Friday, January 11, 2013

11 Things I Think I Know We Must Teach

What Matters?

I recently wrote a reflective post that I hoped would help me clarify my thinking on what our purpose is for teaching titled "Why are we here?" I suppose I am chafing a bit at the notion that our only mandate is to educate kids via content delivery so that they can achieve a minimum level of competence on state tests that only measure content mastery in a couple of subjects. It also concerns me that we are, as a nation, valuing certain subjects over others in the interest of global competitiveness. As a parent, I feel I am competing with the messages of a legislated education system, and I worry I could lose.

I want my children to know that they will be valued regardless of the form their passions take. I want them to know that the whole world is open to them, and that no area of study matters more to their future than the one they select for themselves. I want them to know that they can feel free to pursue new passions at any point in their life and that education is not about mastering a menu of specific content, but about wrestling with ideas and developing the skills they need to constantly be shaping a better and happier version of themselves.

This begs the question, though, what is it that we are supposed to be teaching if it isn't mastery of content? The problem lies in the language. Teaching as it has come to be understood in our society is an act of delivery in which specific content is moved from the teacher to the student with varying degrees of success. Successful teachers are defined by their ability to move the most content with the most reliability. Through various efficiencies, strategies and incentives, it is possible (the story goes) to move that content with greater and greater success as measured by results on standardized tests. While the debate over whether or not it is possible to bring this process to scale is for another day, I contend that the real failure of our approach to education is that we never ask the question, "Is there real value in moving that content from teacher to student in the first place?"

A model of learning that values knowledge transfer ignores at least two critical issues in our time. One, not every person needs or cares about every piece of knowledge that we are attempting to transfer. They simply do not need the full spectrum of content that is represented by our current K-12 system to live a meaningful, productive and happy life. As a result, we are wasting a great deal of effort and time teaching everything to everyone. As a by-product, we also lose the benefit of the natural acceleration of learning that occurs when people explore what interests them. Is it valuable to spend time learning that which you intrinsically aren't motivated to learn?

Secondly, in an age in which content knowledge is inexpensive and easily accessed, the need to carry one's knowledge like a Swiss Army knife wherever one goes so as to be prepared for any situation simply does not exist as it did before. Much of what still goes on in schools is a form of education in which assessments measure a student's ability to memorize content and then re-communicate that content without the aid of resources that they would otherwise have if they were learning in another environment. Is there value in teaching content that anyone can access when they need it?

To be honest, I don't think that many teachers feel that the finest moments of learning that happen in their classes have much to do with content mastery, but because we have created an educational climate that literally values student and teacher success on content mastery in a very narrow range of subjects, we have incentivized teachers to teach in a way that is counter to the learning needs of our students. It doesn't happen in every classroom on every day, but that is the current that even great teachers swim against.

So What Could We Be Teaching That Would Have More Value?

Here are 11 Things I Think I Know We Must Teach:

  1. Decency- In a culture with the freedoms we have, we need to help kids develop and define their ethical compass and care for their reputation. In the digital age, poor judgement can quickly and publicly damage one's reputation. Having the decency to act with care towards one's self and to attempt to elevate others through example has value to the individual and to the public. 
  2. Empathy and Kindness- One skill that is highly valuable is the ability to empathize with others. Our culture is becoming increasingly personalized for good and for ill. Learning to empathize enables the individual to act with kindness toward others. Without empathy, we will never again have great statesmen who are capable of compromise on hard issues. Teaching students to see the world from other points of view and to act with kindness toward others has value.
  3. Respect for Truth- I'm not really referring to merely "telling the truth" here. There are all kinds of times when falsehoods may represent a better situational choice ("Do these jeans make me look fat?"), but in a larger sense we need to help kids understand that working out greater truths is part of the human imperative. Wisdom comes from seeking truth and behaving in accordance with it. Helping students to value the act of seeking truth with humility so that they recognize that their version of truth is incomplete but important to our collective attempts to answer the big questions has value.
  4. Respect for Quality- Instilling in students a sense that they should always strive to be better than they are now helps them to understand the value of working hard, and this is enhanced when we help them to develop the critical skills to recognize something that is well-done and well-made. Helping kids to take pride in the work that they do as a reflection of self and to understand what makes something exemplary empowers students toward success and happiness, and that has value.
  5. Self-Reflection- Teaching students to honestly self-reflect and use outside feedback to improve the work they do enables them to grow in any endeavor. Not only do we need to help them understand the process of self-reflection, we need to develop in them the habit of self-reflection. Doing this helps students understand themselves as learners and perceive learning as an ongoing process of personal improvement. This has tremendous value over one's lifetime.
  6. Courage and Confidence- One of the great divides between those who excel and those who don't is the courage to face failure in the attempt to succeed. Those who overcome their fears often reap greater rewards than those who choose a safe path. Still, it is important that the courage a person has is based on the confidence that person has in his ability to weather failure and in a reasonable belief in his chances for success. Foolish courage and misguided confidence serve no one, but courage based on rational self-confidence is very valuable.
  7. Adaptability- No matter how confident a person is in his or her own abilities to succeed and to face failure if he doesn't, a person must also recognize that the world is unpredictable and circumstances can quickly change. Teaching students to be adaptable in the face of change is exceedingly important, now more than ever. Inflexibility can lead to an unhappy life full of blaming others. The ability to adapt is a valuable skill to have when conditions on the ground change.
  8. Problem-solving- Part of being adaptable is being able to solve problems as you are confronted with them. Teaching students to define and analyze a problem, to imagine, develop and test solutions to that problem, and to evaluate and improve those solutions is a gift that empowers students not to be at the mercy of others when a problem arises. Over time, it also teaches them to more quickly anticipate and avoid potential problems before they occur. Most importantly, teaching students to problem-solve has value because it is a habit of mind that can help them realize their dreams and ambitions.
  9. Collaboration- The ability to work with others is exceptionally important in our increasingly connected world. Collaboration involves several sub-skills including patience, leadership, empathy, visualization, sharing, listening, mutual support, etc. Great collaborators are able to more quickly realize their own learning goals and ambitions. They are also more likely to grow as a learner through exposure to new ideas. Learning to collaborate also has value in that it affects one's ability to move work forward through consensus-building.
  10. Communication- One of the most important skills for collaboration is also important for many other reasons. The ability to communicate well enables one to avoid misunderstandings, to persuade others, to lead, to paint a vision, and to share one's ideas. Today, there are more ways than ever to communicate with an audience, and the skills for each path are particular to that path. Giving students constant and varied practice in communicating, empowers the students to understand their own ideas, to share their voice with the world, to grow as learners through feedback, and to more easily realize their goals by bringing others to their work. In a world that is increasingly complicated, there is great value in being able to communicate well with others.
  11. Curiosity and Wonder- Cultivating a deep sense of curiosity may be the secret to living a happy and productive life. Young people are naturally curious, but the longer we live and the more we experience, it seems as if we must work harder to be curious. We've satisfied our early curiosity with the low-hanging fruit of the world, and we must now look for things to wonder about. Teachers can help students learn the skill of active wondering. This skill involves being mindful of the world, looking closely, asking questions and seeking answers. It involves actively setting about answering questions with the knowledge that you will soon unearth more questions. It means fighting the urge to be unimpressed. It means embracing the emotional part of learning. This is a valuable, even precious skill that we can and should be modeling for our students every day so that life will never be boring for them. I tell my children that to admit you are bored is to admit you have no inner resources. What I mean is you've lost the ability to wonder.
So here is my wonder: What other things that we teach besides our content have value? Maybe if we can remind ourselves of this part of the work, we can eventually move back to a model of education that honors more than the ability to perform at a minimum level of competency in a very narrow array of subjects.



  1. Thank you Tim for this accessible piece. I look forward to sharing it with my Division.

    It validates each reason I have to be excited as a teacher. @willgourley

    1. Thanks Will! I enjoyed your blog post as well. I appreciate you sharing this post, and look forward to learning with you in the future. Cheers!