Here’s something that we, as progressive teachers, have been saying for a little while: “It’s not about what you teach; it’s about what they learn.” (For more on that, see Doris Korda’s recent post entitled precisely that)

When we talk about how progressive education is really a paradigm shift in thinking, not just a tweak, this is one of the fundamental changes that we mean.  It’s not that my job as a teacher is to get together the very best materials, come up with the very best lesson plans, and present them in the way that is most engaging and accessible.  My job is actually for students to learn things in deep, meaningful, long-lasting ways that improve their skills and change their world views.  And those two things are different.

Take, for instance, a conversation that I had with a teacher friend of mine some years ago.  We were talking about teaching a bunch of different students in our classrooms, and all the challenges that come with that, and he said that he thinks of it like this: there’s a small group of students in the room who will understand everything he teaches, a big group of students who will understand most of what he teaches, and another small group of students who will only pick up on the most basic stuff he teaches.

It’s a bell curve, in his estimation, and he doesn’t expect everyone to get everything out of the class that he will put out there.  And that’s not an unusual way to teach; it’s also not a particularly bad way to teach.  It makes perfect sense that the teacher doesn’t expect everyone to learn the same stuff.

Another thing that that teacher friend told me about his teaching philosophy was that “all students have the right to fail.”  What he meant by that, he explained, was that he would do his best to reach every single kid in the room, but if one or several students didn’t do their work, that he was prepared to give them an F at the end of the semester.  His standards were high, and their job was to meet them.

Again, not at all an unusual position, and though it might seem a bit harsh, he felt that lowering his standards was much more of a disservice than giving the student the honest feedback that he or she hadn’t yet measured up, and they needed to try harder.  I get that.

The thing is, I think, that that teacher friend of mine was operating from the fundamental assumption that it is his job to teach really, really well, and that it’s the student’s job to learn.  If he does his job, then they have to do their job.  That’s not unreasonable.  And it means that he has been successful, even if some of his students are unsuccessful.

The question I’ve been asking myself recently is, “If my job is not to teach well, but to have students learn well, what changes?”

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There was a book I read by an American author named Mark Salzman called Iron and Silk, where he travels to China and studies, among other things, martial arts with a wushu master and movie actor named Pan; in return for taking wushu lessons with him, Salzman teaches Pan English.  The two of them have this relationship where Pan is larger than life, incredibly skilled, and really intimidating to be around.

There’s one night after several months of learning English that Pan has to perform in front of a crowd of people and show off his English conversation skills, and Salzman is surprised to see Pan getting nervous – he’s sweating and stammering, and obviously really worried about his exam, and up until this point, Salzman has never seen Pan as anything other than perfected poised and confident.

In the end, Pan does well at his English exam, because he does well at everything he tries, and afterwards approaches Salzman and says, “I’m so glad I did well.  I was so worried for you.”  Pan was worried that any mistakes he made would make Salzman look like he failed.  In Pan’s eyes, it would have been the failure of the teacher if his student had done poorly.

I think that story is interesting for a number of reasons.  One is that the teacher isn’t actually the one judging the student’s competence – it’s a real-world exam that is outside of the classroom in front of other English speakers.  Another is that the expectation Pan had was that his failure at an exam would reflect poorly back on the teacher.

In this paradigm shift of progressive education, it’s not about what the teacher teaches; it’s about what the student learns.

Teaching without a Safety Net

So if I start from this premise – that my students will be performing in real-world exams where outside parties will judge their skill levels and I will be judged by my students’ competence – that changes things for me.  If I operate from the premise that no matter what, my students’ success is my success and my students’ failure is my failure, I am effectively working without a safety net.

I can’t say, “Well, I did my job; they didn’t do theirs when they didn’t show up for class, when they didn’t write a good paper, or when they didn’t pay attention to the discussion.”  I have to, instead, figure out why they didn’t show up for class, why they didn’t write a good paper, or why they didn’t pay attention to the discussion.

Now, there are a lot of teachers who absolutely take that stance – they bend over backwards to try to get students to engage and to succeed.  But some teachers see those kinds of efforts as doing extra.  I don’t think it is extra, though.  I think it’s what we’re there to do.

That being said, I completely understand why some teachers feel like it’s an impossible thing to ask them to be responsible for their students’ success no matter what.  How can teachers motivate students who genuinely don’t care about school?  How can teachers expect students to work hard on every assignment?  And how can teachers get kids to appreciate their own education?

In a lot of schools, those are really difficult questions to answer, because in a lot of schools the teachers aren’t really expected to get all of the kids to learn.  They’re just expected to teach all of the kids really well.  And there are time constraints to obey, curriculum maps to follow, standardized assessments to prep for, union rules to adhere to, budgets to come in under.  That’s a lot.

But if teachers and administrators rethink what school is, and they actually give teachers the space, training, and support that they need, then schools can actually answer some of those questions.

How can they motivate students who genuinely don’t care about school?  They can offer them real-world problems that have a social impact, that are in the Goldilocks zone of being simple enough to be accessible but challenging enough to be interesting, on questions that demand answers but don’t yet have them, and where students present out to the people who are in a position to effect real change.

How can teachers expect students to work hard on every assignment?  They can put them in teams of peers and give them multiple entry points to a project so that students have genuine choice over how they grapple with the project, and then get pushed out of their comfort zones to consider other skill sets and angles, and also they can provide set of foundational skills that all students need to demonstrate, but at their own pace and at a time of their own choosing.

How can teachers get students to appreciate their own learning?  By changing the system instead of just trying to encourage them – make it so that they actually get to choose their own classes and projects early on so that they engage immediately with school, and then show them how to make choices that genuinely interest them; take the incentive away to game the system by removing grades from the equation; give them the opportunity to fail safely at a task early and often so that they grow in skill, but without the trauma of having failed an entire year of a class.

Part of this philosophy – that it’s not what we teach, it’s what they learn – appeals to me now as a teacher, because as a kid I felt that education was a lonely experience.  I was competing against other kids for the better GPA, and I was performing for the approval and validation of my teachers; it was all completely solitary.  I wonder what the emotional experience of high school would have been like if I had felt that the teachers were in it with me, and that the success I had as a student was also the success of my peers.

So it’s important for me now that my students actually feel like their success is my success, and I’m rooting for them and supporting them, not just judging and sorting them.

Dan O’Connor

Dan O’Connor

I graduated from the College of Wooster in 2002, and went on to get a Masters in the Teaching of English from Columbia University, Teachers College. I teach at the Mastery School of Hawken. One of the big reasons I went into teaching high school is that I had a crummy time as a high school student myself, so I want to redesign a learning environment that is enjoyable and enriching at the same time. School works best, I think, when students choose to learn, so I like to give my students meaningful choices in the classroom that they can make every day.