education, culture

I read this thing and I want to talk about it.

The question is, why do some students do better than others? Are there good teachers and bad teachers? (There must be, right?) How can we measure teacher quality? The essay reviews a lot of literature on the subject and ends up with a big shrug. It seems like teachers have a small but non-zero affect on students' long-term achievement.

Anyway what I want to say is:

It's the culture. It's the culture of the kids in the class. That's why one disruptive student can have such a big measured impact. They can swing the whole classroom culture away from the subject and toward scatology, or whatever. But I think there must be a hundred effects more subtle than just the presence or absence of disruption. What do kids talk about with eachother? Do they cheat, and how much? What do they think of their teachers, their school, their parents, their community? How do they feel about their own futures?

Really great, standout teachers don't just cover the material, they're not just "more engaging." They actually hijack the culture of the classroom and bend it towards academic achievement. Every great teacher I've had did this, either via a naturally contagious enthusiasm for the subject, or by literally terrifying the class and commanding their respect. (Ideally both.)

When you join the military (I'm led to believe), you go through basic training. In all the montages I've ever seen, a mean old drill sergeant will break you down, put you through hell, and you'll come out the other side a completely different person. But what's happening at the cultural level of the platoon?

You start as a group of civilian strangers with a weak shared culture based on national identity, and a wide variety of problem solving and interpersonal approaches. Take that culture and hand them guns and tell them to take a hill, what do you get?

At the end of basic, you have a different (and -importantly- shared) culture. One that values teamwork, physicality, toughness, aggressiveness, hierarchy. Now hand the second group guns. Right?

The drill sergeant's main job is not to whip the recruits into physical shape. That's important, but their main job is to wipe away civilian culture and replace it with military culture, because that's the culture you need to be an effective soldier.

Back to education. Kids learn from eachother. Maybe not academic subjects so much, but behavior. Disruptive, studious, creative, serious, cynical, whatever. The culture of the class determines how the student interacts with the teacher's lessons. Will she sink her teeth into the big project and learn a ton? Or will she half-ass it, collude, cheat, and end up with little to show (academically) for her time? The classroom culture determines the outcome.

Kids in school have a really strong culture all their own. This culture is molded by their previous school experience. Teachers influence this culture. Standout teachers can hijack it in a way a drill sergeant does. But this is difficult to replicate. Kids are cynical, and their culture is resistant to "inspirational teachers."

Ok that's what I wanted to say. I don't have any citations, this is just my 20 minutes of thought.

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