“First, do no harm.”
The Hippocratic Oath has worked for medicine and doctors for over 2000 years.
A draft version of it for education (exists and) could work for teachers. And for administrators and school committees. Policy makers and testing companies. For philanthropists who spend vast sums to reform what happens to students in schools.
Do no harm to what?
To the natural curiosity of a child. To the inborn urge of a toddler to ask what, what, what? And why, why, why? “The toddler,” observes Robert Fried, author of The Passionate Learner (1995), “is the definition of the self-directed learner.” But…
“But teachers tell me this all the time,” Rob says in our documentary Passion to Teach (2016). “Somewhere when grading starts to become the measure of accomplishment, that spirit dims, the child becomes focused on what the grade says about her or him, and the power of the teacher becomes concentrated in terms of the ability to reward and punish.
“That self-directed learning capacity begins to atrophy, and eventually dies.”
That is not what we all want. We all want our kids to gain in learning achievement. To climb a learning curve. Too often we get it wrong. And the effort of top-down “corporate” reformers gets it all wrong. Think how you yourself learned best as a student. Think how you learn best as an adult. With this in mind, distinguish between these two graphs on learning curves:
Here’s what top-down, teach-to-the-test, learning looks like for a public school student:
And here’s what the natural learning of a toddler – self-directed learning-by-doing – looks like:
In both cases the y-axis in is learning achievement… increased learning. In both cases the curves climb up. But the x-axis in the first graph is SITTING & RECEIVING TIME, while the x-axis in the second is INTRINSIC MOTIVATION.
The first suggests this: The teacher directs the show, transmitting information that covers standards. The students sit and receive this test prep material. Children tend toward activity, not passivity, so often the teacher works hard to control student behavior. Over time students end up taking a test. Their scores represent how much they’ve learned. Much of that learning is forgotten because, says Olivia in Passion to Teach, “What does it mean to me?”
Perhaps you’ve had this first experience. Or perhaps you’ve experienced the second:
The teacher engages students by connecting their lives to the learning. In time, by degree, motivation moves from the teacher to the student – from extrinsic to intrinsic. Learning slopes upward as students take increasing charge of the learning. Why? Because self-interest drives effective, efficient activity. Self-directed learning is often learning-by-doing, not sitting-and-receiving, so action helps to decrease behavior problems. Such learning lasts longer because, says another “Passion” student, “It just makes me feel that what I’m doing counts.”
Of course, the above graphs don’t come from formal research. (That’s been done elsewhere). They come from common experience. Or as Janet Whitla, the 25-year CEO of Education Development Center (EDC), used to say, “The best research confirms common sense.”
All you have to do is ask yourself. And if you are an educator or a parent: “Are my children passively doing TIME, and forgetting more? Or, are they actively getting MOTIVATED, and intrinsically so, more and more?
In “Passion to Teach,” Rick Ackerly, author of The Genius in Every Child (2009), makes it clear: “If you don’t engage internal motivation, so that children are mobilizing themselves toward some-thing, then it’s going to be a waste of time.” Why? Because “People learn from the inside out.”
And veteran Michigan teacher Connie Weber adds, “External rewards… they do not make intrinsic motivation come out. And the whole purpose is intrinsic motivation and the learner being in charge of him or herself.” Why? Because, as with Blog #1, the very essence of adulthood is self-direction.
And in a rapidly changing world – the world we live in – we can only adapt by self-directed learning. Can teaching to a standardized test and compliance to a one-size-fits-all system prepare such adults? George Santayana addressed this 111 years ago:
“There is no greater stupidity or meanness than to take uniformity for an ideal.”
Let us not be stupid or mean. Let us do no harm.