Three Cheers for Teachers: Educational Reform Should Come from within the Classroom and Science Can Inform Our Reforms

By Edwards, Chris | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Three Cheers for Teachers: Educational Reform Should Come from within the Classroom and Science Can Inform Our Reforms


Edwards, Chris, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


I HAVE SPENT A DECADE IN THE CLASSROOM teaching U.S. History, World History, and Advanced Placement World History (half in middle school and half in high school). This experience, along with ten years of higher education in the study of content, curriculum, instruction, and professional development, has shaped my evidence-based belief that educational reform and change, while necessary, will only come from the bottom up from teachers instead of the top-down from administrators and politicians.

Most large scale educational reform schemes, whether they come in the form of new curricular methods, management reforms, charter school schemes, private school vouchers or teacher professional development alterations are defeated by that simplest of technologies: the classroom door. The simple fact is that teachers can close the door and are largely in control of what happens in the classroom, and they are the ones who will choose to implement educational reforms or not. The classroom door is an unending source of frustration for scholars, administrators, reformers, and politicians of the type who view teachers as important only insofar as they can implement whatever educational theory is currently en vogue. Often, teachers see the door as being the last line of defense between their students and the myriad of educational fads that sweep through the profession every few years.

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Diane Ravitch, in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, considers the failure of charter schools, "Teach for America" programs, testing mania, and coercive management styles in trying to reform secondary education. (1) Ravitch is not, as her detractors claim, merely a defender of the status qua, nor does she heedlessly attack the conservative educational agenda, taking pains to note that some of the "new model" schools are wildly successful. Ravitch's point is that such programs are really no more or less successful than the public schools overall, and that these political debates distract from the more meaningful endeavor of engaging teachers and students in the creation of content-based curriculum, which is the type of work which gets behind the classroom door. A great teacher is a great teacher, no matter what the label of the school.

Thus, my arguments for real reform are aimed at teachers and come from a discipline that provides rich and practical insights: the history and philosophy of science.

A Consillence of Science and Education

The history and philosophy of science provides a deep well of analogies, metaphors and guiding principles for educational theory. One of the most important guiding principles to be gained from the sciences is how invigorating a new field can be if it provides, not a coercive system, but a framework for allowing others to participate in the creation of new ideas. Great things have occurred in the sciences whenever they have become organic and allowed for the participants to shape and grow new types of knowledge. Such a philosophy of science has been historically fruitful.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) published his treatise Novum Organum (New Method) in 1620. In this book, Bacon questioned the practice of the late medieval world's secular scholars of assuming that knowledge of the world was more or less complete. This knowledge, based upon the intellectually rich traditions of Greek philosophy, had been the basis of Western university education for centuries. Bacon did not disparage the major figure of Aristotle; indeed to do so would be to perjure one of the greatest practitioners of critical thought in the history of philosophy. Instead, Bacon encouraged his readers to study Aristotle, but he cautioned them against worshipping Aristotle. The point of the intellectual and academic enterprise, according to Bacon, is to build upon what has been previously known.

It naturally follows, to a natural philosopher such as Bacon, that knowledge is gathered and compiled through the process of experiment. …

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