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Why Do We Teach?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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

Comments (48)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Rebecca Williams's picture

I am also new at blogging, and I'm still a little unsure exactly how this all works. I have read several blogs and comments I agree with many of the points made, but the agruements about limiting standarized testing really hits home. I have been teaching kindergarten for four years and have administrated many tests. We focus so much on improving test scores we have lost sight of the most important part of school. We have taken away most of the learning through discovery activites because we have to much to teach for the test. There is such a large volume of material to teach, some days it feels like I taught it just to say that we covered the material. I feel as if I am having no real effect on my students when I do nothing but prepare them for the test. We have taken all the fun out of school. I would like to see a movement away from testing and back to the fundamentals of learning and teaching.

Abigail's picture

I am inspired by what you (Ben Johnson) said about teachers becoming "learning leaders!" This is such a wonderful way of putting it. As technology increases incredibly, there is no way we can teach our students everything they will need to know in the future. As Sonia Nieto stated in the video segment titled "Teacher Expertise and Devlopment" we are preparing students for jobs that don't even exist. She also stated that the top ten jobs in 2010 didn't even exist in 2004. Increasing technology changes the careers our students will someday choose. It is our job to create life-long learners with an understanding of the value of learning, critical thinking, reflection, etc. The best way to do that is to lead them in the right direction and set a good example. Thank you for your post! It's given me a lot to think about.

stephanie chambers's picture

I think there is a paradox also in the reason we teach and how we teach. If we are teaching to save the future generation time in how they experience their world then why do we teach mainly through lecture and not through meaningful experiences? I love the idea of the classroom as a "highly performance learning team". A team where we engage one another, promote peer interaction and work in small groups and the teacher acting as a facilitator; a "learning leader" Other posts in this section have touched on motivation. Many students seem unmotivated because they cannot connect any meaning to their own world. Many students are not primarily auditory learners but unfortunately that is how the bulk of the information is presented. Thank you for the wonderful article and letting me share my thoughts.

raymo08's picture

I agree with Andrea. Teaching can be overwhelming but at the same time rewarding!! It feels good to make a difference in a childs life!!

Eleni's picture

It was very enlightening to read your essay. Unfortunately, most educators are forced to teach to the test. Learning goals are no longer student centered. High stakes testing takes the creativity out of teaching and learning. I work with students with intensive learning needs, but I am still forced to teach content straight from a standardized test. I wish I were able to teach students beyond concepts they already know. I hope the future brings about change in current teaching trends, but there also has to be a change in current educational initiative such as NCLB. Thanks for all of your insights on this matter. I really enjoyed reading all of your blogs!

Sarah Ferrians's picture

In am currently enrolled in the Teacher as Professional course through Walden University. Our recent discussion has been about moving from a novice to expert teacher. I think that one step we can take on this journey is to work closely with our colleagues. Collaborating with teachers that are more experienced can help you grow as an educator. I feel that more can be accomplished when a group of teachers work together, than when they choose to work in isolation. With collaboration, student learning will be enhanced. I know this to be true from my personal experience working in a PLC.

Katie's picture

Elani, I definitely agree with you on the need for changes in NCLB. It sounds great to have all students performing on grade level but I find it is forcing us to teach to the test. Schools spend lots of money for practice books that look just like the test. Sometimes we are taking the creativity and interest out of learning. Schools spend so much time on how to write answer, in the box, out of the box, on the line, it is taking away from actual instruction. What happen to learning how to write a really good paragraph?

Margaret Cradick's picture

After reading Ben's article my first reaction was "this guy must be a university professor and not an in the trenches teacher". But then I thought it would be great to be able to teach as he described, having kids involved in projects centered around things they are interested in and working in ways that make sense to them. Then I thought how could that ever happen with 45 minutes a day of plan time and 140 students to track. I often feel like I am contantly being told "your not teaching correctly"; I should be differentiating, collaborting, collecting data, integragting, comunicating with parents,and making each student feel special and successful. All while I am getting my masters degree, being a wife and mother and exercising 3 times a week.
We will not make any changes in education until the community at large gets behind us. Every year we are asked to do more with less. If my student roll was cut in half and I was given three times as much planning time then maybe I could teach as Ben describe instead of teaching to save time. Which by the way was not my reason for becoming a teacher.

Cassondra Little's picture

Sarah, I completely agree with you. Collaboration is the key to success with teaching and learning. If we can come together as professionals and share amongst each other, we gain ideas, better strategies, skills, and increased knowledge. I love when teachers across my district come together, because we discuss what works for ourselves as teachers and for the students. Collaboration provides room for growth, and aids in the journey to have a high-performance learning team as you (Ben) put it.

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

Wow. 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.

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