Recently, my daughter, a voracious reader and lover of school, was moaning about how much she despised doing book reports, even reports that allowed for student choice and a variety of purposes.
“I like to read, but why do I have to make a presentation no one cares about to prove that I’ve read?”
Did I mention she’s ten?
I immediately agreed with her sentiments and shared that I, and her professor father, also hated completing projects out of compliance, but, “It’s just what you have to do.”
I shared this story with a colleague and was immediately scorned for agreeing with her. I felt like an idiot, but still said, “Why?”.
My colleague stated:
“She needs to do them so that she can analyze literature.”
“She needs to do them so that she can do what we are asking our students to do here (in high school).”
“Why would you tell your daughter it’s okay not to do something being asked of her!?”
I’ve been mulling over this experience since. My coworker’s challenges were not enough. I wasn’t convinced. I clearly must be missing some critical piece as to why tasks like this are valuable. My daughter’s mobile of main characters certainly doesn’t feel like analysis. Anything being asked for compliance sake is never a valid argument for me. But the argument that she needs to do them so that she can be successful in school in the future felt especially hollow, and especially concerning.
What is the purpose of education?
Is the purpose of education compliance?
Is the purpose of education success in future education?
I have a friend who attended Princeton for his undergrad and Vanderbilt for his law degree. He is very good at school. He also currently lives in his parent’s house and cannot maintain employment. I suspect being good at school does not always translate to being good at life.
I have spent my fellowship year trying to support teachers in teaching for conceptual understanding and integrating tech, but I am not sure I spent enough time with them focusing on the “Why?”. My goals for how to teach are correct, but they have missed the critical question of “Why?”.
I believe the purpose of education is giving students a toolkit that they may use in order to gain the ability to actually pursue the careers that they dream of; while also being able to process and think critically about the world around them. I fear that too often we (educators), get bogged down in teaching to tests and disconnected project. Compliance is certainly a part of life and there is value in students learning how to follow direction and the “play the game”, but change typically does not come from people who do not question or whose primary objective is complying to the norm. I believe the reason I was a good Math teacher was not just because I was able to teach conceptually and integrate a variety of skills and technologies, but that I always anticipated and considered the “Why?” that plagues Math instruction, and came into every lesson ready to answer that question. My students may not have all left my class loving Math or wanting to pursue careers that needed Math, but they understood its purpose in their lives.
In my work with educators, I have also fallen into the routine of supporting them towards compliance without questioning enough or explaining the (why?). Why am I asking my teachers to complete certain tasks? What is the value for them and consequently, what is the value for their students? I took my current position, ironically, because I did not fully understand our program (International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years Program. I wanted to know how it was different from traditional curriculum and why it was valuable. I suspected it was, wanted to figure that out, and share what was useful with our staff, so that we could grow as educators. I was not disappointed, as our program calls for a rich, relevant, holistic approach to education. I moved forward trying to help my staff learn about the requirements and how to meet them, but I could have better supported them in understanding why.
Any educator can attest to the fact that teachers do not welcome school and district based initiatives with open arms. Many teachers in Chicago Public Schools in particular have had their school designated IB without their input or interest, which makes it even more challenging for them to buy in just because I said so. As an educational leader in my school, I must recognize that just because I find something valuable does not mean my teachers will do the same, unless I am transparent in exploring why and how it is valuable to them and their students. Similarly, educators must reflect on the “Why?”, first, within themselves as they plan their instruction, and secondly with their classes as they present concepts and their corresponding assignments. If we as educators consider how we feel during so much of our professional development, we may better empathize with the perspectives of our students, and better craft learning experiences that leave no interpretation as to “Why?”, this is valuable.