To keep in mind…

Students become teachers. :)

We want the best for the kids. No doubt that we long for the best teaching technics, that will make every student smart and happy. But before we promote or ban any teaching method, we should be cautious and keep a few things in mind.

I apologize to those you consider the following advices as trivial. But experience has taught me that trivial things are generally the main causes of disasters. They are easily forgotten in the process of policy making, because people prefer to focus on more prestigious matters.

A method is always a trade-off between various and contradictory objectives.

The balance between advantages and disadvantages should be carefully monitored. Not only once, but several times, because the situation may evolve.

Financial cost is also to be taken into consideration. At a political level, very simple decisions can have huge impacts on budget. Beware of promises! Any waste of ressources means that money will be missing for important projects. The motto “at all cost” is meaningless. There is always a limit, even when lives are at stake. To give an absurd example, if you spend $100,000,000 to save a crone, maybe it’s 1,000 children you won’t be able to save for lack of qualified personal. I don’t doubt an NGO who struggles with donors to keep its projects going on is well aware of this issue. But we must be ready to answer to those who don’t care: parents who believe they have “rights” to defend, polticians who are used to run on deficits, or just coworkers who don’t feel responsible for someone else’s money.

There are conditions before any method can be implemented. Creative and elegant methods usually require more conditions, on both material and intellectual planes. For instance, Montessori’s method allows the kids to choose most of their activities, but it requires a lot of expensive materials. You cannot be efficient in teaching free children, if you don’t have a lot of games at hand for them to choose. The teacher has no time to improvise new activities and monitor all the students on different stands. He needs games they can play on their own for the majority of the time. He also needs a lot of training to make sure that the children do not miss anything essential. The socratic method is very elegant: the teacher asks questions to students to make them find the truth by themselves. It’s good because it stimulates critical thinking, but it requires a lot of preparation and skills to guide the conversation in the right direction.

Even the worst method has been proposed for a purpose. Before you ban the bad method, try to find out its purpose. Maybe there is a real problem you must address. For instance corporl punishments answer to the neccessity of order and calm in the classroom. You must find another way to enforce school regulations before you supress them. If you don’t, you create conditions for more violence, not less. When the basic rules aren’t enforced at all, teachers are more likely to get angry and eventually beat children, even if it wasn’t their intention at first. Of course, good solutions do exist. One just has to be prepared.

The best method is always that of the winner.

No method is the best under all circumstances.

There aren’t necessarily a winner and a loser, because people are different and their objectives may vary.

Worse doesn’t mean bad, nor better good. The best student in a bad class is barely able to pass the exams, while the worst at the MIT is likely to find a pretty good job.

Promoting a good and new method doesn’t imply that we should despise those who implement traditional ones. If I suggest that group work is more intersting for the students, it doesn’t mean that lectures are boring. In fact, those statements depends on the context, and it’s very likely that none is better all the time. The skills and the tastes of the teacher are determining.

The choice of method belongs to the lowest ranking officer.

The duty of the hierarchy is to provide tools and training, so that the lowest ranking officers are empowered to make good decisions. The training must always include a warning about the limitations and drawbacks of the method we promote. It’s a question of honesty and caution.

The hierarchy sets the objectives to ensure the necessary coordination. The curriculum must be common, in order to ensure that the students can pass easily from one school to another or one grade to the following one. Prerequistes are a major question in the field of education, maybe the most difficult to deal with.

On the other hand, methods and detailed schedules are not to be decided from above.

The highest authority should make its own schedule a long time in advance, so that its subordinates can plan their own activities according to it and make real choices, without fearing to cancel everything because of an unexpected visit. When too many people are involved, it’s no use to try and negociate the schedule. Better send an arbitrary summons, but with proper delays to allow people to adapt to it.

A plan that cannot be altered is a bad plan.

A plan that doesn’t make choices and tries to keep all the options opened is no plan at all.

People tend to consider the tools as mandatory, when they come from an authority, especially if they involve big investments. It can lead to bad decisions or doing things for bad reasons. Teachers need computers to display educational pictures, play accurate language activities, find new ressources such as ebooks or articles that wouldn’t be available otherwise and so on. But don’t use a computer or a tablet just because it looks like 21st century. Leave that argument to the communication staff. In the classroom, keep in mind what’s best for the kids. Computers and tablets are great tools, but are causes of distraction and waste of time, if used improperly.

Give up a bad method before it is too late. There is no shame in trying and failing. Beware of the fallacy of lost costs. It leads to disaster. This fallacy says that if we give up now, all the previous investments will be lost. It’s a very common but very dangerous reasonning. To make good decisions, you must consider the probability of future gain, not what you’ve already spent. How many more soldiers a general should sacrifice because otherwise “our brothers would have died in vain”?

When a failure is obvious, it’s frustrating, but safer, to go back to the statu quo ante bellum, before you can find the time and the ressources to analyze the failure properly.

Another solution, often better, is to just let people do as they see fit. That’s free market after the failure of the soviets.

Always keep an escape road. For instance, in the field of education, don’t burn your old manuals. Keep them in reserve. You’re not sure that the new ones are always better. At least you may need the old ones as points of comparison or to address specific needs. I appreciate to have them for educational support or to prepare a test. We are not at war. And even if we were, burning one’s ships is relevant only in very special circumstances.

No measurement system can replace first-hand testimonies. Measurements complement and verify the vague impressions of the witnesses. If testimonies and measurements contradict each other, we should probably launch further investigation.

More than 50% of the statistics are biased, including this one, of course.

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