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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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