The Opportunity to Learn

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“I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

Albert Einstein

Leave it to Albert to characterize in two sentences the key tenet of education which has been ignored for decades.  (No, I didn’t know him at all, so it is presumptuous of me to address him by his first name.  But like most bloggers, I’m just assuming that one day—perhaps eons and eons in the future—the shining brilliance of my observations will make everyone equate the two of us as intellectual peers.  It could happen…maybe.)  With each passing educational reform and political election we seem to move further away from the correct model for public schools in general and teachers in particular:  Teaching really isn’t about a teacher’s skill in dumping knowledge into students’ heads; it’s about how well they provide students with opportunities to learn.

Inherent in Einstein’s comment is a shared responsibility.  Both parties have duties to perform if the desired end result—educated people—is to come about.  Teachers must understand the material they are presenting, create activities which will lead students to understanding the concepts being presented, organize/sequence those activities well so the students can grasp the parts as they build to the whole, assess student understanding of what they were supposed to learn, review key concepts  that seemed to elude the majority of the students the first time through (should the results of the assessment show review is necessary), and self-assess the way the lesson went so as to improve both delivery method and learning activities in the future.  That’s an immense undertaking in and of itself.

But there’s even more:  Teachers also have to motivate, discipline, and to a certain extent, entertain—or at least be interesting.  And don’t forget organizational skills, book-keeping ability (Lord help you if you screw up in entering grades!), or political sensitivity—you’d better not make a mistake in how you address anybody or slip and let a joke out that some might find offensive.  I still think it’s funny to wonder aloud why there’s a national holiday to honor the pain of giving birth (Labor Day), but while I’ll probably drop that one annually on my poor family, I never risked making someone angry by saying it to any of my classes.  (However, I never failed in the first week of November to make a big show of writing sixteen slash marks on the board; to congratulate my freshmen that they had achieved a huge milestone; then to erase one of the sixteen lines; and finally to explain that now that their first quarter had ended, they only had those fifteen slash marks to go to graduation.)  Regardless of what I thought was funny, teachers have more than enough to do without having the unwarranted task of accepting responsibility for their students having done what they needed to do to digest everything that had been presented.

That’s impossible for teachers to achieve, by the way.  Outsiders often decry the ability of teachers based on student behavior or test results, but every parent should understand the unfairness of assuming poor teaching/parenting based on the “impetuous” actions of students/children. Just because a student demonstrates some gap in his knowledge of subject/verb agreement in no way proves that the teacher didn’t explain the concept, provide worksheets to practice, review the material, and then test the student’s knowledge.  Yet, often as soon as the test is over, that very student will loudly remark to his peers, “This don’t matter cuz each of us have mad skillz.”  (And be careful about pshawing that “This don’t” is too obvious a mistake to be more than conversational carelessness; there are two agreement errors in that sentence:  “Each” is singular, so even if the object of the preposition [“us”] is plural, it doesn’t matter.  It should be “each of us has mad skillz.”)  As one who spent many hours trying to eliminate “who/whom” confusion over the years, I can attest to students being drilled endlessly on various concepts but never accepting the knowledge which was so generously being offered to them.

And standardized tests are even less useful in showing how much impact a teacher has had on students.  Often, students couldn’t care less. (Remember:  If you say “could care less,” what you’re actually saying is that it is possible for your concern to be lower than it currently is.  You need the “not” adverb there to indicate that it’s not feasible for you to have less care about whatever’s being discussed.  You know, like your interest in having me point out all the grammar traps that lurk in the rest of this essay.) No matter how many times authority figures explain that these tests could impact students’ futures or reflect on their schools, if the score isn’t going to affect their report card grades (Yes, you generally use “affect” when you need a verb not the noun form, “effect”…okay, I’ll shut up about the grammar now.), then the tests don’t matter to a good percentage of them.

Which brings us to the students’ duties in the educational process:  Effort would be number one.  If teachers have done their part—understood the material, presented it clearly, provided appropriate practice, and assessed wisely—really all the students have to do is try their best and results should follow.  Nobody’s saying effort is easy, of course.  Motivating yourself to do the things you don’t want to do but would be in your best interests is probably the key to success in our world, and we all know how often we fail in our quests.  From weight control to investing wisely to household chores to physical fitness to…well, just about anything, it’s tough to make yourself do what you know will be unexciting and challenging regardless of how clearly you understand how much you will benefit should you complete those tasks.  With kids, that motivation is even harder since they rarely comprehend the slightest benefit in reading Shakespeare or solving quadratic equations until many years after their public school days are over.  That said, however, effort is a student responsibility everyone seems to ignore when assessing how public education is doing.

As we shift more responsibility for student outcomes away from students onto teachers, the goal of educated students recedes even further into the distance.  Of course, individual parents can and do instill a wonderful work ethic into their kids, but modern America seems to place little onus on our youth for poor educational results.  It’s much easier and more satisfying to blame the schools when our kids don’t learn, even though students regularly don’t succeed because they won’t put forth enough effort to do so.  It should hardly surprise us that we’re not getting the results we want if we won’t recognize how important it is for students to care about their education and give it their all.

Hand in hand with that effort is acceptance of responsibility.  Again, our modern lives seem to have aided us in shirking this as well.  Nobody seems willing to admit to the slightest flaw and face failing; it’s always somebody else’s fault.  Our courts are full of people who did idiotic things and then blame someone else:  Of course, McDonald’s should be held liable for its hot coffee, not the woman who placed a cup between her legs as she was driving and wound up scalded.  No, Donald Trump need never concede that he could be wrong about anything; only “losers” do that.  Tom Brady had no clue the footballs had been deflated, Hilary shouldn’t be expected to use the email server everybody else is supposed to use, and obviously it was Obama’s fault that Sarah Palin’s son beat up his girlfriend.  Again and again, we see public figures dodge responsibility, so it should come as no surprise that our children mimic that behavior.  Yes, historically we have all used excuses to avoid blame, but it does seem like blame evaders used to feel much guiltier about their tactics.  (Sorry about sermonizing there, but you true Colbert fans will recognize there’s more truthiness than truth in that statement and treat it accordingly.  And terrifyingly to me, this paragraph also reeks of the “back when I was young” nonsense we all roll our eyes over when our grandparents bore us with it.)

But don’t let my nostalgia for a past that I can’t be sure existed distract you from the fundamental truth of Einstein’s comment on teaching; he is absolutely right that it takes two to learn.  The accountability movement which began in the 1980s rightfully pointed out that perhaps the schools had been given too much latitude while all of the responsibility for learning was placed on the students and that teachers needed to be called to task for not accepting their fair share of the educational load.  But the pendulum has swung way too far in the opposite direction today, creating the belief that only teachers are at fault for any and all poor outcomes.  And that has led to the proliferation of outside interferers who attack teachers in order to take over their classrooms, which has in turn led to more standardization which has NOT educated our children.  Everybody has a stake in public schools creating educated students, so we should never forget which tasks fall on which parties.  Teachers have the duty to ensure that each and every student has the opportunity to learn, but students must accept their responsibility to do the actual learning.

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