Colour wheels made of plasticine – exercise in mixing colours
What Do Teachers Teach?
During my experience of classroom teaching, I often asked myself, “What am I teaching?” This question helped me identify my lesson goals during planning. Having clear goals always made it easier to deliver lessons. Many experienced teachers would agree that determining what to teach for a 45-minute block does not define the role of a classroom teacher. Then, let me rephrase the question, “What exactly do teachers teach?” Do we simply teach lessons, units and discipline or promote something more profound and rooted in social relationships?
What Do Students Learn?
We should perhaps begin this inquiry by asking a reverse question, “What do students learn in school?” Throughout history, there has been much discourse around the purpose of schooling. Ken Osborne (2008) wrote in Education and Schooling that, in the 19th-century Western world, compulsory public schooling was introduced as a “common solution” to problems like “industrialization, secularization, nationalism, and democratization” (p. 26). In schools, Osborne (2008) claimed, children learned “industrial work habits [and] the basic tenets of religion or… their secular equivalent” (p. 26). The world we live in today, at least in Canada, looks very different now – schooling is no longer about producing decent labour force or instilling faith and patriotism in children, at least not entirely. Rather, the definition of schooling has shifted towards being “an instrument of universal education [where children] expand their intellectual horizons, sharpen their minds, and enlarge their capacity for thought and reflection” (Osborne, p. 27). In other words, children should learn by thinking critically and asking questions, instead of following instructions.
Students’ self-portraits using plasticine
Learning How to Learn – Alone or Together?
If the 19th century schools served the purpose of fitting children into an ‘ideal’ mould, today’s schools should emphasize learning in the form of personalized and individualized education, in which each student discovers how they learn best. In order to do so, students should be exposed to as much group work as possible.Growing up in South Korea, from Kindergarten to Grade 8, I knew of only one way to learn: open a book, memorize the facts, and regurgitate them on an exam. In hindsight, the exams did not assess deep understanding or my level of engagement; rather, they tested my ability to stay calm and recall short-term memories. For me, school was made of lonesome battles with textbooks – a truly isolating experience without any components of critical thinking or inquiry. I believe that learning should take place inside a “community of learners”, in which every student contributes to the big ideas of the classroom (Watkins, 2006, p. 54). If collaborations and discussions were overlooked, students would miss out on opportunities to “learn from each other and help each other learn” (Watkins, 2006, p. 55). Watkins (2006) observed that, in a successful group setting, students “became passionately engaged, used evidence in scholarly ways, developed several arguments, and generated core questions” (p. 54). Such strategies for learning would not develop if students were given a book to memorize and forced to work alone.
Grade 7 students at the grad photo shoot
Sense of Self, Sense of Community
Then, how do we create such a community of learners? To randomly put together a group of children and expect them to create synergy in learning would be wishful thinking. In fact, it is the responsibility of teachers to foster safe and encouraging environment for children to work together. Jacqueline Norris (2003), an educator, defines social and emotional learning (SEL) as “an approach that teaches individuals to recognize, regulate, and express the social and emotional aspects of their lives so they can successfully manage life tasks” (p. 314). By using SEL, teachers can provide children with tools to build a sense of community. For a student to interact with others in a respectful and mindful manner, one must gain self-awareness and self-regulation skills. Understanding how to read and express one’s feelings and motivations will lead them to develop empathy, which in turn will help mediate conflicts during group work. Inability to interpret social cues will result in fragmentation and isolation. Therefore, it is easy to see that building a sense of community requires its members to first have a strong sense of self. With that assurance, students would “feel safe to take risks, acquire new knowledge, and know they are valued members of a community” (Norris, 2003, p. 315).
Looking in the Mirror
Clearly, SEL brings many advantages for teachers and students alike. However, there is need for all teachers to assess their own social and emotional wellbeing before adapting such a powerful tool in teaching. It is crucial for teachers to be aware of their state of mind and model for students how to effectively self-regulate. As much as we deliver lessons based on content and technical knowledge, students ultimately learn from observing who teachers are as people. For example, with my students, I wish to share where I come from, what my interests are, and how I approach problem solving, among other things. By no means, I intent to indoctrinate anyone with the ways I think and act. My message will be that no one is perfect and that learning can take place anywhere, with anyone, for the rest of our lives. With full honesty and positive outlook, I will acknowledge my challenges and struggles as much as we celebrate our successes and strengths. Therefore, we teachers must spend more time reflecting on ourselves, as we are often the mirrors into which students gaze.
Thinking About Teaching
My philosophy of education can be summed up as the following: promoting critical thinking and inquiry, providing teamwork-based activities, focussing on social and emotional learning, and remembering continuous self-reflection. Determining and fine-tuning one’s teaching philosophy, in my opinion, are what makes the profession of teachers so unique and exciting. Without the ability to see the big picture of what one teaches, an educator could wind up merely delivering lessons, one after another. I hope that my teaching philosophy will guide me throughout my career, by reminding me of what I love and why I entered this profession in the first place.
Norris, J. A. (2003). Looking at classroom management through a social and emotional learning lens. Theory into Practice, 42, 313-318.
Osborne, K. (2008). Education and schooling: A relationship that can never be taken for granted. In D. Coulter & J.R. Wiens (Eds.), Why do we educate? Renewing the conversation (Vol. 1, pp. 21-41). Boston: Blackwell.
Watkins, C. (2006). Classrooms as learning communities: A review of research. London Review of Education, 3(1), 47-64.