It’s not a surprise to anyone that our education system is in trouble. Many of us have been its victims, and there’s a fresh generation of youngsters in the process of getting their curiosity, imagination, and natural talents sterilized in school right now. Increasingly schools have been saddled with the responsibility of child rearing, intervening on poor performance, and preparing graduates for the job market.
Is it any wonder students are failing?
Another victim in the middle of all of this, together with the student, is the teacher.
Teachers are expected to manage this education pipeline from preschool and early childhood through adolescence and young adulthood: following the curriculum, designing lesson plans, managing the classroom environment, assessing student progress, and doing all of it on a shoestring salary with restricted latitude for using their own curiosity, imagination, and natural talents.
If some of them felt a “calling” to the profession of teaching originally, they quickly undergo disillusionment and feel the burnout of being held responsible for something over which they have little or no control – nor does it match what they feel most passionate about. This anxiety depletes their spirit, and an astonishing number of them are leaving to save their sanity, health, and hope for a more meaningful life, probably in a different profession altogether.
How do I know? I work in higher education and see it all around me. For a while we tried to blame students for lacking the motivation, discipline, and intelligence – the diagnostic slide typically follows that order – required for success. Then we blamed “the system” and its abusive obsession with standardized testing.
Despite its worthy intention of defining standards for grade-level achievement and helping students be course-ready for their next step, standardized testing soon shaped a culture where instructors “teach to the test” to ensure that students pass and move on.
Getting the right answers has become more important than thinking well and deeply in a given subject, selecting for students who have a knack for memorizing and recalling information. The only thing that really counts is that students can recall the correct answer for the test (the what), not necessarily how to get there or why it even matters.
We have to wonder whether this costly gauntlet of education – measured in the net loss of money, time, imagination, and hope – can be fixed. Or does it just need to be replaced? Are we simply doomed?
A meaningful and productive education has always depended on what I will call Quality Teaching. This gives a large responsibility to the teachers themselves, although I must pull back on blaming them for our current situation. As Whitman and Kelleher state in NeuroTeach (2016), “Ultimately, what research shows is that there is no greater influence on student outcomes than teacher quality.”
Today, fewer colleges are screening for new instructors who understand and practice the art of Quality Teaching. Increasingly colleges are hiring part-time instructors (called adjuncts), which keeps the institutional obligation negligible in terms of healthcare, retirement, and other benefits. Class sections are opened and more of these instructors are hired to fill the vacancies. Rarely anymore is a prospective new hire auditioned for a fluent understanding of Quality Teaching.
So what is Quality Teaching? We can thank our most effective teachers for demonstrating its salient ingredients. While a blog post doesn’t afford the space for expounding on them, I will at least introduce these ingredients here by using the acronym R-E-C-I-P-E as our framework.
Quality Teaching is Relevant
Relevance is a special type or facet of meaning, connecting not only to the course curriculum but just as importantly to the student’s experience and personal world. A Quality Teacher is careful to make these connections so that students can understand the real-life applications of what they are learning. The most valuable application of knowledge is not passing a test, but rather in using new knowledge to expand the student’s worldview, deepen self-understanding, strengthen critical and creative thinking skills, and to participate constructively in the contemporary discourse of human culture. Quality Teaching seeks to establish meaning for the student.
Quality Teaching is Enriched
Humans learn best in real-life situations, but most of a student’s time in school is spent inside boxes called classrooms. Specialized knowledge is by definition highly processed – isolated, analyzed, refined, clarified, and abstracted – which removes many of its essential nutrients. The human brain is “wired” to pick up and interpret information along visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and kinesthetic channels. In traditional classrooms, however, students sit in rows and receive instruction primarily through their eyes and ears. Enriched Quality Teaching uses a variety of sensory modalities and metaphors to “embody” the more abstract concepts students need to learn.
Quality Teaching is Creative
Perhaps the most essential function of a Quality Teacher is to collaborate with students in the construction of meaning. Knowledge itself is a mental construct, a translation of what is purportedly independent of our minds into the signs, symbols, and codes of meaning. It is in our very nature to be creative, to compose elaborate webs of significance that serve to explain what we think we know, explore what we don’t yet fully understand, and to imagine what’s possible. The Quality Teacher is not merely a docent for students through the current catalog of knowledge, but a co-creator with students in the ongoing dialogue between mind and reality.
Quality Teaching is Interactive
This dialogue or construction of meaning happens not only between the mind and reality, and between teacher and student, but also between and among the students themselves. When what really matters is getting the right answers on standardized tests, these creative exchanges of dialogue are at best only secondary to education, if not needless distractions. Quality Teachers, on the other hand, understand – if not intuitively, then at least from what is turning up consistently in the research – that the best education is about priming our imagination with questions, putting these questions to reality, sharing discoveries and perspectives, and holding these under the light of evidence.
Quality Teaching is Personalized
Our current culture of standardized mass education turns students into data. The individual life experiences, unique talents, and types of intelligence represented in the students themselves are largely ignored as inconsequential to the ultimate objective, which is to turn out graduates for the workforce. Large class sizes mean that an instructor might never even learn the faces that go with names on the class roster. But while the current system is essentially a pipeline or conveyor belt to graduation, Quality Teachers respect education as a sacred enterprise whereby human beings are awakened to their creative spirit, empowered to actualize their deeper potentials, and inspired to become lifelong learners. Quality Teaching takes time to get to know the unique person of each student.
Quality Teaching is Engaging
Our current education system cultivates a mindset of disengagement – of depersonalization, abstract knowledge, standardized metrics, and “distance learning.” Instructors are the experts who get paid to replace their students’ ignorance with a multiple-choice mastery of something that means nothing to them. To make learning relevant, enriched, creative, interactive and personalized, the Quality Teacher expects a student’s full investment. Engagement is not about entertaining students or bribing them to show up and participate. Rather, it’s about convincing students – by personal example and not just as words on the course syllabus – that education really is about their transformation, about becoming more fully and gloriously human.