To Real Teachers

If I were seriously ill and in desperate need of a physician, and if by some miracle I could secure either Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, or a young doctor fresh from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, with his equipment comprising the latest developments in the technologies and techniques of medicine, I should, of course, take the young doctor.

On the other hand, if I were commissioned to find a teacher for a group of adolescent boys and if, by some miracle, I could secure either Socrates or the latest Ph.D. from Teachers College, with his equipment of the latest technologies and techniques of teaching, with all due respect to the College that employs me and to my students, I am fairly certain that I would jump at the chance to get Socrates.

Education and Emergent Man

William. C. Bagley (1934)

Unfortunately, this is where we are at. Children have to go to school for years and years, and then follow this up with optional (and expensive) post-secondary education that can go on for years and years longer. And, at the end, we are left wondering about the entire process. Shouldn’t they know more? Shouldn’t they be able to do more?

If you consider an average 20-year-old with normal cognitive development, they have just reached adulthood, although we know that the frontal brain development for young men continues for another 4 or 5 years which explains the lack of judgment we see in so many of the males under 25. If you were to take an average 20-year-old motivated student, work with them for four or five hours every day, one on one, for a year and really work with them and teach them, how much would they learn by the end of that year? What would they be able to do by the end of that year? If you had two to work with, would they learn much less? Three? four? five? ten? What about 20 or 25? When do the numbers become too high for us to really make a difference in their learning?

I have been an educator for many years now, and have worked for almost the entire time supporting the learning process with other teachers. I am going to assume that if you are reading this then I will call you a teacher. I have met some of the most dedicated, selfless individuals in the field who work tirelessly to foster learning in their students. You try everything you can to help the spark of learning change from a glowing ember to a flaming bonfire in your students. You desperately move from teaching fad to teaching fad in order to make a difference but have so often been left frustrated by the process, not knowing exactly what you can do to see real learning in your students.

I’m writing this for you. Over the past few months, I have vented much of my frustration with “the system”. It doesn’t help – “the system” is something that nobody is responsible for, everyone feels trapped in, and none of us can change. I’ve decided that I maybe can’t change the system, but I can help you if you are looking for something more than just a fad.

If you have read some of my previous articles, you will know that my area of scholarship is The Science of Learning. From a number of comments that I have read, I have come to realize that for too many of you, there has been a miscommunication. I’m sorry if I haven’t made it clear, but the Science of Learning is not the learning of science. I have read some of you say that learning should not be all about science, but should include art in order to foster enjoyment, creativity, imagination, or wonderment. The Science of Learning isn’t about taking any of those out of our students’ learning, but knowing how to bring any one or all of them into a classroom of three, four, five, ten, twenty, twenty-five, forty-three, or even eighty-seven students. It is about lighting the fire of learning, which includes enjoyment, creativity, imagination, and wonderment, in every student we teach. The Science of Learning is about how we light that fire.

From the study of human behavior, we know much about how people work. We know what circumstances can be created by you that will make your students ache with a hunger to know more, excite your students about understanding something, fill them with wonderment as they discover new knowledge. We know these things. All of you have seen it in students. All of you have tried to capture that elusive moment when this happens and then tried whatever you can to re-create it for another time. The study of human behavior has helped us understand what it is that brings this kind of excitement to an individual, and The Science of Learning is the subject that I study, which is how we can take what we know about taking the principles that make a person burn with the desire to learn and turn that into a classroom where excitement, wonderment, imagination, and creativity happens day after day after day. A classroom where that almost extinguished spark that asks “why” and brings a learner through the door of your classroom can be turned into an insatiable thirst for more.

Some of you will have experienced this as you emerged from an undergraduate degree and progressed on to further advanced studies. Using what we know through The Science of Learning, there is no reason that this can’t happen for all of our students all of the time.

Tomorrow, I will begin again with The Science of Learning, interspersed with myths about teaching that we choose to shackle ourselves with. I will try to present a positive, concrete picture of what you can do to foster within your students, remembering, motivation, thinking, and creativity by using what science tells us about how we can bring these things into our classrooms.

As a scholar of The Science of Learning, I have explored these principles and looked for ways to “foster learning” (my definition of teaching) in my students. I have clenched my teeth as I have introduced principle after principle, letting go of what I thought teaching was supposed to be and change my practices to reflect what the science told me I needed to do.

I have loved teaching for as long as I can remember. I went to university in the first place so that I could teach. I wanted to teach people who really wanted to learn, so I decided that I needed to get a Ph.D. in order to find them. I remember when I started to teach in University, overwhelmed by the excitement of being able to teach others who really wanted to learn what I had to say. I think all of you will understand my disappointment when I discovered that the vast majority of my students weren’t there to learn, but were there because there was a box, on their path to a qualification, that needed a check mark in it.

At first, I began to chase fads. I tried the things that the seminars and conferences told me were necessary to really teach. I could teach as well as any of you, but still, even though I could engender momentary excitement and fleeting wonder, I knew that what I really wanted to see just wasn’t happening. I found a few who loved to learn and would do whatever it took to learn and, like myself and many of you, made scholarship a lifetime pursuit. I watched as the vast majority sat through lecture after lecture, crammed semester after semester, and took test after test never learning and never really wanting to. As a result, as I began to understand The Science of Learning, I gave up the things that I loved to do, one by one, and adopted a different way of thinking about teaching.

I began to apply the principles from The Science of Learning to my teaching, and year after year transformed my classroom from a place of teaching to a place of learning. I have watched as students began to be excited and creative – not just the once or twice a semester that I was used to, but day after day. I began to see waiting lists begin to grow with students demanding to be let into my classroom. I have finally ended up with something that I had crammed everything that I know about The Science of Learning into. I have watched as students really began to learn. I watched as a young woman, just this last year, drop two other classes during the semester so that she could deal with the workload that I demand of my students. And watched, as she was asked by her friend why she just didn’t drop my class instead, as she looked at her friend and with a slight shake of her head asked, “Would you?” They both laughed softly as the friend, with a shake of her own head said, “Never!” They were both embarrassed when I asked, and they turned around in unison realizing that I had overheard them, “Are you kidding?” One of them looked me straight in the eye and said, “This is what I thought university was all about. It’s my final year, and I’m glad that I found it at least once before leaving.”

As I introduce the principles of The Science of Learning over the next few months, ask yourself how you can change what you do to foster an environment where students not only learn but want to learn. You will find some who want nothing more than to pass and they will reject what you are trying to do, but persevere. Change what you are doing and you will not only change your life, but you will change your students’ lives as well. I was lamenting to my students who were taking The Science of Learning class with me about how difficult it is to foster real change in the wider academic community and one of my students said to me, “You are changing the world one classroom at a time. At least be happy about that.”

I’ve decided to be happy about that and stop venting my frustrations in this forum. Just the fact that you are reading this tells me that you are looking for something. I’ll go over The Science of Learning again in a more supportive and positive manner for those of you whom I would call teachers; those of you whom I will be proud to call teachers.

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