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.

Cheers!

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.

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photo credit: markheybo via photopin cc