Education: What You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know

There’s been a lot of talk in the anti-education-reform circles (specifically, within the Badass Teacher’s Association, which is on Facebook and elsewhere – I’m not going to link, because I’m still deciding what I think of them, in many ways) about letting the students themselves drive curricular decisions, rather than parents, teachers, or administrators. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately (I’m enjoying my summer job, but the mindless nature of running a cash register and stocking shelves does give me plenty of time to think). The main problem I have with it is that, to use a sports metaphor, a student needs a rudimentary understanding of the playing field before he or she is able to pick up a ball and run with it. What common or K-12 education, and even some of what post-secondary education does (or at least, what it tries to do) is to show students a little bit about a lot of things, so that they have some sense of the true scope of all the things they don’t know about.

That may not make much sense at first, but please allow me to elaborate by anecdote. I took a class last semester called Composition Pedagogies. The class was designed to introduce us to the major theories behind the teaching of writing, especially at the post-secondary level. When I started the class, I believed that every good and worthwhile composition class taught the same basic curriculum of helping students learn to write for academic audiences. I believed this because the composition classes I took did not cover this information, but the instructors I had in my other classes all expected me to know what terms like thesisclaimcounterclaimwarrant, and so on, meant. They also expected my paper to be arranged in a certain way, and with my argument and evidence in particular places. I didn’t know that I was even supposed to have an argument, or that I was supposed to be proving anything. This is why I got consistently mediocre grades in my upper-division undergraduate courses, despite the fact that I am a pretty awesome writer. While it’s true that I could have asked questions about what was expected (and believe me, I asked many, many questions, of many, many people), the problem was that I didn’t understand enough of what was expected to even ask a coherent question – or even to know what questions I should have asked! I was completely at sea. I didn’t know what to ask, I didn’t know who to ask, and I didn’t know even where to begin. In short, I didn’t even realize the depth of my ignorance on the subject.

In my opinion, this is what teachers are for, and this is why student-led “education” is a mistake: because of all the things you don’t know that you don’t know. While it’s true that very young children ask “why” incessantly, it’s also true that the “real” answers are often far beyond the level of their understanding. For example, the commonly-asked question, “Why is the sky blue?” is a lot more complicated than most toddlers are able to grasp (if you don’t believe me, Google it – the answers may be written in simple language, but they’re a lot more difficult to really grasp than the phrasing indicates). I think this is why mythology remains such a powerful force even in the Twenty-First Century: because mythological answers are so much easier to comprehend than scientific ones, and because most people are content to simply accept the simple answers, rather than continue to question.

Teachers have studied (among other things) child and adolescent development. They know (roughly) when students need to hear simple answers, and when they are ready for more complicated ones that are closer to the truth. Students themselves may not know when they are ready for certain things, and parents often have misconceptions about their children that are holdovers from previous stages (for example, I know a lovely person who is one of the most generous, most giving people I know; her parents, however, think that she is a selfish prima-donna, because that’s how she behaved when she was three: they simply cannot see past the person she once was to the person she is now). Teachers, on the other hand, are able to be more objective than parents can be (and the system of education by which students get new teachers every so often ensures that everyone has a chance to make a relatively fresh start every so often; since most children have the same parents throughout their development, there really isn’t a way to “start fresh” in that arena).

In my opinion, one of the most important lessons that every person needs to learn is that sometimes, you have to do things you don’t like to do. As an adult, I often have to do things I don’t like to do, because doing those things allows me to do things I do like to do. For example, I don’t particularly like to do my taxes every spring. However, I know that if I don’t do them, I could possibly go to jail. Having to do things in school that I didn’t like was really good preparation for doing things as an adult that I don’t like. Besides, sometimes there are benefits to being required to do things you don’t want to do, and they may show up in really unexpected places. In my very first year of teaching, I pushed my students pretty hard. They wrote a lot of essays, because I knew essay-writing was important. There was a particular young man who griped, whined, and complained every time I assigned an essay. He said I was expecting far too much, that I didn’t understand how many responsibilities he had, that I didn’t understand how much work it was, you name it. On the day of the state writing test, I had a chance to ask that young man and his classmates how they felt going into the test. He said, “You know, I feel pretty good about this test. I know I griped a lot about all the essays we had to write, and I understand now why you made us do all that, because I know I will do well on this test. Thank you for pushing us.”

And that is why teachers, rather than students, should be leading classrooms: for all the things that students don’t know they don’t know.

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