Teaching Profession Opinion

The Purpose of Educators

By Kwok-Sze Wong — February 07, 2012 3 min read
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My wife and I took the customary social studies classes in high school: world culture in ninth grade followed by world history in 10th, U.S. History in 11th and U.S. Government in 12th. When our children went to high school, they followed the same curriculum. My concern is, my wife went to high school in Ohio; I went to school 1,200 miles away in Florida, and we both graduated from high school over 30 years before our oldest child started. It’s the same story with math: algebra to geometry to algebra 2 to trigonometry. And science: biology to chemistry to physics.

To those who oppose a national curriculum, I suggest we already have one, and it’s been in place for decades. As I survey the education reform efforts of the past 30 years, it’s apparent that a lot of energy is put into preventing practices that are already in place or solving problems that don’t exist.

One of the problems that does exist is that most of us can’t agree about the purpose and goals of education. Our current educational system born of the progressive movement, industrial revolution and other social developments of the late 19th and early 20th century has evolved into a patchwork of reforms and new ideas that emerge every few years, then disappear just as quickly, leaving a path of failed and sometimes conflicting practices and theories in its wake. Paradoxically, many of the reforms put in place 100 years ago are still in practice today. Through it all, it seems education has lost sight of why it exists at all.

I know many teachers who believe their job is to teach skills, such as math or science, but that’s far too limiting. When I was an English teacher, I never believed my job was to teach grammar and literature. My purpose was to teach students to love learning so they would become life-long learners. I’ve decided that even that’s not thinking big enough.

I now believe the purpose of educators is to help the students of today become the productive adults of tomorrow who are contributing members of society, not burdens on society. To do that, it’s not enough to teach the skills of the past; we need to teach the underlying abilities. It’s not enough to teach math, we need to teach critical thinking. It’s not enough to teach science, we need to teach inquiry. It’s not enough to teach English, we need to teach communications. It’s not enough to teach social studies, we need to teach community and collaboration. We need to tap into the creativity and innovation of our students.

Most of all, we need to help our students develop not just academically and intellectually but socially and emotionally so they can plan for successful careers. The world is changing every minute, bringing challenges and pressure students didn’t feel just a few years ago. For example, when students experienced bullying in the past, it was confined to a relatively small circle or possibly the school. Today, cyberbullying allows students to harass and humiliate others in front of millions of people with a click of the mouse. When the pressures of childhood and adolescence become obstacles to learning, we need to help remove those obstacles and facilitate personal and social development.

Similarly, many careers that flourish today weren’t even imagined 20 years ago. Students are faced with a much wider array of possible career paths. They need our help to navigate their course. In the past, a high school education may have been sufficient for most jobs. Today, it’s hard to think of career that doesn’t require some type of post-secondary education.

During recent years, and especially during this election year, there has been a lot of talk about why education isn’t working. I believe it is working. America is still the leader of the world. The greatest innovations and thinking are still coming from America. People are still risking their lives to come live here. America’s greatness is sustained by its educational system. I don’t think it’s broken, but I do think it needs to move from the 19th to the 21st century.

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