The futility of trying to teach everything of importance . . .

1 07 2011

It’s July 1. The school year is officially over, my keys have been handed back to the drawer where they came from, and the pile in a corner of my garage has grown considerably. I’m fairly new to the profession and I’m discovering that I’m a bit of a hoarder when it comes to educational materials. I don’t want to throw out the meaningful stuff and in doing so, I run the risk of not having a warm place to park my car in the winter.   Even though I should be making the transition to summer holidays, there are too many post-it notes on my brain to enjoy the long-awaited break.

I’ve been the recipient of much encouragement over the last week or so as staff and students have affirmed my role as an educator. I’m taking a course of my own right now and have been reading a lot on the theme of assessment of late. I’m finding that there are fundamental questions that I continue to ask long after I’ve said goodbye to my students:

“How do I really know if they learned (insert subject or concept here)?

“How much of what I taught did others before me cover? How much will be repeated with the next teacher?”

“Are there significant gaps that my students will have in their learning because I can rationalize that I didn’t have time to get to it all?” and finally,

“Who am I to decide what the essential elements in my student’s curriculum are when it is apparent that the school year is too short to possibly cover it all?”

I struggle with this last one as I know I did my best with the circumstances I was given (walking in to a new class on April 11), but I continue to wrestle with the mandate B.C. teachers are given to teach all of the Learning Outcomes the provincial Ministry of Education provides. Does anyone actually get to all of it? Does anyone else struggle with the almost unbearable burden of responsibility to get to all of it?

I’m taking solace in an article written by Grant Stiggins where he writes, “Students cannot possibly learn everything of value by the time they leave school, but we can instill in them the desire to keep questioning throughout their lives.” He feels that the goals of education are not to eliminate ignorance. Furthermore, it is his opinion that “the view that everything of importance can be thoughtfully learned by Grade 12 is an illusion.” An authentic education will therefore consist of “developing habits of mind and high standards of craftsmanship” necessary to learn. If this is true, then why don’t I feel better?

Stiggins goes on to explain that since it is impossible to teach everything we know to be of value, then our primary mandate must be to equip students with the ability to keep questioning. If I follow this idea through, the role of the teacher then should be one where we act as more of a concierge at a hotel and less as a distributor of knowledge. A concierge directs the curious in the right direction, (e.g. “Where can I get my suit drycleaned?” or “Where’s the best family restaurant within walking distance?”) without taking ownership of the request itself. What a privilege it would be to engage students so thoroughly that they learn to take pleasure in seeking important things on their own!  There is satisfaction in the ability to steer without having control of the gas pedal, don’t you think?

The essentials, I’ve come to realize, are not necessarily the basics when it comes to education. The laws of physics, the rules of grammar, the concepts of geometry, determining the difference between fact and opinion, and knowing when to speak up and when to listen, are not skills learned in isolation all within a school year. They represent embedded and persistent problems within organized knowledge that should appear and reappear in different ways and levels of ability within the student’s entire realm of formal education and beyond.

In realizing this, I suppose I can breathe easier as I approach the summer season. Learning for students of all ages should never end as I’ve come to realize that important questions don’t always need to be answered within the boundaries of the school day. Simply put, there is too much for any one educator to know, never mind teach to dozens of students in a crowded day or busy season. Wisdom therefore, should matter more than the accumulation of knowledge. (A common theme of King Solomon’s in Ecclesiastes, but I’m not sure how that can be explained to curriculum deciders though!)

I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I’m going to look forward to September – I get the opportunity to start the process all over again with the new wisdom I have gained. And for this, I’m psyched to be a teacher.




2 responses

3 07 2011
Anna Lownie

Brad, you have written about everything I struggle with regarding assessment too. There is so much to cover and do you just plow through it and hope for the best? What I started to do in my last class was to move much slower through the learning outcomes, focusing on the critical thinking aspect of what I was teaching. A dear friend of mine who is a retired teacher said that kids really don’t remember much of what you teach, but they do remember the impact you had on them. A child does not reach authentic learning until they believe they can. Empowerment is what I hope I am accomplishing in my classroom. Thank-you for your amazing post, you always get me thinking in the right direction!

4 07 2011

So good to hear from you and thanks for commenting Anna! I’m finding out that a lot of teachers “plow through and hope for the best”, as you’ve said. I agree that empowerment is a big part of the solution and I’m thinking that this will greatly affect my practice in future years. Glad that posts like this capture your attention as well as mine!

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