“You know how we can solve the problem?” he said to me.  We were talking about good teaching, and about how there weren’t enough high-quality teachers in the world to meet the needs of all the children in our country.

“We bring the good teachers to the places where there are none,” he continued.

I looked at him blankly.  Brilliant idea, I thought, sarcastically.  I listened nonetheless, attempting to entertain the idea, even if only momentarily.

“And how do you suggest we do that?” I replied to him.

“Videos,” he said back to me.  “If we capture good teaching on video, then we can get kids the teachers they deserve.”

It was my first time talking with a techie–almost two years ago now–and little did I know at the time, it wouldn’t be my last. I tried to reason with him, and I tried to push into his logic. I shared that, while videos can be helpful in the classroom, they are not an absolute means to teaching.  Despite my valiant efforts to change his reductionist mindset, he didn’t seem to budge, and not long after that, we stopped working together.

A reductionist rendering of a duck’s digestive system.

The Dangers of Reductionism in Education

Reductionism refers to a philosophy in which systems are reduced down to and defined by their “individual constituent parts and their interactions” (Wikipedia).  To a certain extent, reductionism can be helpful in teaching and learning.  The act of reducing pieces of the learning experience to discrete variables can help us get to the root of specific issues.  Personally, I’m the kind of educator who keeps very specific data on each of my students for this very specific reason.  This data is helpful, not only as a gauge of academic progress, but the diversity of the data also helps me to see trends, allowing me to make educated guesses on next steps or where possible breakdowns in learning may occur.

However, this reductionist mindset is not an absolute for me.  While I have a strong understanding of the “individual constituent parts and their interactions,” I also know that these constituencies are neither exhaustive or static at any given point in time.  Children are dynamic beings, constantly evolving, building new constituencies within themselves, all interacting in different ways.  Part of my job is not just to be reductionist, but to also be holistic, recognizing that the whole is almost always greater than the sum of its parts, amalgamated by intangible emotions, passions, and tender relationships.

It is for the this reason that I pushed so hard into my colleague’s vision for education.  He had reduced good teaching down to a formula, one that could be replicated through the mere use of video, implying that every lesson a teacher does follows a specific cadence, and that some sort of universal lesson exists out there, one that will teach all children in the same way, forgetting that so much of what an educator does lies in the space between learning objectives.

Alas, his approach was no different than a one-size-fits-all curriculum; it varied hardly from the factory model of education, out of which we’re so desperately trying to pull ourselves.  Putting videos in front of children and expecting them to do our jobs for us is not only terrible for the children, but it also robs them of the personal, emotional relationship that all children crave with a teacher.  What’s more, this solution does not get to one of the major roots of the “education problem,” which among other factors, is quite arguably, teacher preparation programs.

What’s Wrong with Teacher Preparation Programs?

I have nothing but respect for the handful of women who made me the educator I am today.  They are the reason that I was incredibly excited to start my first year as an educator, and they are the ones I think of frequently when I have a problem.  In hindsight, the reason those women (shout out to Stephanie, Alicia, Jen, Sunny, Erika, and Ali) were so influential was not just because of their knowledge of the profession, their years of experience in the classroom, or even the tips and tricks they offered me along the way.  Instead, it was their encouragement, their focus on relationships, and the stories they shared that really helped me to see what being in the classroom would be like and what it would take to actually do the job.

Despite the value of this, I still didn’t spend nearly as much time with them as I would have hoped.  In fact, in my fourth year, one of them was replaced by a professor who had come off of a sabbatical.  Her class was full of theory and packed with research, some of which was helpful.  But overall, it is generous of me to say it was dry.  It lacked the humanism I now know defines the classroom, the experience that could only be conveyed by a teacher.

Too many teacher preparation programs today are victim of just this.  They’re run by bureaucratic organizations, hellbent on making money from accelerated Master’s programs, prioritizing high-profile professors and prestige, rather than real educators who’ve invested themselves in creating compassionate, joyful, and loving classrooms and bettering practice from the ground up.

This mindset is pervasive, so much so that it has invaded mainstream America, too, hence my discussion with my techie friend, some two years ago, almost to-date.  The idea is that teaching can be reduced to a formula, that it can be automated by machines, and that it can teach our children better than we, the humans, can is preposterous and dehumanizing.  It loses sight of the true purpose of technology in the classroom, and fails to recognize the importance of training educators who can engender student-driven, empathic environments.

So what can we use technology for?

In fact, one might go so far to say that herein lies technology’s true power in the classroom.  What I’ve learned from my most influential teaching partners or mentors is the importance of reflection and research in our daily practice.  Technology can aid us in this manner, not as a director, automator, or decision-maker, but rather as a “thought partner,” as my brilliant colleague, Courtney (@mindfulheartEdu), says.

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 7.20.33 AM

Technology, in its current form, has the ability to aggregate data from multiple sources, to provide us endless resources for bettering practice, and can help us connect with educators, many with whom we’d never be able to connect without technological advances in blogging, video sharing, and social networking.  And it my opinion, it is these things that technology should be focusing on in the education system at-large.  In essence, technology should be enhancing our ability to think and analyze, instead of taking that responsibility off our plates.  We shouldn’t be dehumanizing the classroom through benign tech tools that fail to understand the human experience; we should instead, be using technology to help prepare teachers better–to make us more reflective, more responsive, and more connected than ever before.

Leave a Reply