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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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1995's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I couldn't agree more with your essay. If we could only get rid of state tests that compell administrators to walk into my special ed classroom and make sweeping changes to my teaching methods just because they don't see "core teaching" going on, then we'd be getting somewhere. The state tests and the resulting federal punishments if a school doesn't make adequate progress really scares administrators. This is important because teachers can only become as child-centered as administrators will let them be. Sure, I close the door and do what's right. But I play with fire every time, because if a principal should walk in the door and not see me in lockstep with every other teacher in the building (yes, even though I work with unique special ed kids), I would get written up. And this, in a so-called progressive district. Get rid of tests and federal-level accountability. Just show us the money, let us do our jobs, and worry about bringing our soldiers home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Government has no idea what it's doing in MY classroom. I'm the teacher. I'm the expert. Let me become the best I can be.

Dedicated Teacher's picture

All this accountability and pacing guides and standards and whatever, whatever...is strangling the life out of education, educators, and students. I have been teaching for thirty-one years. Oh, yes, my strategies have evolved from teacher to facilitator. When I made the transition, I soon noticed the advancement of my students' learning and enthusiasm for their learning. I am very insulted by isolated "sweeps" by district office personnel who step out of their "ivory towers" to come into teachers' classrooms for 15 to 20 minute observations. What can they possibly understand in such a limited time-frame? They don't "live" with these students for the hours and hours that I do. They don't fret over lessons, students' special learning needs, classroom dynamics that vary from class period to class period...they know nothing about the daily interactions and multiple complexities that each class period entails, yet they come to "evaluate" me without even a conversation with me. I am so sad that this country has reduced the beauty and wonder of teaching and learning to numbers and percentages on pieces of paper that no one really cares about in the end. What matters are those daily interactions and life-long lessons that take place...laying the groundwork for the trials and tribulations that adult life brings. It has all gone so wrong over the past years. How could we have doubled our information base and minimized the effectiveness of our educational system? Who ever came up with the idea that teachers of the same subject and same level have to be on the same page on the same day? All of this sameness is creating a whole lot of nothingness. I wonder what the Founding Fathers would think about No Child Left Behind legislation.

Elaine G.'s picture

I am currently working on my Master's at Walden U. Our online discussion this week is about how teachers can connect with each other outside the classrooom. I think I just found out! Thank you for your blog.

We also need to stop re-inventing the wheel in educational programming and paying consultants for regurgitating programs from 20 year ago. Remember "Caught in the Middle"? It was about having middle school core teachers work together with smaller groups of kids and have the same prep. so they could discuss those kids and plan lessons together. Sounds like PLC's and the Math/Science programs that are being put forth again. It is a great idea, but it does not have to be re-wrapped, re-titled, and re-paid for.

Ditto on the uselessness of state tests; I work in Alternative Ed. in California. My smartest kids will always fail those tests because they have no buy-in and are not interest in trying. Let us give them some learning and assessments they can get excited about.

I am not totally against testing; I do believe we need short national tests that are graded the same by every state. They should include aptitudes that can guide students to areas of learning they would enjoy, be successful at, and would lead to employment. Vocational ed. needs to be a strong component. I have great kids with low IQ's who are good socially or or in other areas that are NOT college material and should not be forced into a college track.

Lisa Narcisi's picture

I am really interested in this post, and I like your ideas- even love them. Here's my problem. The entire premise of an inquiry-based style of learning presupposes a sort of intellectual curiosity on the part of students. I know modeling intellectual curiosity and expecting it from students helps, but some students are simply not intellectually curious. I think. How do you motivate students who really don't care? Am I the only one who sometimes runs into this problem?

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Thank you so much for your comments. It is great to bounce ideas around like this.

I wanted to clarify some of my thinking on two topics that have been posted.

I personally have never seen a student that was not curious about something. I have seen many students who have suppressed their curiosity when they enter school to such an extent as to be nearly undetectable, but it is still there. Human beings are "hard-wired" to curious and being curious is major activity of childhood and young adulthood (and more and more students would rather be curious-looking).

So if we notice students are not curious in our classes, then we should first look at what we are doing, or not doing that might cause this to happen. Of course, I have some suggestions of places to inspect first. Is the classroom a bright, cheery, and inviting place? In the design of our lessons, do we purposefully try to engage as many senses as possible? As we teach, do we go to great lengths to include all students and not just the few who raise their hands? Looking at our lessons in general, is the student doing most of the talking and working?

If the answer to any of the questions is no, then it is a relatively easy fix. If all of the answers above are "yes", then the fix is still possible, but we have to patient. If we are trying to get our students to participate fully in the inquiry process, we have to remember that most likely, they have been conditioned to do the opposite of inquiry--shut up and listen. Depending on the severity of the case, this may take a while to get them "unconditioned."

Several years ago, I was involved with the Ford PAS program which has an awesome business/STEM inquiry-based curriculum. We brought in thirty 9th graders for a 9 weeks summer course. The first week the students were presented the inquiry lessons, they did not know what to do. They just sat there, silent. The Ford PAS folks had anticipated this and created a course to help student learn how to do inquiry. The instructors had them all day long and for the first week, basically trained them how to effectively do inquiry. You would not have recognized the groups after 9 weeks. No one had to tell them to ask clarifying questions, critically analyze or research, it was automatic, and instead of silence, an energetic buzz of conversation abounded.

My point in sharing this is that if you are just starting inquiry, and have all of your other teaching ducks in order, then just be patient and for heaven's sake, don't freak-out because of "silence" in the first inquiry lesson. We have to be willing to let them fail a few times before they "get-it."

Just so you understand where I come from, I believe that there are many things in the current educational system that need to be changed. State standardized testing is not one of them, however. I firmly believe that NCLB, although not perfect, is a great step in the right direction. I believe this because I have seen administrators and teachers who, previously were only concerned about local grades and behavior, now are concerned with students actually learning something. Although we have a long way to go yet, at least the state standardized testing sets minimum standards for teachers to attain (notice I did not say students). The main hurdle now is to get teachers to quit teaching right up to the minimum standards but instead, to teach beyond the minimum standards.

To be rather blunt, I feel the same about dealing with special education students, some of which were actually created by the system, while the rest truly need the services. It was a bold move to establish a standard by which all students could be measured. We would expect some SPED students to struggle meeting the standards, but that does not make their degree of accomplishment any less valid than for students who did not have to struggle. The problems with special education arise when trying to blanket enforce certain standards with associated punishments for not meeting the standards. There are so many variables and I do not know of any state that has a perfect system when dealing with this. Frankly, the root of the problem goes back to IDEA and the least restrictive environment. Luckily, the solution is found there too--effective IEP's tied to real lesson plans.

Well, there you have it. Thanks for reading and I welcome any comments you might have.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Wannetta Hartman's picture

Ben, Thank you for your thoughtful remarks, questions and responses. I agree that we need to begin the process of creating professional learning communities where teachers collaborate or team teach using instruction that is engaging and inquiry based. I can invision Math and Science teachers working together on lesson plans and co teaching to save time and share ideas and strategies. I have heard Ian Jukes talk about the exponetial growth of knowledge and technology by our students. We need to capitalize on their experiences and incorporate that into our instruction.

I think NCLB is important because it addresses the gap between the subgroups and sets expectations that challenge educators to know their students and teach to their needs. Looking at evidence and planning instruction with leadership teams leading the charge is a step in the right direction. We need to get adminstration and educators talking about student work, not students. I agree that we can not be satisfied with the minimum that some standardized tests are measuring. We should be stretching our students with higher expectations.

I too believe we can do this, we can't give up hope that we will eventually teach for the future and let go of the traditional teaching methods that do not work with our 21st century students. (Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, Problem Solving, Innovation and Critical Thinking.) These are the skills we can incorporate as we prepare our students for the tests. These are the skills they will need to be successful citizens.

Good Books about Professional Learning Communities:
ON Common Ground by Rick and Becky Dufour, and Robert Eaker.
Whole Faculty Study Groups by Colleen Murphy

Thank you for your insightful words that explain the complexity of teaching. I have not been in the classroom for a 6 years, but I continue to work with new teachers in Ohio. I am working with a district whose board approved 16 late start days for teachers to collaborate by looking at students work. It is a beautiful way to meet students needs and support one another in the classroom. We don't know what we don't know if we aren't willing to listen to others who also work with similar students and may have knowledge we don't have.

One other point. I heard Dr. Daniel Kim speak at the Ohio School Board Association last week about systems thinking. He says most often our schools work as a collection of people. When they become a system, everyone is working together for a common purpose. What he said that made me go hum.... was when our super star teachers work their hardest, they still may not move the district forward unless they learn how to lead their colleague to teach like them. Like a car... when all the parts work together, the car will move forward, when any part works extra hard but other parts don't work together, the car still won't move forward, and the part that is working extra hard will burn out. Just some food for thought for those who are pulling more than their share of the load and feel overworked and under appreciated. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Wannetta Hartman's picture

I apologize for directing my blog comment for just one person. I am new at blogging and have somethings to learn.

Teaching is a difficult profession and we have excellent teachers in public education. I understand the frustrations and work with many teachers who are overwhelmed. Working collaboratively and with teams will make teaching much easier and rewarding. Letting children discover their own answers AND questions will motivate them to learn.

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