He Didn’t Do Nuthin’

It’s a ritual of middle school teaching I almost miss.

Something happens: a note is passed, a paper ball flies across the room, someone shouts out a joke when everyone is supposed to be quiet. The teacher fixes their gaze upon the likely suspect, who protests, in simulated or truthful innocence, “I didn’t do nuthin’!”

To which, the kid sitting next to the accused says, in mournful affected disappointment, “that’s right, didn’t do nuthin’. You ought to have been doin’ your work.” And then, turning to the teacher and shaking his head dolefully, “I tell you, mister, these kids today.”

In practice, of course, the accused kid very well may have been better off doin’ nuthin’ than doing his work. Doing your work means writing things down; in middle school at least, a practice that for many kids more-or-less assures that their full attention is focused on forming or copying letters rather than on the topic of discussion or relevant thoughts. As Frank Smith reminds us in The Book of Learning and Forgetting, learning itself is less a matter of work than of social ritual and the company you keep. For many kids, keeping them writing keeps them quiet enough to assure a simulacrum of learning  in the classroom, but may at times prevent actual learning from taking place. (This basic tension, between the appearance of learning and order on the one hand and the circumstances that will allow learning to happen on the other, is the topic of James Herndon’s great memoir of teaching in Oakland in the late 50s, The Way It ‘Spozed to Be.)

For teachers, too, doin’ nuthin’ is an underrated tack. Even the most dedicated reformist will generally concede that first year teachers are, on average, less effective than their more experienced colleagues.  But, if truth be told, it is often because those first year teachers are doing too much rather than not enough: too much disciplining, too much lesson-planning, too much teaching, and none of it very well. The economists’ have a perfectly valid concept for this: negative marginal product, and while they usually ascribe it to a surplus of workers without enough capital to provide for them (if you gotta too many-a pizza cooks without-a enough counter space, you cannot make-a the pizza pie) it is equally coherent to talk about a within-worker diminishing or negative marginal product, hour-by-hour or minute-by-minute rather than employee-by-employee.

Almost anybody– even a halfway conscious assistant principal completing his fifth formal classroom observation of the day– can walk into a classroom and suggest something more the teacher could or should be doing. It is much harder- both technically and culturally— to tell someone to do less.




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