Thursday, January 3, 2013

Why are we here?

Warning: This is one of those posts in which I'm thinking out loud to try to get at what I believe. This goes down a few rabbit holes before arriving at a conclusion. You may want to wait for the movie...

I've been sitting on this post for a while now. I'm not sure why. People seem to have very specific notions about education. They seem to have a clear picture in their heads about what it looks like and feels like, what it's purpose is, and how we should measure it. I guess I worry that my answers to these questions are so far outside of the bell curve that my credibility is at stake when I share them.

But this is a new year. With it comes all of the symbolic possibilities of the Phoenix, so why not put myself out there?

So I begin with the question, "As educators, why are we here?" What is our purpose?

If the answer is to inform, then we can hand the whole process over to Google. I have to believe I am more than a content delivery engine. That said, I know I can share what I know to help others when they are in need. I can also strive to represent what I know honestly and reflectively, one advantage I have over a search engine.

My teachers used to tell me that their purpose was to help me learn how to learn, and in the process, to inspire a life-long love of learning. I can see that, but I'm not sure how much of my life-long love of learning was directly a result of their efforts. Maybe they contributed most in this regard by not stifling my natural love of learning, by allowing it to follow its own course. Even if that is true, not all of the teachers who wanted to teach me how to learn and to love learning were successful. In some cases, I just wasn't buying what they were selling.

I suppose part of that had to do with my own unwillingness to play school. But I really don't think that this is an indictment of myself or of my teachers' failures to get me to care about Chemistry, for example. That was a waste of time on my part and on that of the teacher. I really couldn't tell you much about why chemistry matters, why the periodic table is useful, or how to apply the labs we did to the bigger picture of my life. I know enough to realize that it does, it is and it can, but I also don't feel that my life is deficient for not adding that subset of human knowledge to my repertoire, nor do I feel a growing need to revisit the topic now that I am older. If I did, I'd start with a passionate teacher.

My father argues that the purpose of the wide-ranging liberal arts approach to learning is that it exposes all children to many different topics, from which they will learn to draw their passions over time. By exposing children to many different ideas, we ensure that they will have a broad base of experience to which they can apply new information and construct new knowledge. We also ensure that a student who might one day become a brilliant chemist has the opportunity to be exposed to the topic and then choose to learn more. To me, the argument for a liberal arts education is to expose young minds to opposing ideas that contribute to a better understanding of the world overall. My struggle comes from the idea that not every child needs the same curriculum to achieve these goals, and as a profession we seem to be narrowing choices rather than expanding them.

I've seen it argued that the purpose of an education is to prepare young people for their futures. This takes on a lot of different flavors. Some say we are preparing students for the work force by giving them the skills they will need for gainful employment in adulthood. The most recent efforts there seem focused on 21st Century skills, which as far as I can tell are the same skills that academically-minded students were encouraged to have in the 20th Century. So really, are we just saying that everyone needs academic skills now, since industry jobs are on the decline? Or are we saying that a person's worth is based on how well they can fulfill the tasks deemed valuable to the country? What if circumstances change? What if suddenly we need factory workers again? And how do we determine which skills are valued. Is this a local conversation? National? International?

I believe skills are hugely important and will certainly serve young minds more than a collection of facts, but as a teacher I'm concerned that we are merely pigeon-holing students in new ways if we rely on a set of skills that every child needs to develop, and more importantly, if we attempt to measure kids against a set of skill standards, that we are again failing to understand the complex and organic nature of learning for the sake of a desire to measure. What about the kid who has a deep and abiding love for a particular topic? Will we allow that child to become a content expert if he chooses? Or will we push him to learn unrelated skills that are more marketable generally? Will we use a child's ability to problem-solve, lead or collaborate as a measurement to determine graduation? To measure a school's value to a community? To measure a teacher's value to a child?

Another way we say we are preparing students for the future is by encouraging them to become model citizens. We teach them about the history of our country, we teach them economics, we teach them to about our government and the importance of voting. Meanwhile, we teach them less concrete lessons about social behavior, values and traditions. Hopefully, we teach them to be decent and kind and to care for their own reputations. I agree that this is a worthy goal of education, but the question is often asked about whose values we are teaching. Certainly, there are points at which the values of school and the values of home can come into conflict. Further, in cases in which home values are particularly strong, I wonder how much influence educators have to achieve social goals. On the other hand, how much influence should educators have in this arena? In a pluralistic society (and in one that is increasingly politically divided) this question takes on greater relevance, and a public education system is more greatly burdened than private education, given its role is to serve the entire public in all of its diversity.

So as an educator, what is my purpose? To inform, to inspire, to expose to ideas, to develop skills or character? I suppose all of these have a place, but in service to a larger purpose.

I believe my purpose is to help others live personally meaningful and satisfying lives to the best of their abilities and within a social framework that must accommodate us all. That strikes me as a tall order that cannot be filled by trying to educate every child the same way. If we attempt to standardize what we teach, how we teach, how we measure and how we evaluate what we measure, we move too far from the real purpose of an education. If we spend all of our time using accountability to protect against failure, rather than encouraging innovation to inspire success, we guarantee that our profession will lack relevance.

The teachers I remember positively were people who were interesting and joyous in their demeanor. They didn't spend a lot of time focused solely on their content. They possessed qualities I admired like passion and curiosity. Most importantly they were nice to me, and they seemed interested in who I was. At the end of it all, I remember the teachers who made my learning a conversation, just between us, about how I could always choose to be finer than I was before. Rarely did it have to do with a particular piece of content. Sometimes it had to do with ideas or skills that would serve my goals and character. Yes, it was about values, but it was about my values and what they represented in the context of my world, the world that I shared with a teacher who obviously cared deeply about the path my life would take.

In those conversations with those teachers, I learned to care about who I would become in terms of humanity, rather than what I would become in terms of career. I learned to care about what my life would mean anecdotally instead of what it would mean numerically. I learned to care about cultivating my own definition of success, rather than measuring up to someone else's.

My purpose as an educator is to have those kinds of learning conversations with others, to give them the strength to own who they are, the courage to seek joy, the empathy to care for and serve others, and the wherewithal to make their dreams come true. I know I cannot hope to be that person for everyone, and I know that I will only be one of those people for anyone in particular. But I can strive to be that person for each person I meet.

photo credit: macwagen via photopin cc

photo credit: markheybo via photopin cc


  1. I love this! I completely agree - and I strive to be that kind of educator as well.

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I think most of us do strive for that, but I worry that it's easy to let other people's priorities cloud the mission. It's good to know there are others out there who are trying to stay focused on what matters. Cheers!