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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Why Do We Teach?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

The act of teaching is a complicated endeavor that defies anyone to clearly define it in simple terms. I would like to give it a whirl -- with a little twist.

Do you want to know the real reason we teach? Ostensibly, it is to save time. We'd like to give the younger generation a leg up so they don't have to do all the experimenting on their own, so they can figuratively stand on the shoulders of giants. Unfortunately, according to history, we have assumed that we learned it right in the first place.

The Right Stuff

As it turns out, there have been several instances where we have taught what we knew to be correct, only to find out that we were wrong all along. Copernicus, Galileo, Christopher Columbus, Wilbur and Orville Wright, Henry Ford, Marie Curie, Louis Pasteur -- all had to fight against what was commonly taught as truth. In essence, they had to relearn everything they had been taught to believe as truth in order to learn new truths.

This is the paradox of education: Education is always teaching the past with the finest intentions of helping the future, but unwittingly stymieing the present learning. If we teach the students what we know, we at times also put limitations on what they can know.

To further complicate matters, somewhere in the educational halls of learning, it was determined that the best way to teach someone something is to tell them what they should know; thus, they would be taught and could benefit greatly from the knowledge obtained. Given this noble attitude, teachers across the world have tried and tried to tell students what they should know, somehow missing the fact that inextricably connected with teaching is learning.

Recently, some have wondered whether learning hasn't taken place, whether any teaching has occurred. Few would argue that simply telling someone what needs to be learned rarely results in learning. Yet, amid all the tremendous strides in pedagogy, the time-honored lecture persists as a mainstay of education.

The Knowledge Explosion

But we have to consider this question: In today's educational climate, is saving time still the real reason to teach? The answer to that question can be found in the perceived rate of knowledge growth. According to some very smart experts, during the last seven years the amount of knowledge available has doubled. Education cannot keep up if we continue to presume to be the sources of knowledge for our students.

Today's classrooms need to be not only a place where teaching occurs to save time but also a place where there is a focus on learning how to learn knowledge that isn't even available yet. To presume that a teacher could possibly keep up in teaching the current exponential growth of knowledge is absurd.

The role of the teacher has changed significantly: Rather than being a purveyor of knowledge, the teacher joins the students as the learning leader and the classroom is transformed into a high-performance learning team.

What should happen is that the teacher teaches the basics to the students and then gets out of their way as the students learn what they need to learn in this century.

Reinventing the wheel used to be a time-wasting activity, but today, as in the past, doing so produces better wheels and, fortuitously, trains students to think, to solve, and to create rather than to just remember. The reinvented wheel is not what is important; it is the actual process involved in doing the re-creation that garners the most returns.

The problem-solving process cannot be taught; it has to be experienced.

Unfortunately, elementary, middle, and even high schools seem to be intent on controlling students in lockstep educational processes that only anecdotally allow interaction with current knowledge. In today's rich electronic environment, students find themselves limited to what they can learn from textbooks.

Beacons of Hope

There are bright spots occurring in education. These beacons understand that it is about what is learned, but also about how it is learned. For example, I know of first graders who honestly use and understand a thesaurus. Rather than walking, they amble, shuffle, or gallop depending on their moods.

Neither "Run, Spot, run" nor "A is for apple" seem to be the limit of their learning, as is true in many first-grade classrooms. The term "accelerated instruction" needs to be reclaimed from remedial education and applied to mainstream classrooms.

I have the privilege of being involved with a program to try to turn this model around. The focus is on the teachers and their knowledge of the content and pedagogy involved in teaching math and science. Sandra West, of Texas State University, has been implementing a grant provided by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to improve teacher quality. The grant work supports the training of fifth-eighth grade math and science teachers to plan and teach collaboratively.

The goal is to create an integrated math-and-science program as a way to help students understand both subjects to much higher degrees. As I trained the principals of these teachers about the underlying concepts of the program, I heard an exclamation, "Why was I never told about this before?" The principals were able to see the potential power of teachers collaborating on how to integrate math and science so that students will more easily learn both.

Long past are the days where teachers could be effective by themselves. The survival of public education will ultimately be determined by the extent to which teachers embrace peer collaboration in planning and implementing high-performance learning teams.

Finally, teachers must honor and value the time that students spend in our classrooms by devoting the majority of it to the only real teaching that has a chance of keeping up with the ever expanding volume of knowledge -- teaching the students how to learn through inquiry and problem solving. These have to become the core of the educational effort rather than afterthoughts and embellishments, which -- interestingly enough -- will save incredible amounts of time, which is what education was supposed to do in the first place.

How do you collaborate with your peers to save time and energy, and to create more effective and dynamic learning environments? Please share your thoughts.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (48)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Felicia H. Fox's picture
Felicia H. Fox
Secondary Family & Consumer Sciences Teacher from Richmond, Virginia

Initially I must say how informative the article was to me as an educator with 20 years of experience. I began to assess myself immediately in reference to whether I am using antiquated techniques for instructing my students. I am also beginning a master's of education program and the importance of learning in the classroom rather than "schooling" the students was addressed in a reading reference. I truly want to prepare students for life outside of my classroom and beyond high school, so admitting that they need to learn more than I know is critical to that outcome. I enjoy facilitating activities for learning and then observing and participating in the process with my students. Mr. Johnson made such an impact on my mindset of what good teaching is as well as what it may require of a teacher to achieve it. My school began professional learning communities this year, but I see colleagues that are being superficial when they come to the table. Each participant is very guarded with what they will allow to fall out of their bag of tricks. I do believe collaboration between teachers is necessary for the future of thriving classrooms.

Felicia H. Fox's picture
Felicia H. Fox
Secondary Family & Consumer Sciences Teacher from Richmond, Virginia

I felt that Mr. Johnson was in touch with the realities of teh classroom. Possibly taking the collaborative approach to teaching would help with the doing more with less issue. Every teacher on a team contributing something that benefits the whole may help which will ultimately benefit students. Sometimes I wonder if we feel overwhelmed to such a great degree as professionals because we don't network enough with each other. We all must maintain our existence outside of the work place to survive and maintain a balance.

Dione Nyahay's picture

Mr. Johnson, I really enjoyed reading your article. I too, believe that reasoning and problem solving need to be implemented more in student learning. Unfortunately, many teachers teach strictly from the text or do direct instruction rather than have students collaborate. Learning needs to be more exciting for students! I also believe what you stated about the importance of teacher collaboration holds tremendous truth. In order to be effective teachers, we must learn from each other by sharing ideas, experiences, and strategies in teaching. I believe more time should be set aside during the school year to meet with peer teachers. We learn alot from each other. Unfortunately, we do not have the time in our busy work day to share ideas, offer suggestions, etc. Therefore, we are missing out on a wealth of knowledge from experienced professionals. I am new to blogging, but believe that this is a great start in gaining more information and learning from expert teachers.

amy v's picture
amy v
Elementary Teacher, 3rd Grade, Atlanta, GA

Great essay! There are many strong points that I have made notes about to share with others. I really like the instructional strategy/learning style of inquiry. Students need to think, period. Today there seem to be so many students that simply want the information- 'spoon feed me' and that is all. I am a firm believer in the problem solving process in my math class. I have had students not want to participate in question and answer sessions because they knew that once they gave an answer, I would respond with, "How do you know?" Perhaps a project approach would stop the groaning and get students involved more. Inspiring is the hardest part of our job; so moving the motivation to an intrinsic level for the students might lead to greater success.

I have worked for administrators that simply refuse to let teachers team, so it is wonderful to hear about situations where it is successful, especially for math and science which are so interconnected!

Yes, state testing has value. It is just not being used appropriately. I just read about New York City teachers having their tenue on the line if their students did not make progress. I work hard, plan thorough lessons, strive to incorporate interesting activities- but all of it does not mean anything to my principal, my district supervisor, the superindentent, nor the state of Florida if my students do not make AYP. There is something wrong with that. There is merit pay in some places.... now tenue? Hmmmmm..... Does that really weed out teachers that are not effective or does it simply make it clear to good teachers that it is too much work and less benefit than ever before?

Elaine G.'s picture

Collaborating with other teachers can be helpful for time management because you can share lesson plans that can be immediately used saving time for everyone. The main frustration I see here is with teaching to the test which we are forced to do and our legislators and president keep seeing value in testing because they are not teachers and need to have data.

I suggest that everyone here take a look at the Linda Darling Hammond information about why the U.S. scores at the bottom of international tests. It is because we are giving content specific multiple choice tests instead of short answer tests that measure actual reasoning and analysis skills. It is as if the test makers do not know that the internet exists and students no longer have to memorize facts. It is much more important to analyze a math or science problem, critically look at a piece of literature, or find connections between historical events and problems today. Students' brains must also be fed with music and art to connect their selves to the world. Real tests that have real connections to students' lives are valid and I would not be so scared to have my salary or tenure tied to them.

Elaine G.'s picture

One way we are collaborating with lessons in Alternative Ed. in my district is to post lessons that worked well with our kids on a shared computer drive that we all have access to. This idea arose from a staff meeting where a teacher presented on what lessons she remembered best from when she was a student. Sometime it just helps to be reminded of a technique such as choral cloze reading (teacher reads passage aloud and stops at various points for all students to chorally read the next word) or to have an idea for a hands on lesson.

Here is one for you from me: have students search through old magazines for a picture of any NOUN except a person that is like themselves in some way, e.g. a beautiful sunset over the ocean can be calm, a tiger can be strong, etc. Students use a thesaurus (print or electronic) to find additional words that describe their noun (adjectives!) and themselves e.g. calm - serene, tranquil, pacific. Students can use a Venn diagram or double bubble to link themselves to their picture with the words in the middle. Finally, students write similes and/or metaphors (scaffold for higher level thinkers) comparing themselves to their objects using their new adjectives and sharing their similes or metaphors with the class. Some students may wish to create a book with the comparisons that uses the grammar and literary terms NOUN, ADJECTIVE, SIMILE, METAPHOR, FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE and to show that figurative language draws a "figure" in your head with words. I hope that students learn how to use a thesaurus to expand their vocabulary and to see that they can relate new concepts to themselves. My students loved this and I gave it to a long term sub for a first day of school activity and it worked great in her classes, too. I think it can be done in elementary, middle and high school classrooms. It can even be done by students comparing themselves to a mathematical concept, scientific theory, art work, musical piece, or historic era instead of a picture, e.g. I am as ruthless as the Industrial Revolution, but my ruthlessness brings on innovation. HAVE FUN!

amy v's picture
amy v
Elementary Teacher, 3rd Grade, Atlanta, GA

There are many excellent points brought to light through this discourse. There are two posts that I would like to focus on as they really focus my thoughts on what I do in the classroom and where I want to move in my instructional strategies.

Ben Johnson stated that there is a need to 'recreate the wheel'. And rightly so! I teach a 6th grade advanced math class as part of a technology magnet middle school. I am dumbfounded by the number of students that come into the program and think it's an easy ride and just want to be told the information. Forget about exploration and discovering why something is- just spoon feed the 411 and be done with it. So, our society as been trying to provide for our youth so that they have a leg up or know something more. But application of that knowledge is not done so how beneficial is that? I definitely agree that inquiry and problem solving need to be brought into the forefront as we try to teach our students how to be better learners. Life is about learning and solving problems: making life better. How will they know how to apply those skills if they don't practice it now?

Wannetta Johnson mentioned that NCLB addresses subgroups and the gaps between them. The expectation is that knowing where there is lagging should direct teachers to stretch by incorporating differentiated strategies so that students get help at their level- or starting point. It's about moving them forward. The problems I have dealing with NCLB is that all accountablility rest on the shoulders of the teacher, school, and state. What about parent accountability? What student cares about the state test when there are serious issues at home? Parent in jail, gang fights outside the front door, drugs, hunger, homelessness, and so many other issues that our youth deal with everyday are what the students worry about. Yes, you can overcome those- sometimes.

I love the reference to Dr. Kim's analogy: the system. It is so true. If we all did our part, it would be a well oiled machine. Can human nature function like that? Is it possible that all the individuals work collaboratively to create success?

amy v's picture
amy v
Elementary Teacher, 3rd Grade, Atlanta, GA

Valid point made: if real assessments were incorporated into real learning (application of knowledge gained) there wouldn't be stress about salary or tenure... because real gains would be made. And that is what education is.

Is the education system simply responding to what the government wants? They want data, so schools are producing the data the legislators want to see? Isn't it possible to get the data to say what you want it to say?

Absolutely! Move students above and beyond the state testing- we do need to prepare students for a global community.

Amanda's picture

I also have the same feelings. As a future teacher, I often become very worried about testing and the pressures on teachers. There has to be a better way of testing children. I was never a good test taker. I took the SAT three times trying to get a better score, and I never did well. For some children, taking written tests can be a major stress in their life. For some when you are stressed, you don't think as clearly as you could. You worry too much about the test, and find a hard time staying focused.

This is a great essay about why and how we teach. When I was in elementary school teaching seemed more laid back. There was less pressure on the teachers, and learning seemed more fun. I hope we can get back to these days, and allow teachers to have more of a say on assessment in the classroom.

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