In Their Natural State

The year 2020 has been, for most teachers, an utterly singular, draining, exhausting, and more demoralizing school year than any of us could have ever imagined. In my experience, this year has been both an overwhelming community challenge for our country, states, schools and school districts, but also on an individual level for each of us, with its seemingly-endless variety of highly particular problems faced by each individual educator, often quite different from those faced just next door by coworkers. This has almost been the hardest part of it for me — even in a fairly well-run state and district, the notion that my coworkers and I are each facing our pretty unique challenges somewhat alone — in part because nobody else has the energy to help anyone else as we might normally — that’s probably what’s worst in all this. It’s the same in our wider communities, too — not only do most of not have wherewithal to help, but we’re actually forbidden to help in person in such a variety of ways.

I’ll write about all this in-depth sometime; I’m sure I’ll be digesting the lessons and takeaways from this year for a decade to come. Right now, I’m still too close to it, still too enmeshed in the struggles of it to really reflect meaningfully on teaching-in-a-pandemic in any illuminating way. For now though I just want to write about a question that has been kicking around in this teacher’s mind for some time, one that has been given extra urgency by this crazy, crazy time to be a teacher.

That question is the following: To what extent should teachers reveal to students exactly what we are going to teach them? And — the wider question here — to what extent should teachers calculate ahead of time exactly what they expect students to take away from their lessons?

This question has really come to a head for me this year because of the almost unrelenting dictates of our new schedule, which is predicated on a dramatically reduced amount of time in-person with our students, a whole new curriculum created specifically for this year, and myriad other responsibilities that impede meaningful collaboration time with colleagues. To what extent should we plan ahead of time, and to what extent should we prepare what students are going to learn.

Part of this has nothing at all to do with the pandemic; proficiency-based education, all the rage still in Vermont, has fetishized a more and more precise articulation of what students should know and be able to do. About six years ago, our administrators started asking us to post learning “targets” or objectives on the whiteboard each day and to review these with students at the start of class.

Early on, this struck me as ruining the illusion of good instruction. When I first began teaching, I saw myself largely as an improviser, a conjurer, a skilled discussion leader.  I now recognize that I was very much coming from a place of wishing to engage students by not only valuing their contributions to class, but by what I considered to be cocreating meaning together. 

There are perhaps several ideals behind this.  First is the notion that learning is social, that one learns in a class by building meaning collaboratively, that the sort of learning one could receive in direct instruction from a teacher is far less valuable than that constructed for one’s self together with one’s peers.

Another is the Socratic notion that you build off of what students already believe, you draw them out, and then lead them to higher truth.  

The idea of posting learning targets (as elaborated in our district by the UBD framework) and of spending our time deriving careful ones in the first place outlining exactly what students should know based off a given lesson, struck me as overly pedantic. Seeing myself more in the Socratic tradition, this struck me as ruining the magic of teaching, which in its Socratic form actually used surprise to assist with making learning meaningful: if you arrive at a truth more organically, rather than having it being shown to you where you are going, the moment of revelation, of learning, is far more impactful.  It’s a corollary of the psychiatric ideal of the patient discovering a truth for himself, rather than being told the goal ahead of time by a therapist.  It seemed to me that anything worth learning shouldn’t be told to you ahead of time: a teacher needs to lead you to it on your own, otherwise the learning won’t be as meaningful, nor will the path there, which should, at its best, be organic and shaped by the student, and completed without realizing where a student is going.

It’s really interesting to unpack this. In this view, teaching is a kind of magical trick, in which the recipient should be somewhat unaware, in their natural state, because that way you are more accurately addressing them where they are.  They have to be unaware of what you are doing, almost as though you are trapping them, because they will be more honest, and you can more Socratically lead them to truth if they are being honest about their thoughts and about where they are at a given moment in their understanding. 

Yet two problems exist with this: first, that students in this vision are not exactly copartners in learning but unwitting and unknowing participants, passive, really, like the observers of a magical illusion.  The other is that students themselves benefit by being ignorant of the goal of a unit because if they are aware of a lesson’s goal, they will somehow know the “answer” ahead of time and participate in ways that are attempting to shortcut the true process of learning, by trying to demonstrate they already understand what is to be taught or by anticipating what the teacher wishes to hear and not engaging as honestly with the challenges of the learning experiences.

But now that I actually write this out, I realize how odd it sounds. I suppose it would make sense if you showed students the exact answers to multiple choice questions on the very final exam they will be given, but it is ridiculous to think they could somehow cheat the process if the learning goals a teacher communicates have any real heft and challenge. For example, it’s hard to imagine a student told ahead of time that the day’s learning goal is to understand how to use an outline to organize his thoughts following a first draft of an essay. After all, it’s not enough to say you can do it, or to say it’s important to do — you must show that you can do it, a process that requires work, understanding, and practice. A soccer coach who tells his players he wants them to learn how to open their bodies and keep their heads up when receiving the ball is not allowing them to shortcut the learning process by telling them this and then deliberately practicing this.  Instead, he is simply being clear about what he wishes students to learn to do, enlisting them in the goal by telling them precisely what he wants, not hiding that it is multi-faceted and challenging, but allowing no disclarity about what he hopes they will achieve.

Perhaps at the start of the drill they will be trying harder to keep their heads up and open their bodies than they might normally, but this is not a bad thing to have students who wish to try to do exactly what their coach wishes them to do. Just the same with the teacher who aims to teach the outline: having students who know what you are asking them to learn is important, because they will be working in partnership (given a good classroom environment and motivated students) to achieve the same goal.

Think about the notion of showing students exactly what we’re looking for — by using models.  Yes, there is always a danger that students simply copy these models, but copying or trying to do something they are asked is partly how students learn how to improve.  Are we sometimes afraid, as I suspect, that students will give us exactly what we want, and therefore be copying us, and we do not want to restrict them, and so as a result, we actively try not to think too clearly about what it is that we want?  I think that this is the case.

But the real diversity and creativity we should be looking for is that which is achieved through the use of deliberately chosen strategies.  Our ideal should be the student who has achieved facility, not at rote memorization, but at the deliberate selection from among a variety of consciously-weighed techniques or moves or approaches.  Teach them a variety of approaches, then allow them to do the selection.  Show them a model not to copy, but to inform them about the techniques available and to eye the choices one writer made, and to compare them to others.  Models as possible examples of what may work well, but the freedom comes in choosing your own method of achieving a given purpose.

Anyway, this is very much a question that is on my mind, and I have no clear answers. But it is really interesting to bring some of these reservations to the surface. I think that too often we believe, especially secondary humanities teachers, that we should be not too directive with students, and, as a result, we don’t even allow them to be part of the learning process.