Wandering the Path: Exploring Humanity, Semantics, & Understanding
December 15, 2015 § Leave a comment
Inspired by my lovely wife and her observation that I embody the Tolkien quote “Not all who wander are lost,” my goal is for this piece to be continuation of a series highlighting aspects of my thinking, my strengths, and my authentic self as I attempt to connect more deeply with you all.
“Those who know do.
Those who understand teach.” ~ Aristotle
Conducting and teaching research has taught me many things about truth, especially the pursuit and recognition of truth. Like many students, I had been taught to start with brainstorming research topics based on course material/objectives, personal interests, social issues, et cetera. I’ve experienced many engaging ways that instructors have crafted brainstorming activities. There is nothing wrong with this. They often focused myself and my classmates effectively in order to create a targeted essays on course-relevant subjects. In fact, these essays are often excellent assessments of our students’ knowledge of our course materials.
Beyond assessing knowledge of the course materials, part of our job as teachers is to increase students’ awareness of information and teach them how to effectively internalize that information in order to create knowledge that will serve them well in various areas of their lives. However, knowing is not the same as understanding. We know this. Many understand this, but do we teach in ways that reflect this? In order to teach, we must not only know, we must understand.
My first few years of teaching did not reflect this. As a teaching assistant, I very much worked to impart knowledge to my students but ended up not trying to tackle the deeper task of nurturing understanding. As one of my recent colleagues likes to remind me, “the objective shouldn’t be understanding, not because it isn’t important but because it isn’t assessable.” And early on in my career, I completely bought into the idea that every lesson had to be assessable and defendable with quantifiable numbers at every turn. If I couldn’t plot it on a graph or put it in a spreadsheet, I tried to stay away from it because I didn’t want anyone — friends, colleagues, students, mentors, even myself — to think less of me, to question my skill and authority as a teacher.
While I agree that assessing understanding is difficult at best, I have grown to understand that teaching only the assessable measures is limiting in ways that ignores nuance, abates knowledge, and stunts student growth. I know the amorphous nature of assessing understanding makes it daunting to define course objectives, but denying the inclusion of uncertain elements like nuance and understanding denies our students access to culturally and personally relevant education.
Each semester I embrace the struggle of teaching these elements. Some of my attempts take the form of different approaches to teaching like in my research writing courses, I no longer have my students choose topics. Instead, they create “Why” questions that explore personal areas of interest in life. My students have risen to the challenge by tackling subjects like ethics of bio-research, morality, police brutality, negativity in the media, sleep research, stress tolerance, and more. Other attempts are in the post-assignment reflections that allow students to explore areas for growth and improvement in equal measure with explanations of what strengths, attributes, and skills they employed to complete said assignment. I’ve even dabbled with giving up my control over the rubric and class lessons by teaching my students how to construct their own rubrics and teach lessons of their own choosing in my courses. Most of all, I stop trying to reinforce the sterile procedural ways we institutionalize student identity and ask them simply to be actively human in our learning community.
Training vs. Educating
Education can include training and training can include education, but they are not the same. Training is the targeted and focused acquisition of skills. This is valuable to have in many situations, but it is not education. Education is whole person growth that does include knowledge and skill acquisition, but they are not the focus; the person is.
With the rise of whole-student pedagogy as a focus in K-12 and beyond, we need to take this distinction seriously. This is a struggle for me at the community college where I currently teach. Too much of a whole-student focus, and the old guard questions the rigor of my content. Too little, and my students experience intellectual and motivational rigor mortis, not rigor.
This seemingly subtle semantic shift is one that contains many levels of transformative power. Just as any fisherman will tell you that knowing how to use a rod and reel is not the same as knowing how to fish, it is also true that training a person on how to complete a task no matter how complex is not the same as helping them become a better in whatever role encompasses that task. Education is no different. A focus on skills carries the same value as task completion or rod and reel proficiency. This is why I can see the value of mastery-based learning and still not subscribe to it. Instead of helping students to master skills, I work to help them grow as people, becoming the best versions of themselves. Like much of this post, this may seem like semantics, but it matters. Our words and metaphors matter. We are shaping humanity.