Creating our own lament

Education Canada has published a great article from Michael Wesch, author of several videos that should be seen by every school administrator. Here’s an excerpt from Anti-teaching: Confronting the crisis of significance:

If you want to see the significance problem first hand, visit a classroom and pay attention to the types of questions asked by students. Good questions are the driving force of critical and creative thinking and therefore one of the best indicators of significant learning. Good questions are those that force students to challenge their taken-forgranted assumptions and see their own underlying biases. Oftentimes the answer to a good question is irrelevant – the question is an insight in itself. The only answer to the best questions is another good question. And so the best questions send students on rich and meaningful lifelong quests, question after question after question.

Unfortunately, such great questions are rarely asked by students in an education system facing a crisis of significance. Much more common are administrative questions: “How long does this paper need to be?” “Is attendance mandatory?” Or the worst (and most common) of all: “What do we need to know for this test?” Such questions reflect the fact that, for many (students and teachers alike), education has become a relatively meaningless game of grades rather than an important and meaningful exploration of the world in which we live and co-create.

Contrary to many of my faculty peers, I do not blame the students themselves for asking these kinds of questions. As teachers we have created and continue to maintain an education system that inevitably produces them. If we accept John Dewey’s notion that people learn what they do, the lecture format, which is the mainstay of teaching (especially in large introductory courses), teaches students to sit in neat rows and to respect, believe, and defer to authority (the teacher).

Wesch calls students educators’ ‘most important critics.’ I wonder how many teachers or professors would agree with him?

4 Responses to “Creating our own lament”

  1. Holly Kragthorpe-Shirley Reply April 8, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    How can we not agree? I enjoyed this article; thank you for including it in your post. I love that Wesch says, “If our students are ‘not cut out for school,’ perhaps we have made the mold too narrow…or just not meaningful enough for them to fit in.”

    Having taught in urban high schools, I was forced to confront the issue of significance the minute I walked in the door to teach my first day of US History. In my experience, most urban learners are less concerned with “what is on the test” and they demand to know what it all means to them personally. In my moments where I feel like I am the most effective teacher I feel more like a facilitator or a coach. Those “good questions”, as Wesch says, “drive the force of critical thinking.” This article reminds me of the Coalition of Essential Schools guiding principle of “student as learner, teacher as coach.”

    Another tagline that I took away from his article: “The medium is the message.” So true, especially in developing adolescent literacy.

  2. Holly,
    I agree with you completely. I find that my most successful moments in teaching don’t come from my planned lessons. When I have given an assignment that requires action, thinking, creativity, and questions, that’s when I find myself guiding them. In those moments, I don’t have to motivate, but I respond.

    I teach in a very rural area, where everyone of my students asks, “What are we going to do today?”, which sounds great. Then, once we’ve started class, the next question is, “Do I really need to know this for the real world?” It is my driving passion to be able to answer the first question, and then never hear the second question.

  3. I can’t tell you have relevant this discussion is to the needs of the students at the K-6 level. Too often they are waiting for the teacher to tell them what they need to know or what to think, instead of the teacher pushing the students to use their ideas and creativity. If we are going to expect high school students and college students to think, create, and innovate, we must start asking them questions that require these traits in elementary school.

  4. As an ICT teacher trainer I am always encouraging teachers to incorporate more ICT and self directed learning into their pedagogy. It’s no wonder students have become bored with traditional teaching methods – just look at how they learn outside of the classroom. They use messaging, wikki, blogs, youtube and other web2 content to gain the knowledge they need (whatever it may be for). Remembering back to my recent Uni study, I did quite well – high scores and the dean’s commendations. Not that I’m smart, I just understood the system. In Assignments you restate the lecturer’s views, quote what others have said and reference like it’s going out of fashion. I viewed my time at uni as waiting period to get a piece of paper so I could get on with what I really wanted to do. Isn’t it a pity that high school students are now adopting the same attitude? Many of them now don’t even bother asking “Why do we have to know this?” because they already know the answer “Because it’s on the test”. I’m now looking at how students today learn by themselves outside of school and looking for ways to apply that model to the educational situations in the classroom. But guess what! the two just don’t seem to match up and the distance between them is getting greater year by year.

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