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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

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

Andrea Hall's picture

I am a first grade teacher and this year we have started a new assessment that our Kindergarten has been doing called dibels. I like the assessment but we have also adopted the programs BURST, PASSPORT and VOYAGER. On top of that we are still doing DRA's, state writing assessment, and district wide science and social studies benchmarks. We have also adopted a new phonics prgram called IMAGINE IT, which requires us to do unit benchmark test as well. This is my third year of teaching and I feel so over whelmed by having all of these assessments that I feel like I can't be the teacher I wanted to be.

Trish's picture

I am a new teacher and am currently working on my Master's degree. Our assignment this week led me to this blog. I am so glad that it did! Reading your essay has really opened up some new thinking for me. I felt like the whole time I was reading the essay I was saying to myself "Why haven't I ever thought about it that way?" or "Why wasn't I ever taught that during my undergraduate study?" After reading that essay, I feel like a new world of thinking and operating has been introduced to me. I just wanted to say thank you for writing it!

Dave Fry's picture

Elaine - where are you in Alt. Ed in California? I'm in the central San Joaquin Valley (Ceres Unified) - also working on my Master's through Walden. Dave Fry, Argus High School

Margaret Cradick's picture

I am also a Walden student enjoying learning new things and expanding my comfort zone. This is my first blogging experience. I also agree with reinventing the wheel, if the wheel is the same by a different name it is going to work the same as it did the first time. Why can't we learn from our mistakes, keep what works and keep on teaching. I sometimes feel that our district administration creates new things for us to do just to justify their own jobs.

Christine's picture

WHY don\t students care? Is it because they are afraid of failure so they decide to give up? Is it because they don't see the value? I think that most children realize education is important today, and very few really truly don't care about learning. Those that say they don't are either struggling to learn and it's easier not to try, or have some other reason for pretending not to care. Everyone wants to be good a something! It's tough to get a fifteen-year old who has been passed through the system and still doesn't care. We for one need to start when they're young, and help them to realize why education matters to them. Relate stories to their life. Show how history repeats itself now, in their town and hallways of their school. Get them involved in the community. The task of teachers is not easy, but if we give up we are failing future generations.

Oneil Smith's picture

Today the spirit of innovation is no longer the outstanding feature in education. Teachers are forced to follow the curriculum and this restricts the creativity of teachers. The ultimate goal is to ensure that the students attain the requisite grades that the various examination bodies consider to be suitable.
Teachers are forced to adopt teaching strategies that are not necessarily ideal for their students. This one-fit -all strategy is an insult to intellectual creativity.

Teaching calls on the professional to use a variety of skills in order to reach a wide range of learners. One of the most important skills for teachers to develop is the ability to differentiate instruction. Differentiation involves modifying the content, process, preferences, affective needs and readiness levels in the classrooms. Differentiation needs to become a natural way of thinking about teaching and learning for all teachers, because our children's education depends on it. Sadly, most teachers teach for examination purposes only. It should therefore be no surprise to any one that most of our students are doing so poorly in school. The joy of teaching and learning are sadly missing from many of our classrooms. Learning has become boring and education is a drag for most children.

Maybe it is reasonable to demand of teachers to ensure that their students develop: problem solving skills, computational fluency and conceptual understanding. The tragedy is that many of the schools are ill - equipped to satisfy the mandates of the school districts. Unfortunately, the message that we send our students is that learning is not important; getting good grades.
It is now time for teachers to let their voices be heard. The relevant authorities who are promoting these so call best practices must be made to realize that no best practice is ideal because different learning styles requires us to make modification to pedagogy and curriculum

Elaine G.'s picture

Dave et al,I am at Mt. San Jacinto High in Coachella Valley (Greater Palm Springs desert area). I just started my Master's program at Walden 4 weeks ago. I agree that sometimes administrators go a little overboard, a kindergarten teacher should not have to cover five different types of assessments when many of the students just need to learn through play because they are not ready for more formal teaching. Perhaps differentiating in this classroom can be just to use some of the assessments on some of the students and rationalize this procedure to the administrators by finding appropos brain research on 4 - 6 year olds.

Of course there is no one best practice. However, stuffing facts and testing on if those facts are memorized will continue to put the U.S. behind in the world. We need to teach our students how to learn; it does not matter the subject areas or what level the student begins at because once you know how to learn, you can extrapolate to any new field.

Elaine G.'s picture

Sorry, that is first grade and 8 assessments. Still, it is too much Andrea! Stick to what works best for your kids in your classroom and be ready to prove it.

Kristen Erol's picture

Ben's quote really resonated with me, "Long past are the days where teachers could be effective by themselves." This is why today we have the weblogs, team teaching in schools, and development of many professional learning communities. Highly effective teachers are always eager to learn more and to implement new ideas and strategies into their classrooms. I am currently in my 9th year of teaching 8th grade Algebra I, and I pursuing my masters degree in education with a specialization in mathematics. I am a member of a professional learning community with the mathematics department at my school. As a department, we saw a need for differentiated instruction. A large amount of our time and energy was going towards the students who struggled in math, and the students who needed enrichment were at an attention loss. We therefore started meeting once a month at lunch or after school to discuss different ideas for meeting the needs of all of our students. We go through a lot of hits and misses with our implementation of strategies discussed, but it is very beneficial to meet once a month and collaborate. As mentioned in an article I just read entitled What Teachers Should Know and Be Able to D0, "Teachers seek the advice of others and draw on education research and scholarship to improve their practice." Therefore, it is the responsibility of a teacher to seek out learning experiences in order to become a more effective teacher.

Jennifer Showalter's picture

Thanks for you insightful comments. I've been a part of some really interesting collaborative groups who try to integrate math and science together. I'm currently a math teacher teaching physics, too. My students are confused as to whether the class is a math or a science. I say "what's the difference?" I'm working on my Master's degree now and loved your thoughts on why teachers are in the profession.

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