Teaching Opinion

Education as Creative Conversation

By John Kaufman — March 24, 2004 4 min read
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The recent emphasis on ‘accountability’ in schools is leading to a new age of pedagogical hell.

All the recent emphasis on test scores and “accountability” in American education—a scientific reaction against a perceived relaxation of standards—is leading both public and private schools into a new age of pedagogical hell. While the bar of what a good education is has indeed been lowered, it is not a bar that can be set at a mathematically measurable height. Our schools are declining because our culture is declining, more proof of which is the reduction of education to the taking of standardized tests.

The root of education is the verb “educe,” which means not the placing of academic stuff in, but the drawing of the person out. Thus an educator, by definition, is not so much a broadcaster of facts or information as he or she is a stimulator of thought and action, a philosopher in the tradition of Socrates.

Facts are necessary for the educing of thought, of course. But now the facts, because they are easily taught and tested for by teachers, administrators, politicians, and taxpayers, have become the only thing that matters. Education is being restricted to the hoarding of data, what some call “rote learning"; success is then measured by how many students have memorized (at least for the moment) the required information, as displayed by a test. And in the case of multiple-choice tests, what is being measured is sometimes how well a student can guess.

This is not to say that some rote learning isn’t useful. Spelling and the multiplication tables, for instance, are still best matters of memory, despite the advent of calculators and spell- checking. And it is helpful to understand that Frank Lloyd Wright had nothing to do with building early aircraft, and good for the soul to know a few poems by heart.

But the act of memorizing is a solitary act, and we don’t need schools and teachers solely for that. Encyclopedias contain all the facts any student may need. Schools and teachers exist for education, which at heart is about conversation and creativity, not the dispensing of data. Our most memorable and effective teachers are not those who give us lots of information; the best teachers are the ones who relate knowledge to action, who affect our lives, who converse with us.

The arts and sciences are referred to as “liberal” because they have traditionally sought to graduate people that are intellectually liberated, that is, free to think and act in what we would hope is intelligent, critical, and healthy ways. Teachers who merely present facts (or ideas as fact), and then test to measure memory or indoctrination, are not educating their students. Such teaching turns school into one big game of trivial pursuits, a game some students have no interest in playing.

Education is about conversation and creativity, not dispensing data.

Even those students who are dedicated and talented memorizers and parrots know that the best teachers are those inspiring them to think, those who say: “The square root of 36 is 6. So why does it matter?” or “The nation of Turkey is located here. Now, why should we Americans care about it?” or “Charles Dickens wrote the novel Hard Times. Now that you’ve read it, why do you think he wrote it?” Without the willingness to sincerely engage the student responses, to ask questions that are not merely rhetorical, to begin a conversation and follow where it leads, meaningful education does not occur.

Some teachers will protest that students cannot think for themselves, or will not seriously participate, or will feel unduly challenged by a Socratic method. Such teachers are simply reluctant to give up some control and the laziness of fact-feeding, preferring the domineering, narrow-minded role of lecturer and expert. Nor does one have to be the stern, intimidating interrogator of law school fiction. Conversing with students in a mutually respectful, truly educational fashion is in fact possible, though sometimes, thanks to disrespectful cultural trends, difficult. But students are far more likely to respect teachers and use their minds if they feel welcomed to contribute in constructive ways.

While subjects such as literature and art lend themselves easily to creative conversation, creativity need not be banished from math or science or history. I urge teachers of all subjects to make better use of their own and their students’ imaginations and to resist the political pall of standardized stupidity.

Education can only thrive in an atmosphere of democratic give-and-take. Though some private schools and teachers may have doctrinal agendas, any school or teacher that wishes to do good work and prosper must allow for debate and creativity if the goal is to educate in the broadest sense. An honest educational conversation requires a teacher to make his or her case on the subject at hand, note helpful student contributions, admit mistakes and changes of heart. If you really want to impress a young person and teach him or her something, admit you were wrong.

Of course, some souls that have not been well educated will continue to insist on mathematical proof that education is occurring. But philosophers know that education is always occurring, in and out of schools. For better or worse, we are all being educed.

John Kaufman is a writer and a former teacher of English. He lives in Wauwatosa, Wis.

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