Teacher Teacher, Can You Teach Me?

As an educator, naturally I think a lot about education (now if you liked that riveting beginning please read on).  Over my years as a professor we hear a lot of about better methods to educate.  A lot of fancy phrases get thrown around like problem based learning, inquiry learning, student centered pedagogy, etc.  Rather than discuss the merits of these techniques and whether or not they are better than the “chalk and talk” style of teaching (another exciting catch phrase) I want to take a look at things from a more fundamental and philosophical level as is often my nature.

Let’s first forget about the fact that there are multiple learning styles amongst people and that the way we learn also changes as we grow in age.  What I mainly want to talk about has to do with knowledge, learning, and critical thinking and we may return to some more specific stuff later, I really can’t be sure, because I haven’t decided what the point is to this blog. 🙂

So how much knowledge is there in the world?  Before we quibble about what knowledge is, or whether we can truly “know” anything, let’s just sort of look at it from a somewhat quantitative point of view.  It seems clear to me that if you take any field of study we simply know more today than we did yesterday.  Every day we are discovering new things.  So we have a lot more to learn or that we can learn today than in the past.  Yes there are always things that we are going to be a little unsure about or that we are on the leading edge of discovery and so haven’t solidified our views yet, but each day we move a lot of things into “okay we know this” category and out of the “unsure” category.  Truthfully speaking every day we probably do the reverse as well, but I would say there is a net movement towards “knowing” something new all the time.

It is also clear, as we look at education (and I am speaking mostly about North America) that critical thinking skills are low.  I am a huge proponent of encouraging better critical thinking skills in children.  In fact children already have great critical thinking skills, it’s just that the education system eventually drives it out of them.  Perhaps due to the fact that kids are often wrong in the conclusions they make (which by the way is amazingly okay because we should be encouraging the process and I think instead we tend to shut the process down in favor of the “right” answer, and perhaps because education as an institution promotes rote memorization over critical thinking.  Not to give rote memorization a completely bad rap, because I think there always has to be a place for being able to memorize things).

So to go back to my point

From http://www.northwestprimetime.com

about knowledge, there is a lot of things to know and even under the banner of better critical thinking skills it is, in my opinion, extremely wasteful to have young children rediscover everything we know in this world.  I also think this is okay because kids are extremely good at memorizing things so why not let those sponges soak up some basic knowledge?  Some very thought provoking researchers on education like Sugata Mitra would argue that in the age of information memorization of information is not necessary, that anybody can simply look up the information they need.  Given the amount of misinformation out there in cyberspace I think at the very least a basic set of knowledge is required to at least help students from sorting out bad information from good.  And as the picture indicates, memory is an important part of the processor that is our brain.  We need to have some stuff in there.

But young children are good at a lot of things and there are certain ages where they are exceptionally good at certain things such as learning languages, learning mathematics, and rote memorization.   I gave a talk one time to a bunch of 2nd graders on tornado safety and there was not a single student who didn’t have a question and who was curious.  At that point I began to wonder, how do we go from this child thirsty for knowledge to the typical apathetic college student I see in my class? The next question then becomes why don’t we take advantage of what we know about how kids learn and when they learn best?  In answer to that question I have only opinions so please forgive me if I’m grossly mistaken, but I think it comes down to several things:

  • A pace of learning that is too slow. Children become bored and their active minds turn to other things.   The rate in which knowledge is expected to be absorbed by a student actually increases with time which is exactly the opposite order it should be. I’ve heard the argument that young children shouldn’t have to work so hard at school at younger ages that they should play more. My experience in watching young children learn is that play and learning aren’t really that different. And I think there are ways to even make the learning more interactive socially for those who might worry about a loss of social skills as they spend more time learning.
  • A lack of funding for schools and low pay in general for educators. I know, another educator complaining about funding, but the emphasis a society places on good education is important. Giving all schools equity in retaining good teachers, smaller class sizes, and having effective tools for the trade is important. By making teaching a higher paying and attractive career by ensuring they will have the tools they need when they start their career, we can bring in brighter and better teachers. In my experience I have seen far too many students choose teaching (especially in science) because specializing in their chosen interest was too hard. This seems wrong to me. Currently most of the brightest and best go elsewhere because they can make more money, and those that are extremely bright and choose nobility over money (I praise them all!) are often frustrated by a system in which they do not feel supported and actually feel constrained and trapped.  I think the lack of finances is in large part why curriculums become less varied and standardized because they are more easily measurable in making decisions on how to dole out the limited funding that all schools fight for.
  • Homogenizing teaching. The feeling that many teachers have is that they have little freedom in their curriculum or how they teach. Exposing students to a diversity of teaching styles and material increases the value of collaborative efforts among students and helps students understand the teaching style that works best for them. If all students are exactly the same and exposed to exactly the same style of learning it doesn’t surprise me that many students are bored, or don’t see the value of education. It doesn’t surprise me that many students simply see education as a game in which once they figure out the system they can cheat themselves out of actual learning and simply get the grade they need to move forward. Let student’s express their individuality through learning is important, and I think part of that comes from letting teachers express their individuality more through teaching.

I apologize for the length of this post as I find I can never be brief when it comes to talking about education.   I think instead of coming up with ways to make learning fun, let’s remember that for every little kid, learning IS fun.  Let’s figure out instead how to foster that feeling as they grow older.

From http://students.ou.edu
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12 thoughts on “Teacher Teacher, Can You Teach Me?

  1. I love this post, and I think you’re spot on about everything. I used to tutor before I was accepted to nursing school, and I would see a lot of the same things. I especially applaud your stance on critical thinking. I do have one bit to add, though.

    “…there was not a single student who didn’t have a question and who was curious. At that point I began to wonder, how do we go from this child thirsty for knowledge to the typical apathetic college student I see in my class?”

    As much as I love a well-rounded education, I think you answered your own question with the word “curious.” For the most part, western models of education do not allow children to follow and explore their curiosity. You might have a middle school student who is passionate and curious about chemistry, but will spend the next 6 years also being forced to read Jane Eyre and memorize all the important battles of the civil war. I can’t tell you how many young writers I tutored who continually questioned they needed to study geometry if they were never going to use it.

    By forcing kids to study things that don’t interest them, we’re basically turning them off to the idea of school. If I spent the first 18 years of my life studying a bunch of stuff I found boring, tedious, or not applicable to my future I’d probably be pretty frustrated and burned out, too. But there are other models emerging that are promising when it comes to curricula designed for the individual student.

    What I’d like to see someday is a much more open curriculum that the students design for themselves. Every student can have one year of “life skills” that would teach them the reading, writing, math. and interpersonal skills necessary to function in the adult world, and then after that, they’d be left to pursue what they were naturally passionate about or interested in. In short, I think high schools could do a much better job of letting students specialize early on. Such specialization would foster their innate curiosity and intellectual passions instead of trying to cram a bunch of extraneous information into their heads ad nauseum.

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    1. I agree with you Ryan with one caveat. I guess it depends on when you think it might be acceptable for students to decide their own curriculum. I agree that I think there could be a component throughout their education where they should be given more academic freedom to pursue things that interest them, but I am a bit uncomfortable about necessarily let them decide at too early an age on what information they should learn. I don’t think until I was in high school did I have an idea of what kind of subjects I wanted to learn more about, and even then there are some things that I didn’t see the value of then, but do now. I’m of the opinion that no knowledge is useless, and that whatever you learn, you are also learning how to learn. That being said I do think there are some better life skills that could be taught in schools, and I do think that students should have at least one class every semester that is more project oriented and gives them a chance to investigate a topic at a deeper level so that they can learn research and critical thinking skills. I think this can be done even at the elementary level, especially given the sort of user friendly programs out there for presenting stuff…or they could just draw a series of pictures to represent what they want to talk about. So a more varied approach to how and what they learn seems like the best solution to me, but I still think there has to be some room for learning some things that require memorization or lots of practice, even if one doesn’t see the immediate benefit. I think though we can do a better job in helping students understand the why. I was always good at math, but nobody ever told me why I was learning it really, and that seems to me a mistake.

      On a completely separate note. You seem to have got yourself another fan Ryan. Somebody who seems to have a beef with you (handle: tly1987) tried to post a link to his blog on my wall. In this blog article he has highlighted you as being a most deceptive individual. lol He appears to be not playing with a full deck, which often goes hand in hand with someone who is a bit of a zealot. I am not going to approve his comment, but I just thought you should know in case you didn’t already.

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      1. I definitely don’t think we should let kids pick what they’d like more focused study on until high school. You need some sort of a foundation. Moreover, if you aren’t exposed to a little bit of everything at some point, how are you supposed to discover what you’re really passionate and curious about? I just think that our current model tends to over-foundationalize (I just made up a word!) our kids.

        I’m definitely not against memorization lol. There are some subjects that just lend themselves to that method of learning. When I was going through anatomy and physiology, you had to just straight up memorize all the bones and muscles of the body. In chemistry, you should probably just remember the atomic number of the elements. In biology, you should probably just remember the different components of a cell. The list goes on an on. You have to just know certain things before you can put any creative thought and originality into a subject. So on the rote memorization point, I agree with you.

        That guys is CRAZY. Literally. I don’t understand how he’s a functional human being, unless it’s all a giant act and he’s really the ultimate troll.

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        1. No, I perused some of his stuff, and his apparently several wordpress pages. He is not clown short of a circus for sure. The fact that he doesn’t realize it is the problem. Apparently he wanted to make sure that I knew you were of suspect integrity. lol

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    2. By the way, the tags on the post from this person that features you. “ANARCHISM, CAPITALISM, COMMUNISM, DISHONESTY, FRAUD, INTELLECT, LOGIC, PATHOLOGICAL LYING, PHONY, REASON, SABOTEUR, SCIENCE, SOCIALISM” LOLOLOL

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  2. On the topic of education, I have always thought that a teachers style of teaching has a lot to do with kids learning the material. A teacher that can make a class interesting, fun, and at the same time maintain order (there is a fine line) went a long way to helping me get through the class.

    The teacher that assigns “read chapter 17 and do problems 6-29” and has no classroom pizazz, they just present the material blandly and assign the homework, this is not a fun, or interesting way to learn.

    The best teacher I ever had was my 7th grade science teacher. His name Mr. Jirgis. He was an Iranian immigrant and one mean S.O.B. so you would hear from the kids in the hall. Yeah, he had a mean streak, but he had a style of teaching that just made you want to learn more. (If nothing else out of fear) If in the classroom presentation you got something wrong, (he would randomly pick someone and ask them a question), he would pounce on you like a cat on the pet bird. He would make you think. Make you understand. Sometimes if he saw something not going over well, he would devote the entire classroom time to it to make sure we “got it.”

    Then there were days he would forego teaching the material entirely. I’ll never forget one day he started the class by asking if anyone in the class had ever been hungry. When everyone raised their hands he dropped the hammer. “NO! None of you have ever been hungry! You have no idea of the meaning of the word. In my home country there are children dieing in the streets for lack of something to eat. Their bellies distended and flies all over their bodies, and people on the streets walk on as if nothing is happening.” The rest of the class time was spent on the topic, him opening up and discussing, letting the kids ask questions, and answering them honestly.

    He would take days like this where no classroom material was presented at all. He just had a point to make. Next day we were back to science. There are many words one could use to describe him, but at the end of the day he was a great teacher.

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    1. I agree. Strictness of teaching and great teaching are not necessarily related. Often the ones that are kind of strict are because they have standards and expect you to meet them, which is not a bad thing. Good teachers can help you meet those expectations. A laid back teacher that doesn’t give you a standard to reach can be worse than the strict one.

      I think it is painfully obvious when a teacher doesn’t understand the material very well themselves, or doesn’t enjoy teaching it, or isn’t very passionate about the material or their job. I found that it almost didn’t matter how information was delivered to me if you could tell that the teacher was excited about the information themselves.

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      1. Yes, I suppose passion would be the key word here. When you have it, it shows, when it is applied correctly it can be infectious. When it gets infectious you don’t feel like you are having to learn the material, it learns you. I know that statement does not follow logically, but I know sure as hell what I mean 🙂 Am pretty sure you get it too.

        I have found after rasing a handful of kids that the best way to raise them is with some level of expectation to meet. You have to be the bad ass when it is called for, but keep it to a minimum and you balance that with all of the love and attention they deserve. Teachers who understand this and apply the concept in the classroom, are going to be better teachers. Teachers that have this understanding, and that passion we discussed, they are going to be unstoppable educators. We need more of those.

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