“It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”
~ James Thurber (1894 – 1961)
When I wrote about the small-group shibboleth, I entered a larger area of education called “best practices.” In teaching, many options exist for presenting material. This leads to studies to find the most effective teaching techniques, techniques that then acquire the label “best practices.”
The problem with best practices is that they are too often taken out of context. Presenting material first in a long block in English and then in another block in Spanish, with limited moving back and forth between languages, is considered a bilingual education best practice. Giving instruction in English and then switching back and forth is called code switching, and the research sensibly suggests that many students will tune out the English and simply wait for the translation. That does not mean that material should always be presented in these long blocks, however. It depends on the class. Everything depends on the class.
If a bilingual class consists of students who speak almost no English, then the English block will need to be simpler and shorter. If the class is staring blankly at me, I may choose to code switch rather than leave my students lost while continuing my English lecture. I am the teacher. I can see the confusion. I usually can sense when to change languages for clarification purposes.
If a bilingual class consists mostly of students for whom English is their dominant language — surprisingly often true in Illinois anyway, given that placement is based on an English test and no one may be checking for Spanish understanding — then the English block will need to be much longer. Frankly, sometimes the Spanish block can be dropped entirely, although I prefer to teach dual-language classes as much as possible. But if I am cornered, with immediate tests and quizzes scheduled all around me, I may abbreviate that Spanish piece considerably for time reasons.
I have to know my class to know how to proceed. What I will choose to do will not always look like best practices. I will select the strategy that gets me the best results.
Eduhonesty: I may get in trouble for my choices, though. Administrators may ding me for not using alleged best practices, even administrators with limited teaching experience and limited understanding of those best practices. Too many people have read the synopsis of the study’s results, and not the study itself.
Too many people are failing to ask critical thinking questions such as the following: If the teacher in the study was instructing 22 economically-advantaged students with a full-time teaching assistant when she conducted her action research, will the same results apply to a teacher in an impoverished, urban neighborhood with high absenteeism, no aide and an average of 32 students per class? If not, what accommodations will be necessary to make the new strategy work? Can this strategy actually work without that smaller class size and full-time aide? Would another strategy be better, given the constraints posed by class size, lack of resources and chronic absenteeism?
One size never fits all. Some fashions fit almost no one, such as those long, tight, slinky sun dresses with the horizontal stripes. If those dresses look good on anyone except models, I’ve yet to meet that person. And any study that takes place in a room with under twenty-five students and a full-time aide may only work in small classes with aides — a vanishingly small percentage of regular classrooms in many districts.
I’ll throw down the gauntlet: I think small-group work, while sometimes valuable, has become seriously overrated. All small groups all the time seems pretty close to malpractice to me, not because groups don’t work. They do sometimes. I have a few outfits with horizontal stripes that fit me fine. But the evidence for the benefits of large-scale, unrelenting use of small groups remains tenuous at best. Where is that evidence? I’ve looked for it. I haven’t found it yet. Fashion should not make us make stupid choices.