KIPP: The difference between teaching, training, and indoctrination

A Teacher who is prepared to have their practice recorded and posted online deserves respect. I’ve done it myself and it’s a risk.

I would, therefore, like to make it clear from the beginning this blog is not an attack on the teacher in the film. I’m not going to comment on her style or the way she speaks. I am, instead, going to discuss the strategy she uses with the children and then offer an opinion on why I think it is flawed.

To my mind this is a legitimate subject for inquiry, the strategies we use in school are the tools of our profession and require thoughtful analysis and evaluation.

The video


The session

Some observations:

  • The session is well rehearsed. The adults in the room seem to know their roles well and are going through a familiar routine.
  • The aim of the session is to train the children to behave in a particular way decided by the school for a particular purpose.
  • The behaviour the adults want the children to adopt is tracking. Tracking involves watching the teacher at all times while they talk.
  • The children are told they should track the teacher while they are talking because “unless you are tracking the speaker with your eyes you can’t listen”.
  • The children are not involved in a discussion about why the school thinks the behaviour is advantageous or asked about their own strategies for ‘good listening’. They are simply told what to do and why to do it.
  • The children see the behaviour modelled by adults and then practice it as a class until it becomes part of their own ways of behaving.
  • They are rewarded by lots of praise and kind words.
  • There is a clear message the adults will be patient while the children learn the new behaviour, but no conversation about whether they find tracking useful or whether there might be other strategies for effective listening.
  • We are told those children who don’t get the message are kept behind to discuss it further.
  • The teacher makes it clear the adults don’t view this as a punishment.

Some thoughts

1. Is it true people can’t listen unless they are tracking the speaker?

Not in my experience.

I can listen quite well without looking at the speaker: in fact it is often easier and less distracting. I understand from reading other people’s thoughts this is not an uncommon experience.

I, also, have no difficulty listening to the radio or audio-books – two media where the speaker is not visible.

I suspect most children will quickly come to the same conclusion. If they close their eyes or look away they can still hear their teacher. And what about blind people?

I wonder what conclusions the children will come to once they realise their teachers have been telling them nonsense? And what will they think of tracking?

2. If it’s not for listening, what is the purpose of tracking?

I’d suggest feedback.

Tracking gives feedback to the teacher about children’s levels of engagement. It is very difficult as a speaker to tell if people are really listening, especially if they don’t look like they are listening – they are staring out the window, doodling, spinning round, poking the person in front of them.

Tracking would seem to indicate more attentiveness, particularly if it is accompanied by smiles, nods of approval, and the occasional polite question.

So, why don’t the adults tell the children this is why they want them to track?

I suspect because what underlies the approach is an assumption that children don’t need to know why. They just need to do what they are told.

It’s possible the adults don’t know the truth themselves and really do believe people can only listen when they are looking at the speaker.

Either that or they are lying to the children.

I’ve argued elsewhere why teachers shouldn’t lie to their students

3. So, the strategy of tracking is fine if we make a slight modification?

Well, no. Not really.

The problem with the approach goes deeper. It’s all about the difference between teaching children and training them. When we teach children we put the focus on learning, when we train them we put the focus on obedience.

The method used in the video does not require the children to think beyond doing what they are told and believing the adults. They need do no more than comply. If they comply they are rewarded by kindness, if they do not comply they are required to stay behind.

There is no discussion about why the strategy works, who it works for, or if it is the best one to use for those people doing the listening. The word for this is indoctrination, it’s a strong word because it carries many negative connotations, but in this case it seems to fit the definition: “teach (a person or group) to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.”

The method used in the video (and I assume universally across the KIPP schools) does not involve questioning or discussing the strategy of tracking, it merely requires those involved to do as they told, uncritically.

I suggest this is not good education.

Of course any person joining a community needs to learn the social norms, expectations, and conventions of that community. A significant role of education is to teach children how to operate successfully with other people in a place where they can’t always do as they please. This can be a difficult process for some children, especially if their home background has not prepared them sufficiently for the demands of school.

However, this does not justify the kinds of training methods that indoctrinate people into a prescribed set of beliefs uncritically. Not unless you think children are different from other kinds of people and, as adults, we are entitled to treat them differently.

4. Should we treat children in the same way we treat adults?

No. But we should certainly treat them with the same level of respect.

Children cannot be free in the same way adults are. They can’t just decide to leave school and do what they like. We can’t allow them the same liberties and opportunities we give to grown ups. But we can treat them with just as much respect and dignity.

Freedom is not the same as licence. None of us have the licence to do as we please. We all have to operate within limits – legal, social, financial, environmental – and children are just the same. Only they have more limits than adults. This is the truth of living within a society.

I believe we should teach this to children. Being free is not about doing what you like, when you like, it is about thinking about what you are doing, why you are doing it, and having opportunities to affect your environment.

By not teaching children these truths or giving them opportunities to think critically about the choices they make, or the communities they live in we are denying them an important part of their education.

The problem I have with the strategy used in the video is that it is imposed, uncritically, upon the children in the class, without genuine discussion or understanding. It is not about learning or what the students themselves need, it is about adult control and compliance. It is teacher-centred pedagogy, where the adults know best and children are treated as people without the same rights as other human beings.

Some people point towards the academic success of the KIPP system (although there are some questions about this too) and say the ends justify the means.

I beg to differ.

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