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Published in Print: October 20, 1999, as A Student's Best Lesson


A Student's Best Lesson

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Even good teachers can't make inert, uncomprehending, unengaged students learn.

The familiar image of the great 19th-century educator Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other has long been a cliché of discussions of education. If we could just place two people, one knowledgeable and wise, the other eager and receptive, facing each other alone, then learning, we imagine, would certainly take place. But the image of Hopkins and his student on a log puts all emphasis on the teacher and leaves the student nameless and, by implication, passive. A more accurate and useful metaphor would have Hopkins and his student sitting on a seesaw. Then the reciprocal nature of teaching and learning would be clear. The original metaphor's appeal is not, however, surprising. We usually emphasize the teacher when education is at issue. Isn't the teacher the key to students' learning? Only good teachers, we say, can persuade and encourage students to study and learn. Only those who have mastered their subjects, are skilled in conveying them, and know themselves can reach the often ill-motivated and refractory young people in their classrooms. And surely this is true--up to a point. Without skilled, devoted, and knowledgeable teachers, students can't learn much. But even good teachers can't make inert, uncomprehending, unengaged students learn. Good teachers are the key to learning insofar as they help students take over learning for themselves.

In addition to increasing teachers' burdens, to make them almost wholly responsible for students' learning is to lift from students' shoulders what is inherently theirs: responsibility for their own education. It is to expect of teachers what even the best can rarely deliver. And, by implication, it blames everyone-- teachers, families, communities, labor unions, governments, and the media--everyone but students, for the failures of education. But in fact that pair sitting on the seesaw are equally responsible to each other. If the student gets up and leaves, the teacher falls to the ground.

This truth is rarely acknowledged. When did we last hear anyone in authority declare that students have responsibility for their own learning? Do parents, teachers, community leaders, and public officials address students about their role in their own education? Yes, we expect students to study and learn, but how often do we try to make students understand--and show them how--they can learn only when they immerse themselves actively in studying and learning? Rarely, and seldom to good effect. We admonish students to complete their homework and to study hard. We instruct students in the tricks of studying, and books are available to help them learn these tricks. But these lessons in technique are unlikely to do much good. Technique goes only so far; it's extrinsic, not intrinsic, to learning. Instead, students need to be fully and personally engaged in the struggle to learn. It's only by reaching inside themselves, by learning to summon what is naturally theirs--whether it's their enthusiasm for a subject, their curiosity, imagination, or aspiration--that they will learn effectively.

Some students come by this discovery naturally. Most do not. Much early classroom experience requires little more of them than passive acceptance of what they're told to learn, and thus sets up bad habits. Then as they move along through school and into college, more is asked of them. They're expected to have interests, tastes, and preferences as well as knowledge. They're asked to choose what to learn, even in required subjects. But on what grounds does a teenager ignorant of any foreign language choose between French, Spanish, and German? How does someone failing in math get motivated to take the next required math course? Being expected to think for themselves rather than relying on their teachers, high school and college students often feel that the character of instruction has shifted from friendly support to confrontational hostility. The shocks of adult responsibility contribute as much to making non- learners of potential students as do poor teachers and disordered schools.

Like teaching itself, learning requires more than subject and method. It requires the awakening, understanding, and employment of each student's self, the qualities that each of them possesses naturally and hopes to find in others--qualities such as cooperation, honesty, self-discipline, and enthusiasm that can be brought to all of life and satisfied. Responsibility for employing these qualities is what students owe themselves. We fail in our responsibility if we cannot make them understand that.

It's not easy to lead students to take responsibility for their own learning. But one thing is sure: The way we ask them to take that responsibility is key, and we typically don't do a good job of it. Students are usually skeptical, often downright dismissive, of lessons about what and how to study, especially when these lessons come in the form of tedious admonitions and familiar homilies about what's best for them. A better approach, as many teachers have found, is to demonstrate the connections between learning and life.

But that raises another challenge: How can teachers make students understand that they have a stake in their own education? In keeping with today's solipsism, the conventional answer is, "By personalizing knowledge." Instructors everywhere are now recommending the reading of autobiographies, the writing of journals about students' feelings toward what they're learning, and the application of their lessons to some practical concerns of their lives, like money and health. And there is some wisdom to this approach. But identity, emotion, and practicality are weak bases for study and learning. Identity changes, emotion passes, and relevance shifts. Far stronger foundations for knowledge and understanding are the universal human qualities that are already within each student. When these natural capacities are awakened and applied, students learn.

But again: How are these capacities to be awakened? By asking students in effect to look within themselves. Inflated idealism? We think not. Each student must be led to see that one doesn't get an education; one makes an education out of inner resources. Students have to summon from within themselves the qualities that make an education productive. To be a student, one has to draw on qualities inside oneself, some of which most young people may not yet know they possess. Students have to be led to see that what they achieve as students can't be separated from who they are.

But who they are is not their feelings, their fears, or their adolescent confusions. Who they are derives from less contextual and more universal qualities. Teachers must try to work with these qualities--with students' inherent desire to achieve something, with their natural curiosity for one subject or another, with the known satisfaction of having gained something through hard work. When students are encouraged and allowed to draw on such inner resources, they not only experience the exhilaration of directing their own development; they also become fit partners for Mark Hopkins on that seesaw--equaling, balancing, smoothing, testing, and surprising the good teacher. What more could any teacher want?

James M. Banner Jr. and Harold C. Cannon are the authors of The Elements of Teaching and, most recently, The Elements of Learning, both from Yale University Press.

Vol. 19, Issue 8, Pages 48,60

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