color photo of teacher sitting at table with his studentsSomething has been bothering me about today’s education climate that is not easy to articulate.  It has to do with the state of knowledge in our schools.  It seems to me that knowledge has become a commodity like wheat or beef, which needs to be fed to students in finite quantities.  Most teachers act as if there were a package of ‘’content’’ (related to literature, math, science, history, literacy skills, etc.), that must be delivered to students in measurable doses (I especially like the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s phrase ‘’indigestible knowledge stones’’).

The best example of this is the Common Core State Standards, which describes hundreds of these ‘’knowledge units’’ that must be mastered in order to be considered a competent learner.  But this attitude is also present in the classroom in the very attitude in which teachers carry out their daily lesson plans.  In this type of setting, teachers are the ‘’experts’’ who have access to a specific quantity of knowledge that must be transferred to the students. After the teaching has occurred, those students who haven’t taken in the knowledge, despite repeated efforts, are considered deficient in their learning (e.g. ‘’I don’t know what to do about my low students’’).

The problem with this whole approach to education is that knowledge isn’t a finite quantity.  It’s an infinite quality.  There’s no end to one’s ability to know about the world.  Experts in each domain still disagree about what is known in virtually every knowledge domain.  In science, there is still controversy raging about the contradictions between quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity.  In literature, critics propound widely different methods of interpreting literature from structuralism to feminist readings of great books.  In history, there are so many uncertainties about what actually happened in a given historical event, that the field gives at best a bare approximation to the realities on the ground.  Perhaps math is the one area which might be considered the safest domain in terms of having a finite set of skills, facts, and algorithms, but even there one finds much that is still unexplored in terms of using the tools of math to understand events in the real world.

There’s a quotation attributed to the mythologist Joseph Campbell that I think speaks to what I’m trying to get across here:  ‘’He who thinks he knows, doesn’t know. He who knows that he doesn’t know, knows.” This to me expresses what should be the real attitude of teachers in the world of education.  I remember doing a workshop for some teachers, and at the end of the class I came to realize that one of the participants was actually the principal of the school.  She had seemed just like one of the teachers to me. When I was visiting with her afterwards, she described herself as the ‘’head learner’’ of the school. This made a big impression on me.  It seems to me that this is the pinnacle that every teacher should strive toward:  to become the #1 learner in the classroom.  There needs to be a certain level of humility that teachers possess insofar as acknowledging that they don’t have all the answers, that student questions are usually more productive than ‘’right answers,’’ and that learning is a joyous adventure that can never really come to any fixed end point (e.g. there’s no ‘’final exam’’ on truth).

What this means in practical terms is that teachers should regard themselves ultimately, not as teachers at all, but as lifelong learners.  They should come into class and instead of starting out by saying ‘’class, turn to page 134 of your textbook’’ they ought to begin with something like  ‘’I just read the most fascinating article in the newspaper this morning’’ or ‘’here’s a rock I found near my house over the weekend, isn’t it marvelous!’’

When students answer questions that are ‘’wrong’’ from the standpoint of knowledge as a fixed quantity of ‘’stuff,’’ the #1 learners in the classroom shouldn’t ‘’correct’’ them, but instead, they ought to inquire about their thinking process, ask what they had in mind when they said that, consider what such a response might lead to, and think out loud about how it might have some truth in it after all (I’m not talking about 1 + 1 = 2, more like: ‘’what were the factors that led to the rise of facism between the two world wars?’’).  Each student’s answers should be linked to that great body of knowledge that contains an infinite number of connections and associations, and not be subjected to a digital ‘’wrong versus right’’ or ‘’fill in the blank’’ sort of attitude.  Instead of giving ‘’homework,’’ teachers should invite their students on a learning adventure that they’re all going to take together.  This sort of relationship occurs most frequently at present when teachers take students on field trips, or even longer trips to places near and far.  But it ought to hold true even with learning that happens in the classroom.

Teachers should address the class at the beginning of the year with something like ‘’here’s what we’re all going to be learning about this semester.  I find the subject personally fascinating and I’m going to be engaged in learning about it alongside of each one of you.’’  But, in order to have this sort of attitude, the teacher must regard learning as a journey, not as a destination, and be willing to be surprised, mystified, stumped, and excited about the subject matter they are all exploring together.  This might sound obvious to you, but when teachers strive to become the #1 learner in the classroom, they ultimately serve as role models to students, showing them what an authentic learner looks like, and this can inspire students to experience their own learning as a real adventure too.  For how can one truly be ‘’engaged’’ in learning (a favorite term these days), if the world and the knowledge of it, is only seen as a compulsory set of finite facts, figures, skills, and content that must be consumed, and then ‘’barfed’’ back onto the page for the end of semester tests?

For more information about teaching and love of learning, see my book If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education.

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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