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Quality Teaching

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.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2019 in Education, Timely and Random

 

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Education, Refocused

Let’s assume that when students say they are in college “to get a job,” they really are answering honestly – and hopefully. But let’s also leave open the possibility that what students are really hoping for is life direction, an opportunity to discover and develop the creative potential they possess and live it out in a deeply meaningful way. They may not have the insight and vocabulary to articulate their aspiration in these terms, but the yearning is there, along with a willingness to entrust themselves to an education system committed to this same outcome.

And that’s where the process breaks down.

In fact, the education system is not very much interested in students’ self-discovery; they should be taking care of that outside of class. School is a place for gaining knowledge and skills that will one day land the successful graduate in gainful employment – in a job. And while that sounds very similar to what students themselves are saying, my experience in higher education reveals something else. Most students don’t just want a job; they want purpose.

On the left side of my diagram I have arranged five terms often used interchangeably in respect to the nature of work. As is my custom, their arrangement is hierarchical and organic, which means that the distinctions in value are to be read as growing up from the bottom.

The first value distinction in the nature of work is a job, sometimes taken as a humorous acronym for Just Over Broke. A job is a means for getting money, and quite a lot of jobs pay barely enough for us to keep the lights on, gas in the car, and food in the fridge. The principal reason you might go looking for a job is to make the money you need to afford the basic necessities of life. Students don’t go to college to get a job. They want something more.

An occupation is literally work that keeps you busy, or occupies your time. Out in the world of work there are many occupations – many forms of work whereby individuals keep themselves busy day after day. This value distinction represents a slight up-shift from the objective of staying just over broke. You give your time to an occupation in the hope that it will end up being a decent trade. While a job only pays you money in exchange for your labor, an occupation typically offers more in the form of benefits, promotions, and other incentives.

A profession requires specialized training to acquire the knowledge and skills you need. Post-secondary, technical, and trade school programs are designed to teach and qualify students for work in all sorts of professions: manufacturing, engineering, medicine, business management, social services, etc. For each, there is a special set of skills to master, certificates to achieve, and degrees to earn. As a successful graduate, you hope to find work in the profession for which your college degree prepared you. Almost half of college graduates, however, end up finding work in occupations or jobs outside their chosen degree.

In my diagram, a line to the right circles into a spiral to illustrate the current focus of higher education. Colleges recruit students, turn them into graduates, and then release them to join a trained workforce. The prosperity of every society depends on workers who possess the skills and are willing to trade their time in work for the money they need.

As he sat in a university library in London and pondered this situation, Karl Marx realized that many (or most) of these workers were not finding joy in what they were doing. A big part of this discontent, which Marx analyzed as exploitation, oppression, and the alienation of labor, was a function of capitalism and the way it separates work from the human spirit of the worker, all in the interest of increasing the wealth of those who own the technology of production.

This alienation of the human spirit from truly creative and meaningful work is a condition currently fueled by our education system.

Two more terms in my hierarchy of value distinctions can clarify what I mean by this claim. While a career is commonly just another name for a profession, occupation, or job, it refers more specifically to the arc of your lifespan and the evolution of identity. The person you are is itself a product of numerous storylines arcing and weaving together in a complex tapestry of meaning. There never has been someone just like you, and there never will be again. The unique pattern of aspirations and insecurities, of preferences, insights, and concerns that inform who you are is still evolving.

From the time you were very young until this moment, your creative engagement with life through childhood play, backyard adventures, self-discovery, artistic experimentation, formal training, and in various kinds of work has shaped you into the person you are today.

Students – particularly college students – are fully immersed in this work of constructing identity. They long to connect their current stage in life to the developing core of who they are. One day they hope to find their place in the world, where the spirit within them (referring to the innate desire and drive of human beings to connect, create, and contribute) will take wing.

Every culture and spiritual tradition acknowledges this spirit within, this deep and rising need to transcend mere self-interest for the sake of a higher and larger experience of reality. Many have interpreted it quite intuitively as an invitational call of reality to the self, as a calling from beyond ego. This is the literal meaning of our term vocation.

The career of your identity (or the story of who you are) has brought you to numerous thresholds where the calling of a higher purpose invited you to get over yourself, shift perspective to a bigger frame, and devote your energies to what really matters. Many times (perhaps most) you ignored the call, turned down the volume, got distracted, and carried on with life-as-usual.

Vocation is less about where we feel called or what we feel called to do than what we are called to become. Hero myths from around the world have the protagonist going different places and undergoing different challenges, but they share a central fascination with how the hero changes or is transformed in the process. The hero might be killed and rise to life again with new powers, discover a hidden key that unlocks the gate to freedom, overcome his fear and confront the dragon, or find within herself a virtue that had lain dormant until the critical moment – the circumstances are secondary to the peculiar virtue gained or revealed in the hero’s transformation.

It seems clear to me that what is revealed in those mythic heroes is something their storytellers saw as a human potential. Even though European rationalism made a break from ancient mythology, claiming that humans had attained the fulfillment of their nature with the Age of Reason, our current education system – as both product and mechanism of this preference for rational technique over human virtue – is glaring evidence of how truly ignorant we are.

We don’t hold before our students the high ideal of what the human being possesses in potentia, nor does the typical classroom instructor stand before them as any kind of self-conscious model of virtue or its aspiration.

A refocused education system would not only turn out graduates into a trained workforce, but it would work to inspire and support students in their pursuit of enlightenment. Students aren’t in college just to get a job, but to clarify who they are and what their own hero’s journey is all about. What I’m calling an enlightened humanity refers to the actualization of virtues that exemplify our higher nature.

Five rungs of an ascending ladder in my diagram correspond to five existential and ethical virtues (capacities, powers, qualities, or abilities) that have strong recognition across all cultures, not necessarily independent of their different religious traditions but transcending (going beyond) them in a higher post-theistic focus.

An enlightened humanity is humble (or grounded: from humus, ground), compassionate, kind, generous, and forgiving. An intentional pursuit of this ideal aims to embody and live out these virtues in ever-increasing degrees of realization. This is our vocation, or calling, as a species. Our culture and education system need to renew our commitment to them, just as each of us ought to measure our progress and purpose in life according to how well we demonstrate these virtues in action.

As far as our prospect for genuine community, the liberated life, and planetary wellbeing is concerned, refocusing education on an enlightened humanity may be our most urgent task at hand.


For more thoughts on the state of education today, check out the following posts:

 

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