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Gryphon and Teaching Methods in the 1950’s

Charles Baxter’s story, Gryphon, is not so much as an introduction of a rather unconventional character in the guise of a teacher as it is a critique of the formal education in America during the 1950’s. The methods of Miss Ferenczi, the substitute, remarkably contrast that of the traditional style of teaching during that era as espoused by Mr. Hibler and Mrs. Mantei. These teachers revolve around pragmatic and substantiated facts. Miss Ferenczi, on the other hand, believes in and imparts “substitute facts” (Baxter).

While Ms. Ferenczi did display utilitarian knowledge of accepted information, she tended to distort it with her own version of reality. This kind of thinking ran contrary to the national discipline that was being instilled at that time. The social and political context that was prevalent in the 1950’s had a major influence on how education was planned and programmed. After World War II, there was a wave of nationalism that blew through the land. A new enemy had been spotted and it was called communism with Russia as its main exponent. This distrust with communism was further inflamed by McCarthyism.

To combat this new political thought, the federal government responded with a “flood of federal and state legislation, policy papers, and widely disseminated books (that) supported the newly conservative agenda for the schools” (Cohen 22). Arthur Bestor, Jr. was a great influence in the shift to educational conservatism. In his Educational Wastelands (1953), he maintained that “the traditional liberal arts curriculum represented the only acceptable form of secondary education”. In his The Restoration of Learning (1956), he prioritized the following as itemized in order of importance:

(1) intellectual training in the fundamental disciplines, which should be geared to the serious student and targeted at the upper two-thirds of ability; (2) special opportunities for academically superior students; (3) balancing programs for the top third of students with programs for the bottom third; (4) physical education; and (5) vocational training. Of lowest priority…were extracurricular activities (Bestor qtd. in http://education. stateuniversity. com/pages/1786/Bestor-E-Jr-1908-1994. html#ixzz0InAJ8g8r&D) In Bestor’s world and that of Mr. Hibler’s and Mrs.

Mantei’s, Miss Ferenczi would definitely have no place in it. The incident that thoroughly propelled American education towards the direction of conservative education was the scientific successes achieved by the Russians especially after acquiring a head start in the space program as it launched the Sputnik into space. It directly stimulated concern about American education. In response, American schools had to be strengthened not only to correct perceived shortcomings of liberal and progressive school policies but also to meet the needs of the growing population.

Thus, a back-to-basics curriculum was adopted which emphasized “traditional pedagogy and standardized testing” (Cohen 22). Consequently, in 1958, the National Defense Education Act allotted funds to improve the teaching of science, mathematics and foreign languages on every educational level. However, with new discoveries there were simply more and more subject matter that must be taught to more and more children by fewer and fewer teachers. New ways had to be found to meet the new demands upon the schools.

Experiments were tried in new ways of employing a teacher’s time and ability; in different ways of grouping children and organizing classes; and in the use of new machines and equipment. Among those that have attracted wide attention were team teaching, the dual progress plan, the no-graded plan and the teaching machine. Team teaching was an attempt to find improved ways of using the varying abilities of teachers. The central idea was that the teachers of the same grade work with all the children of that grade instead of teaching separate classes.

In some, the team was organized on the basis of teaching experience and leadership ability. In others, the team was organized to use the abilities of teachers in special subjects. One may take all of the children for mathematics, another for social studies, a third for language arts and a fourth for science. The dual progress plan was another experiment concerned with the better use of the teachers’ special abilities. For half the school day, pupils in grade three through six work in English, social studies and physical education.

For the other half of the day, the pupils in all four grades were divided according to their individual talents and abilities and were placed in different groups where mathematics, science, art and music were taught by “specialists. ” The nongraded plan used in some school districts was an effort to provide a school organization that permits children to proceed at their own pace. There was no first grade, second grade or third grade. All children who would normally be placed after kindergarten were put in a “primary” class. At the end of three years, the pupils who successfully completed the work go on to a regular fourth-grade class.

The teaching machine was at that time a recent product in the search for ways to improve teaching and learning. Some machines were simple while others were complicated but they were all based on the same principle. A topic was broken down into a series of small, logical steps presented in question form. A place was provided for a written answer. The machine was so designed that the student knew at once whether his answer is right or wrong. Each question correctly answered gives the student information he needs to answer the questions that follows. The machine permitted the student to work at his own pace.

The teacher is freed from routine tasks and so has more time to work with pupils who need special help and attention that no machine can give (Programmed Instruction 39247). The learning program was based on B. F. Skinner’s “reinforcement theory of learning” which arose from generalizations on controlled analysis of learning behavior. Taken in the classroom setting, this would be the stimulus-response learning method which maintains a “constant interaction between a student and its learning material” hence cutting down the “frustration by placing the mastery of the subject matter within any student’s grasp” (Lysaught & Williams 10-11).

In the story, this programmed learning can be seen from the use of arithmetic problems and spelling dictations. However, Miss Ferenczi effectively negated the program’s professed objective by extinguishing the effect of a positive reinforcement by stating that a word can be “ugly” and encouraging non-usage by stating “if you don’t like a word, you don’t have to use it” (Baxter). There were various methods of teaching that were utilized but none more so than the lecture method, memorization method and problem solving.

There are other teaching methods such as discussion method and creative thinking but these did not have a place with Mr. Hibler. Critical thinking came later to the students but it was not as if it was encouraged but rather it came out as a natural reaction to contrasting information provided by the traditional teachers and Miss Ferenczi. To revert, the lecture method was highly used and this was organized quite adequately in a detailed lesson plan prepared by Mr.

Hibler. While Miss Ferenczi tried to follow the plan, she easily digressed into more creative if highly improbable information disguised as truth. A lecture is a more than effective teaching method according to Dr. Rieske who said, “a well-prepared lecture…contained only the salient ideas necessary to understand course content. ” As opposed to discussion, “students so often would stray to irrelevant, unimportant ideas” (qtd. in Ediger 123).

Memorization was likewise put into good use as students, like in the story commit to memory, “the basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts; basic sight words in developing a reading vocabulary; and essential science and social studies content” (Ediger 123). Again, Miss Ferenczi countered an irrefutable law of numbers with her progressive idea that’s bordering on rebellion of allowing “six times eleven equals sixty-eight as a substitute fact. ” One must remember that organization and administration is a crucial part in school operation.

According to Otto (1954), organization functions in setting the structure of each phase of the school’s operation and in creating the framework of the educational program and curriculum integration (Otto 130-131). It dictates the procedures that must be followed as well as the “educational philosophy and objectives which are supposed to prevail in a school” (130-131). We can see the similarities in the structures mentioned in Otto’s Elementary School Organization and Administration (1954) and in the story’s fourth grade class.

Among others things, both follow the school-lunch program guideline as outlined by Otto. It also followed a curriculum that is subject-centered which embodied a “narrow concept of skills and relying heavily upon transfer of knowledge and skill and taught by the assign-study-recite-test method” (Otto 290). A highly-departmentalized organization can be stifling especially for young boys such as the author. Ms. Jacquelynne Eccles, a professor of psychology mentioned once in a newspaper interview that “educators and parents raised concerns about this gender differential as far back as the 1950s and ’60s.

At that time, she says, many argued that schools were ‘feminizing’ male students by requiring that they ‘sit still’ and be quiet all day” (Price A01). While Miss Ferenczi had likewise called for physical order, she had also managed to move their minds with thoughts of angels and plants that eat animals and mythical creatures with the head of a man and a body of a lion. She allowed them to stray beyond the practical and into the creative. However, Miss Ferenczi was a person ahead of her time and such fanciful teaching method was deemed unacceptable within the organization.

Conservatism had prevailed and American competitiveness will live on even if, initially, it will only be in the field of entomology. Works Cited Baxter, Charles. 2009. American Story: Gryphon. 16 June 2009 <http://www. shortstory. by. ru/baxter/gryphon/index. shtml>. Cohen, Rosetta Marantz. “Using School Reform to Teach Modern U. S. History. ” Teaching History: A Journal of Methods. 26. 1 (2001): 22. Ediger, Marlow. “Assessing Methods of Teaching in the School Setting. ” Education. 122. 1 (2001): 123+.

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