A senior at a nearby high school wrote a terrific opinion column in the Seattle Times recently. The headline for the print edition of the paper is, “Students should craft their own education.”
The author wrote, “Like any student, I’ve had good teachers and bad teachers. Our schools are never going to be filled with only good teachers, but there is one lesson best taught by a bad teacher: The responsibility for one’s education can only be one’s own.”
He continues, “It’s an often-quoted fact that one of the greatest scientific and political minds this continent has produced only had two years of formal education. This trivia about Benjamin Franklin is sometimes used to point out his unique genius. However, Franklin’s genius is not unique. Why did one of 17 children of a candle and soap maker become so successful? As a child, Franklin quickly learned that nobody was going to do anything for him, and this was certainly true of his education. So he read.”
I love this story. But I think the writer makes a crucial error. Learning the importance of taking responsibility for one’s own education is not a lesson best delivered by a bad teacher through his incompetence; that’s a lesson best delivered by a great teacher through a nuanced understanding human development.
This, of course, requires a redefinition of what it means to be a great teacher. In my 12 years as a classroom teacher in traditional schools, I’ve always thought my job was to deliver academic content to students—as much as possible, in as much depth as possible. It’s hard to do that effectively when students are only there because they’re required to, and their primary motivation for completing my assignments is the fear getting a bad grade. To keep them engaged, I’ve had to crank up the charisma and the entertainment value of our 55-minute period. If I could keep them awake and engaged, I’ve always thought, hopefully they would learn some pieces of the lesson I was trying to impart.
Then, I could pat myself on the back for being a great teacher.
It’s a totally backwards way of looking at teaching and learning.
The best teachers don’t focus primarily on delivering academic content to a captive audience. The best teachers focus primarily on helping students understand this: the responsibility for one’s education can only be one’s own. That’s the gift that keeps on giving, even after the student has graduated and moved on to the next stage in life. When students have internalized that message, they can give up playing the game of school where they memorize things in the short term only to forget them three weeks later.
To do this in a traditional learning environment is a near-impossible task. Here’s a short scene that might give you a sense of what I mean:
TEACHER: Good morning class. I want to have a conversation with you guys about what it means to really own your learning process, to really take responsibility for it yourself.
STUDENT: Will there be a test on this?
The learning environment in a traditional school is dominated by requirements and extrinsic motivators. It’s not designed to teach students responsibility, maturity, or curiosity. Without responsibility, maturity, or curiosity, school for kids becomes a ritual in following directions and placating adults. In that kind of environment, expecting students to take charge of their education is really, really tall order.
The problem with our education system is not budget cuts, lazy students, or bad teachers. School is a design problem. For it to deliver the outcomes we desire, school needs to be redesigned based on a different set up assumptions.
Near the end of his opinion column, the author writes, “Every student is the craftsman of their own education, whether they realize it or not. We as students must dismiss the idea that we are entitled to a good education. We are not. . . . We must ensure for ourselves that we are well-educated.”
I don’t believe that for a second. Of course students are entitled to a good education. We just need to redefine what the words “good education” mean.
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