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The Classroom According to Hunter

August 12, 1990|BY DAVID L. KIRP | David L. Kirp, a UC Berkeley professor of public policy, is the author of "Learning by Heart: AIDS and Schoolchildren in America's Communities" (Rutgers University Press) and "Managing Educational Excellence" (Falmer Press).

ON A MILD spring morning in the hills above Santa Barbara, a hundred schoolteachers, principals and superintendents gather in uneasy democracy for a daylong workshop billed as "The Best of Madeline Hunter." Each has paid $40, a bargain rate, to hear the most sought-after guru in American education.

At 8:30 on the dot, Hunter moves to the rostrum. She is a diminutive woman, perfectly coiffed and carefully lipsticked, who looks a decade younger than her 73 years. At the merest wave of her hand, bagels and coffee cups are put down; silence descends. It's a show of quiet, almost priestly authority, familiar to generations of Hunter students.

"I used to think teachers were born, not made," Hunter tells her audience, "but I know better now. I've seen bumblers turned into geniuses, while charismatic characters turned out happy illiterates."

People in the audience are nodding in happy agreement. On this day, away from the persistent doubts and ambiguities of real classroom life, they are hoping for tangible solutions, answers to all the bad news about declining test scores, rising dropout rates, state-of-siege schoolyards, distrustful parents and fulminating politicians. None of that gloom intrudes on this room, though. Madeline Hunter is about to show off her teaching technology, and the Hunter method promises only good news.

"Education is at the breakthrough stage reached by medicine in another age," she announces, "a time when scientists discovered it was germs and not evil spirits that caused trouble. We have identified the cause-and-effect relationships in education.

"By changing nothing but the ability of the teacher to teach, we can bring about a more dramatic change in the success of a child in learning than through the manipulation of any other factor."

With just a handful of slides to illustrate her talk, Hunter settles down to business. "What's the definition of an effective teacher?" she asks, and one teacher quickly responds: "Someone who is appropriately compensated for efforts and results." That answer betrays a fa miliar teacher's preoccupation, but it's not the response Hunter wants. Pacing back and forth at the front of the room, she fishes for more. "I'd never ask this question of parents," she coaxes, "because parents don't have the sophistication." That pat on the back encourages another teacher to volunteer a one-word reply, "Feelings."

"Feelings are inferences," Hunter snaps. Then she answers her own question. "It's what a teacher does , not who she is or how she feels, that makes for effectiveness."

What most educators mean by "doing Madeline Hunter" is using her seven-step approach to planning a lesson. In Santa Barbara, as in most of her road shows, several hours are devoted to spelling out this technique, which calls for specific acts of review, introduction, explanation, "modeling" (demonstrating), "dipsticking" (checking for understanding), "monitored practice" and independent study. Her system, says Hunter, simply combines positive reinforcement with what good teachers have always done.

Hunter disguises the simplicity of it all with her own lingo ("anticipatory set" equals review). She brings her message to life with illustrative asides (to explain the differences between students from advantaged and disadvantaged homes, she invents Poverty Johnny, whose mother tells him to shut up, and Affluent Johnny, whose mother delivers the same message in a few hundred multisyllabic Latinate words), and similes ("Monitored practice is critical, since new learning is easily damaged, like wet cement"). Along the way, she delivers the welcome promise: It's easy to teach Hunter-style.

The afternoon session is devoted to another well-known Hunter technique: "disciplining with dignity"--an approach that rigorously deconstructs and organizes what she calls "skillful manipulation." Like the seven steps, disciplining with dignity owes a great deal to behavioral-learning theories and notions of reinforcement. Teachers are told how to occupy teen-agers' minds with "sponge activities" when they drift into their seats at the beginning of a class (for example, put on the blackboard a problem for students to answer before the bell rings) and how to get the attention of a dreamy-eyed student ("Use a student's name. The one thing your brain cannot ignore is your own name").

In the shiny world that Hunter presents, everything is reducible to formula. There are 15 ways to up the rate of learning, she announces, seven ways to increase students' motivation, six attributes of an effective example, five characteristics of retention. Even the white lab coat she sometimes dons for lecturing conveys the unsubtle symbolism. Her method, Hunter says with perfect confidence, will work in all languages, for all subjects, for people of all ages and abilities.

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