE teacher delivering the lesson while the others mark work, sit and listen (and occasionally interject) or go and do photocopying.
The lesson delivery is often very teacher-centred, i.e. the teacher does all the talking. Students are passive ‘participants’. They may be asked to discuss something with the person next to them (rarely) or be asked to answer a question (which the teacher already knows the answer to), but that is the limit of their role.
I have witnessed cases where this ‘lesson’ takes 30-minutes or more. That’s a long time to be sitting on the floor and focusing. I read somewhere once a child’s attention span is roughly equivalent to their age; if you are 10, your maximum time you can focus on listening is 10 minutes. Maximum time!
Quite frequently this ‘team teaching’ method is used to introduce a concept, begin a lesson or give instructions, with the aim of giving all classes the same information. Following this, the classes then disappear back off to their spaces to complete the activity.
This is not team-teaching … although if you ask these teachers if they team-teach the answer is ‘yes’.
With my Kagan Cooperative Learning background, I am not at all comfortable with the above style of so-called ‘team teaching’.
Learning is all about engagement. How many children, out of three classes (so around 80-90 children) sitting crammed in one teaching space, do you think are actively engaged in this ‘learning’ at any one time? Kagan philosophy says around one in four children will be engaged; in my opinion it is more likely to be anywhere from none to one … the one is the child answering the question.
I have been in situations where I have allowed my students to participate in such learning; I have hated every minute of it. When it’s my turn to run the session, I try to use cooperative learning strategies — but this is difficult when there is no room for the students to move, and if the other teachers are not involved.
This is not good teaching.
Alternatively, if I elect to sit my class out of these sessions, I can potentially be questioned by our executive as to why I am not ‘team teaching.’
So, I can either beat myself up about my poor teaching, or have others think I am being a lone wolf and not towing the party line. Being rather opinionated and not scared of being questioned regarding my pedagogy, I more often tend towards the latter.
As I am not a chef, I can not really say whether the proverb too many cooks spoil the broth, or Nietzsche’s assertion about the cooking being bad in large kitchens, is actually true; although I do know if my husband and I are trying to cook at the same time the result is not pretty.
But, I can confirm with absolute confidence that too many students trying to learn together without good team-teaching structure is going to fail.
Our students deserve more.