Education Opinion

Student Responsibility for Learning

By Walt Gardner — March 20, 2013 2 min read
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Reformers emphasize that teachers are the most important in-school factor in learning. Up to a point, that view is accurate. But it doesn’t tell the whole story by a long shot.

In a frank essay, Will Fitzhugh criticized reformers who let students off the hook (“It’s the Students, Stupid,” The Concord Review, Mar. 16). “Their inability to control themselves and behave with courtesy and respect for their teacher and their fellow students frequently degrades and can even disintegrate the academic integrity of the class, which damages not only their own chance to learn, but prevents all their classmates from learning as well.” I can’t think of a better way of understanding what happens far too often.

Where did this obsessive focus on teachers alone come from? Colleges of education are partly to blame. When I was working on my teaching credential at the UCLA Graduate School of Education in the 1960s, we were taught that if students are not learning, it’s because of the pedagogy used. We were told that all students are educable if they have teachers who know how to teach. But what happens if students don’t want to be in school in the first place? What magic do teachers possess to make them want to learn? Before Evan Hunter, author of “The Blackboard Jungle,” became famous, he taught in a vocational high school in New York City. He summed up his failure in the classroom this way: “I was trying, but they weren’t buying.”

I’ve always believed that education is a partnership between teachers, students and parents. All have to work together to produce satisfactory outcomes. The trouble is that today only teachers are being held accountable. Critics of my view will be quick to respond that great teachers can overcome whatever obstacles they face. I say they’ve been seeing too many movies. I offer the example of Jaime Escalante of “Stand and Deliver” fame. Without doubt, he was a virtuoso. But despite his prowess, he was unable to duplicate the success he enjoyed at Garfield High School in Los Angeles when he transferred to Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento in 1991. I don’t believe for a second that Escalante had lost his dedication or skills, but in the seven years at his new school he faced a different set of circumstances.

Teachers who were trained in other countries are astounded by the different attitudes they encounter here. When they complain that students in their classes are not doing their homework or participating in discussion, principals assume that it is their instructional methods that are to blame. In other words, teachers are guilty until proven innocent. This is the antithesis of schools abroad. When I was in school, my mother would not sign my report card until she grilled me about every comment that teachers wrote. Her assumption was that teachers were always right. She wanted to know what I was doing wrong. Misbehaving in class was inconceivable because learning was serious business.

I’m not saying that teachers are never at fault. Some do not belong in the classroom. But I repeat that learning is a partnership in which students have to take responsibility. Teachers are not miracle workers.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.