Teaching how to involve and invest students in their education and empower them as persons isn’t a passive set of knowledge, skills, and understandings. Rather, it is an active, dynamic process, not as easy to teach, at least within the current education paradigm.

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

W3hat is school? Everyone has a picture of what it is, and the majority will probably include kids sitting in desks, learning, taking tests, and doing homework. The things I just expect students to do – listen to the teacher, take good notes, ask questions, complete homework, memorize material for tests, pass tests with good scores – are part of teaching and learning, but not all of it; not the most important part. The most important part is our students’ involvement and investment in their education, and empowerment in their lives; these are what school actually is. This part of school isn’t taught in pre-service courses, even though it’s the source of developing their responsibility for learning, and determines the quality of what graduates at the end of high school. Students’ responsibility for directing their education is the part we don’t learn about because, I believe, the publishers’ pre-packaged products make it too easy to skip this vital part of learning for understanding. Teaching how to involve and invest students in their education and empower them as persons isn’t a passive set of knowledge, skills, and understandings. Rather, it is an active, dynamic process, not as easy to teach, at least within the current education paradigm.

When I was taking my education courses, my corrective reading professor, Colin Dunkeld, went beyond the perfunctory, and engaged us in authentic education; authentic because it addressed the person of the student, that place where the learnings are relevant. We had to know and do the usual stuff, but it wasn’t the core of the experience. The core was becoming a corrective reading specialist, choosing and organizing our own suite of tests and assessments, finding students, assessing, prescribing, and tracking; involving and investing ourselves in the learning, and becoming empowered as a result. Look at the hierarchy of cognitive functions. Where were we within this structure? During his course, we didn’t stay at the levels of knowledge and application. Because we were learning within an inductive modality, we engaged the parts of our brain which are organized to do conceptual learning, and which entrain those higher cognitive functions of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. We became responsible for our learning, returning to class with questions directed by our learnings, our inquiries into corrective reading.

A recent innovation in education, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) is generating interest in how science is taught. Like so many movements in the last 60 years, it is generating a jargon of its own, and is directed from the top down. I suspect it won’t become the best place to look for improving science education, although it is, to its credit, the first movement I can recall that illuminates the importance of language in the practice of science. There’s hope there. Language is what we use to think and understand. That is refreshing to see. However, all the scrambling I detect is at the top, and I suspect that, like other initiatives, its effect in the classroom won’t meet its expectations.

Here’s what I think. We don’t need jargon, we don’t need those in charge of education allowing these storms to come and go; what we need is for teachers to learn how humans learn, and turn these things we discover into what we do. It’s been demonstrated often enough that troubled kids in low-performing schools can excel when their teacher believes, and expects, that they can. And, that those teachers understand the content that they teach. Methods pre-service courses are not content courses.

If we expect our students will learn, then we need to use the parts of our students’ persons that focus on the learnings and provide the involvement, investment, and responsibility for doing the work. This means we need to know who humans are, what motivates them, and how they learn. In my experience, this seems to involve the students’ right to decision-making. Give humans a situation where they have to be, and give them some decisions about what they will do and how they will do it, and they’ll want to return to that place where they have to work, and will learn how to do the work. Well. Very difficult when they are expected to sit quietly and work individually. Without knowing how humans learn, and having the experience and confidence to use those understandings to direct our work, it’s difficult to find the courage to invest our students’ time in conducting science inquiries.

Let me quote an entire paragraph from Henry N. Pollack, a geophysicist and professor, in Uncertain Science . . . Uncertain World, which is directed at the perfunctory way that we have been teaching during the last few decades. He wrote this around a decade ago, and I don’t know if he’s involved in the current wind blowing through the schools, STEM, but he is one of the only voices I’ve heard advocating authentic education to a national audience. (Someone who doesn’t write to a large audience, but who has personally championed authentic education in the Pacific Northwest is Neal Maine. I’m sure he would welcome Pollack’s words.) This is what Pollack has to say:

I recognize of course that scientific progress, indeed progress in any of life’s endeavors, must have an educational foundation that includes basic literacy and numeracy. Reading, writing, and quantitative skills surely must be included in a list of life’s essentials. But as necessary as they are, if they alone are the targets of education, we will shortchange both the students and the society they are a part of. Other important skills – how to observe carefully, how to think critically, how to deal with conflict, how to develop teamwork – are not easily tested but arguably are equally important, or more so, to the success of students and to their community.

Again, to my question: What is school? I think that it’s the ease of both testing and the preparation and delivery of curricula that make prevalent educational and pedagogical practices, so bland and ineffective, so popular. And make it so easy to avoid the messiness of scientific inquiry. If you’ve ever done, or observed self-directed science inquiry, you’ll have seen how difficult it is to describe in a page or two of a textbook. The standard model of school is one of giving students the context and meaning of new learnings and then giving them the relevant facts to commit to memory. It’s like having preschool children color within the lines of coloring books, and fill in word blanks in stories, instead of helping them acquire the skills and understandings to do projects, make their own illustrated books, write and perform their own plays, etc. Two completely different modes of learning, didactic vs. inductive.

Because self-directed inquiry causes the learner to discover facts as they need to be known, (and each group will follow their own path) it forces learners to make sure of what they have observed, negotiate its meaning amongst themselves, and work together to express this meaning to others. Over time, they learn to observe carefully, think critically (elaborate detail, compare-contrast, analyze-synthesize, assess; i.e., engage in critical thinking), deal with conflict as discrepancies in their data, concepts, and thinking arise, , and develop teamwork. This is how they become involved and invested in their educations and empowered as persons. These outcomes are contained within the purview of science inquiry. Science knowledge which results from science inquiry, and makes up most of what our students experience, doesn’t address these neglected and unstated goals of K-12 education. Our job is to know how to teach and test these skills and understandings (what are these skills and understandings?) which aren’t a part of standard curricula.

Here’s how I feel: science and ecology are fascinating subjects. Why must school turn them into exercises which put students to sleep? It doesn’t matter if our pre-service preparation did a poor job of getting us ready for the job; we have to bring ourselves up to speed, no matter what we teach. That’s a responsibility we should all jump at and accept. We are the ones with the most influence on where the nation moves in the global world; we educate the people who will be doing the moving. To date, our passive graduates are not able to keep up with the rest of the world. The solution won’t come from above; WE have to do the job, and for most of us, that means re-inventing how we teach.

jimphotocroppedThis is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”