Each year for the past 28 years I’ve tried to change how I teach my courses (I call them ‘Initiatives’). This means changing the materials I use, adding, changing, or removing the activities I use to engage students, etc. Some of my ideas work wonderfully, others crash and burn miserably. Those initiatives that have survived to the present day have earned their continued use.
My measure of a worthy initiative is based on how well a student can find the ‘value’ in that knowledge and/ or the path to acquiring that knowledge. Nowadays, the worthiness of any classroom instruction is measured by a test score. Low test scores => poor classroom instruction. This is a misguided view and a prime contributor to poor teaching styles. I have succumbed to the pressure from administrators and colleagues in the past. Often, I end up with students performing well on exams and a deep feeling that I did not remain true to a teacher’s creed or my responsibilities to the founding fathers of our nation. While some of my most successful “test” years have also been some of my most unappealing years professionally, I continue to try to satisfy both camps: Maintain high test scores vs. sparking self-motivated inquiry. Very difficult indeed.
As I prepare to welcome a new crop of youngsters to my class, I have to brace myself for the inevitable “Why are we doing this?” question. I know that these students fully expect me to stand in the front of the class and “tell them what they need to know”. This is the way they’ve been taught up to now. It’s the way their parents expect me to teach them. If I vary from that norm, I’ll get questions and stares aimed at me. If the test scores are high, no one will question me. If they are not to the administrator’s or parents’ expectations, I’m targeted. Students bear the joys or scars of their education. But, they have been ‘programmed’ to accept a number on a test/ report card as a measure of their success. Through experience and natural inclination I find this scenario as futile.
This year, I’m posting this TED Talk by Dr. Sugata Mitra for the student and parent who wants to know “Why are we doing this?” I ask that you watch/ listen to this man. Then, when you’re in class and I employ a technique that is different, unusual, or unknown to you, ask yourself how those children in the slums of India would have reacted.