Idiot robots – a mere kvetch among friends?

A work in progress, to be edited later……….

Even though a possible literary allusion in the words “idiot robots” has been revealed that would soften their effect, I would still caution teachers against using the term in referring to students. Someone might misunderstand, as I did.

My response to the original post dealt with two separate issues that have been staples on flteach for the 15 years I’ve been on it: prescriptivism and invidious comparisons of students.

The latter takes the form of claims that students in former times were superior in most ways to students now; it is, in fact, so common, that I have labeled it “Kids These Days” and even have a category on my blog titled that. No response is given when I quote similar comments from prominent persons in the 30s and early 40s about “kids those days” who went on to become the Greatest Generation. No one mentions that the irresponsible, disrespectful, imbecilic students of today are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for us. I have given examples of persons comparing today’s students to students of only ten years ago or less and one even only the previous year! No response to speak of. The mind-set is firm: kids these days are fundamentally and essentially different from those the writer went to school with.

No matter how ill-prepared and poorly behaved the List members think their students, they do not engage in name-calling. In fact, I can think of only one List member that regularly classifies students by IQ and he does not engage in name-calling.

The issue should be how we approach the students of today. If I can look at my classroom of average students in an average school and see that 80-90% of them are no different from kids in my day, the 50s, then the issue must be the total environment we work in. That would include, for instance, the fact that more homework is given these days than in the past.

But I am sure someone will disagree with that. So how do we settle the issue? Going to education experts seems pretty useless for the simple reason that we will disagree on who is an expert and who is a charlatan or shill. All we have to do is look at the debates over school choice to see that everyone trots out his own expert of choice. For me, it’s Alfie Kohn, for others, it’s the pre-apostasy Diane Ravitch. Nevertheless, we should be able to discuss it.

What is harmful in the belief that “kids these days” are a different breed from those of yesteryear is that it prevents us from realistically examining what is going on. Ellen Shrager, who presents at fl conferences, has developed a pretty comprehensive catalogue of differenes between the kids we used to teach and those we teach now. It is that sort of laying out of the evidence that allows us to discuss intelligently and productively how to approach the students.

Just one example of where we may differ on the substance of changes in students: it may not be that students of yore grasped the material more easily but that they were quiescent when they failed to understand. That would raise the question of standards; can we not compare students of today with those of the past? It turns out it is not so easy. One List member stated that she had drawers of materials she could no longer use with her students (she wasy comparing students of the turn of this century to those a little after the middle of the century, i.e. those of 2000 with those of the 60s and 70s, I would estimate). While dramatic, it is anecdotal and not something we can ttake to the bank.

On my blog, I devote a lot of discussion to this vexing issue. The one difference between schools of half a century ago and those of today is racial integration and the vast number of immigrant children in our classrooms.

The other point of contention is prescriptivism That is so much clearer, so much more easily dealt with, that it falls into the category of “no-brainer”. You either study the evidence from linguistics, something one would think fl teachers would do readily, or you wallow in the shibboleths of the grammar police. The grammar police have been shown over and over not to know (or to not know) what they are talking about. Few move beyond the eleven or so shibboleths propounded by almost no grammar experts even outside of linguistics; I doubt grammar manuals or the euphemistically titled style manuals still forbid starting a sentence with a conjunction or ending one with a preposition. It is mostly people who know neither school grammar nor linguistics who cite these silly rules.

So there, the problem is one of, to use a word favored by many teachers, laziness. If you are unwilling, as a language teacher, to read a book on English grammar, that comes close to laziness. Dare I raise the specter of unprofessionalism? It raises the hackles of fl teachers when someone demonstrates ignorance of the language they teach (he teaches), but ignorance of the language we write most posts in, English, seems not to be a problem.

You cannot do any more about that than you can teachers who refuse to grapple with the information in ed classes re learning disabilities, minority student cultures, the culture of poverty, and learning psychology. If the preference is to fall back on easy judgments or on received shibboleths about grammar, then that’s the way it’s going to be.

To underscore this point, the blog gods directed me to a post just as I finished writing the above where the writer asserted that the time in the psychology and history of ed courses she took would have been better spent working alongside a master teacher. I fear she is right, if for no other reason than so often teachers show no retention of the material they were supposed to have learned in the hx of ed classes or the psychology classes. So often, teachers on these listservs proclaim they are appalled by this or that; I am appalled when teachers show no grasp of the history of ed nor of the psychology of their pupils. They fall back on canards and “common knowledge”.

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