Trees Falling in the Forest

April 9, 2010 · Posted in Personal, Teaching 2.0 

A long time ago, fresh out of school with a shiny new M.Ed. and a desire to change the world, I took my first public school teaching assignment in Fairbanks, Alaska. The school I taught in is no longer there, but a lesson I learned there has stayed with me for over 30 years.

I thought I was pretty good at what I did. I crafted my lesson plans carefully (indexed to district curriculum, no less!) and I worked hard to put on a good show in front of the class. One lesson built on another, a veritable symphony of pedagogic order and logic. I was stoked. Until I talked to Brandi.

Brandi was a fifth-grader with huge blue eyes and an engaging smile, the sort of person that easily made friends with peers and adults. She always tried to pay attention and she worked hard in class. She was a “special” student–identified as learning disabled, but really, as I came to find out, just a very deliberate learner who needed a lot of repetition and hands on work to grasp concepts that were easy for most of her classmates. After a series of math lessons–which I thought were beautifully crafted, if I do say so myself–I became aware that Brandi just didn’t understand the concepts I was teaching. I was a little irritated. I had spent a lot of time constructing and delivering those lessons, and I was perturbed that she didn’t get it. I think I said something like this to her: “Brandi, what’s wrong with you? I taught this last week.” I may be fuzzy on the words I used, but I’ll never forget her response: “Well, you taught it, but I didn’t learn it.”

Ouch. Catharsis can be painful. Everything I had been taught about teaching suddenly came crashing down around me. By just about any measure, I was considered a “good” teacher, but here was a perfectly willing learner under my care who was not learning what I was teaching. At that moment, it dawned on me that the most important activity in my classroom was not teaching–it was learning. It wasn’t about me, it was about them, and I wasn’t doing right by them.

The rest of that year–and the rest of my life, so far, anyway– was spent in rethinking my approach to teaching and in unlearning much of what I had been taught about effective teaching. Reminiscent of the koan about the tree falling in the forest, it turns out that teaching without learning isn’t teaching at all.

Flash forward thirty or so years. I look around in K-20 education and I’m constantly reminded of Brandi, sitting dutifully in class but not gaining much from my fledgling efforts at teaching. I see districts adopting reading and math programs that dictate that all students be on the same page of the book on the same day and that all teachers say the same things to all of the students, and I think about Brandi. I watch lectures about constructivism at the post-secondary level and I think about Brandi. With great anticipation I observe one to one laptop programs, hoping to see students exploring and collaborating and discovering only to find so many of them simply doing research on the web and writing a report, and I think about Brandi. While there are many efforts at reform based on authentic learning models and implementation of technology tools, there seems to be an even larger effort to turn public schools into factories turning out uniform products.

Convince me otherwise. Please. Let me know what’s happening in your situation that is helping to insure that the Brandis of the world can be successful and learn productively.

And Brandi–if you’re out there, I hope you’re a teacher. Experience counts for so much.

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