A Touch of Dissent

You know you were born to teach, when you photosynthesize off the light bulbs over other people’s heads…

Teaching (and learning) is what I do. Even in my spare time I do public outreach with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, when I am not teaching myself new things. Recently, I have read a number of articles about the necessity of taking responsibility for reaching and engaging every student in your class. Like this one , This one, and just about any post by Joe Bower. These posts tell us we need to provide rich, student driven, discovery-based, authentic, democratic, meaningful, contextual, connected, fun, challenging experiences for our students, and everything will work out.

As a genetically predetermined teacher from a family of teachers (everyone in my direct family, plus uncles and cousins…), I am ideologically programmed to think that way, more or less. But as a scientist, that worries me. I like to try to step back and examine the evidence, and when I do this, I find there are things outside of my control. Stuff will happen no matter what I do.

First, from a practical standpoint, we have a government mandated curriculum that we must – and I will use the hated word here – cover. Ironically, I work at an independent school, which means we are actually held to a higher standard than the public schools, as we are inspected every other year. Because of this requirement, I need to be able to show evidence of hitting all of the expectations for my courses. We do not have the luxury of spending enormous time pursuing student-driven inquiry on things that are not part of the curriculum.

Secondly, there is the “luck of the draw” with the students. For example, I currently have one class that has four students who struggle significantly with Science, two students (possibly three) with Asperger’s, four with significant attention issues, one with oppositional defiant disorder, and one who is just really really immature. Maybe two. In other words, really, a typical class. All of these kids are decent, fun loving humans and I like all of them – but they are all in an advanced Science class. As a result, with the dynamic of this group, there are things we just cannot do. And this doesn’t even include the passive-aggressive-refuse-to-do-any-work student I have in another class.

Thirdly, everyone and their dog knows “what’s best” for the students. Parents and teachers and administrators and teachers (oh, and the student, sometimes) all make biased decisions on course selection and career path that may not actually be in the student’s best interest, so students wind up in courses they probably shouldn’t be in (see above).

Fourth, despite the widely accepted truism that happy, contented students learn better, studies actually tell us something different – students are in fact not the best arbiters of the quality of their learning. The concept of pseudoteaching informs us that students (and indeed teachers) can believe good learning is happening, without any applicable deep grasp or indeed even retention of the material occurring. Also, Derek Muller shows that student confidence in learning can be lower when the material is learned better, partly because the necessary confusion resulting from wrestling with difficult concepts can be uncomfortable.

Fifth, the concept of discovery-based learning and student-generated learning trajectories is an appealing one –I am intrigued by the Sudbury Valley School and The Australian Science and Mathematics School – but there is also inherent danger in this approach. Without careful oversight, students are prone to misconceptions, or even outright deceptions, such as historical revisionist propaganda, holocaust denial, creation “science”, and any number of conspiracy theories. And as illustrated in a recent episode of Glee, once an idea is out, it is very difficult to put it away again (if you are not a Gleek, they used toothpaste to illustrate the point…)

Ultimately, I think that if you don’t feel a fundamental obligation to try to reach every child in your class (and beyond), you might want to reconsider your profession. However, that sense of obligation also has to be tempered with a touch of reality. That reality is that there will be students we can’t reach, no matter how hard we try. There are students who are in the wrong subjects or classes, likely through no fault of their own, but who are unsuited to the particular rigours of a particular course. The complexities of teaching are so great that trying to balance and juggle curriculum with individual student needs with parental and administrative requests all with our own expectations is nigh on impossible; there is no way all these conflicting requirements can be met. Some compromise must happen. And, let’s face it, teachers take a lot of flak from all angles despite doing their very best – if we won’t cut ourselves a little slack from time to time, who will?


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