Tuesday, February 9, 2010

For the love of learning

I am not the same teacher I used to be. When I started, I was very focused on power and control. I assigned loads of homework, dished out huge penalties for late assignments, assigned punishments for rule breaking behavior and averaged my marks to get a final grade. I did some of these things because I was trained to do so in university. However, most of these teaching strategies were being done mindlessly, and like a lot of teachers, I was simply teaching the way I was taught.

Five years ago I was becoming more and more unhappy with my teaching (or lack of), and my student’s learning (or lack of). I was tired of laboring through marking. I hated nagging kids to get their homework done. Instead of students asking “what’s this question out of?” I wanted them to actually get excited about the content. I wanted change, and I came very close to thinking that change required me to get out of teaching.

But instead of pulling the plug on what could have been a very short teaching career, I started to question the traditional pedagogy that I had so mindlessly adopted. I began asking questions that would challenge the status quo. Many professional development conferences provide teachers with an opportunity to ask questions such as ‘how do I mark better’ or ‘how do I get my students to do their homework’. At first glance these look like very challenging and provocative questions, but they are still questions that promote more of the same. Far more powerful questions would be ‘Why do I mark?’ or ‘Why do I assign homework?’ Investigating into the motives for our actions, rather than merely examining our methods is a better use of our time, particularly if the subject in question is a belief or habit that we’ve come to mindlessly accept as a given truth. Mark Twain provided us with two very powerful and insightful quotes when he said, “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.” And,“ it ain’t what we don’t know that gets us in trouble. It is what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Three years ago, I came to two realizations: Firstly, I was letting schooling get in the way of my teaching, and secondly, much of my teaching practices were based on pedagogy that was at best unhelpful and at worst harmful. Through critical questioning and extensive research , I came to the conclusion that my pedagogy had to revolve around one priority – learning. And if there were things that worked to sabotage learning, then those things would have to be removed.

For the last four years, I have worked to identify and remove those things that traditional schools have done for so long (and sometimes so mindlessly) such as grades, homework, incentive/reward programs, and punishments/consequences. And when I share this with other teachers, I get a mixed response. Some listen intently, nodding their heads in agreement, as if deep down they have always sensed something wrong with their traditional practices. But some listen in shock and awe at how school could even function without such things as grades and punishments. It is those teachers who have such a hard time comprehending how kids can learn without all these extrinsic manipulators that concern me the most. They are so bought into ‘traditional’ schooling that they have never questioned its foundation. Or, and this possibility is even more concerning, they have a very distasteful and distrustful view of the nature of children. Meaning that without grades, rewards, punishment and homework, there would be nothing to stop children from running amok with sinister intent.

Some of this mindless acceptance for the status quo is driven by our society’s obsession with instantaneous results. We know what we want, but we want it now. Many teachers will admit that if they could take even one strategy, project, or idea back from a conference to their classroom and use it the next day, they would consider the conference worthy of their time. When given the choice, how many teachers would go to a session based on theory over a session based on practical application? Most of us want practical strategies that can be used now, rather than having to sit through more educational theory. The danger of such a fixation on practicality is that we may adopt a practice based on illogical or disagreeable theory. Our best practices must be built on a foundation of best theory.

This is an excerpt from a longer article I wrote called For the Love of Learning. The entire article is below:

For the Love of Learning


  1. I was lucky in my third year of teaching to move to a school where we spent many of our staff meetings discussing articles by Alfie Kohn, doing backwards design for lessons and collaborating with each other. Yet despite all this discussion over several years, we still had teachers motivating their students with grades and talking about the necessity of award ceremonies to recognize student achievement. Theory is essential first, but then we need to support teachers wanting change but having trouble implementing it with practical help. Peer mentoring/partnering comes in handy for the latter.

  2. I agree. I've heard teachers talk the talk, but they walk to an extrinsic drum all too often.

  3. Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.


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