Friday, March 29, 2013

Teaching Motivation

I receive quite a bit of communication from businesses that want to sell us educational products, the key part of their pitch being a long lists of what children will learn. I know that school districts, like the Seattle School district, purchase math, literacy, and other curricula from businesses that sell such things, and I'm quite certain that the sales people are very specific about what it is the children will learn, probably on a month by month, chapter by chapter, step by step basis.

I'm kind of baffled by this. How do they know what the kids will learn? And if they really somehow can know what another person will learn, how do they know that this specific knowledge-product is what they really ought to have in their heads and on that particular schedule? What about all the other stuff they could be learning instead? It seems like such a gamble to me; a huge opportunity cost. I mean, what if they're wrong? How can anyone know what specific knowledge will be important in a future that none of us can predict 5 years down the road, let alone 20 or 30 when these kids are out there in the middle of the world?

I'm not exaggerating when I say that I think this piece of art is a work of genius.

There seems to be a kind of hubris in this way of approaching education, the idea that the grown-ups get to decide what children will learn. Adults have never been particularly good at predicting the future, especially those of us over 40. And while there is something to be said for the wisdom that comes from experience, if that experience has taught me anything at all, it's that I better be prepared to keep right on learning because the specific set of things I need to know changes year by year, month by month and even day by day. What I needed to know yesterday is obsolete today.

As a teacher, I never (or rarely) pretend to know what the kids will learn, but I do know that they are learning. I know this because what we are about within our four walls is building a community, and in that process, every day, children bump up against their limits, find that there is something they do not know, something they need to know, want to know, and so set about learning it. A progressive, play-based curriculum never needs to be updated, we never need to download a version 2.1 or 2.2. It's always cutting edge because the children are always learning exactly what they need to know to answer the questions they have, to fulfill their self-selected role in our community, to scaffold their way to the next step in their ongoing inquiry about themselves and how to work with the other people.

Our role as experienced adults is not to package up and spoon feed them whatever it is that we, in our own unique process of living for decades in this world, have found useful, but rather to observe carefully and then to make our best guesses about not what they ought to learn, but what they are learning right nowthen to be there with vocabulary, a hand, an observation, or, if we are very careful, perhaps a question that will support their inquiry.

When I do something as simple as putting pinking shears, scissors, construction paper, and glue sticks on a table, I don't need a list of what the children will learn. In fact, what arrogance it would take to assume I could make such a list before they have even begun their exploration of these materials.

The object of education is not to fill heads with our predictions about what we think they will need to know, but rather to create a clear field in which children can practice the lifelong habit of learning.

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Teacher Jeanine said...

Well said sir!

Chrissy said...

My kindergartners took a protractor from the design box, traced and cut many shapes, then decided these looked like "D"s. That afternoon, they started "The D Business"! MrLeader was hiring and firing at random, but they managed to create a business