When we started teaching, we thought our job was to tell students what they needed to know, to “make them learn.” As we gained experience and availed ourselves of the mentorship of veteran teachers, our chairmen and a host of colleagues, we came to the realization that to be a successful teacher is to get the students to “teach themselves”, that is to say to get them to go where you need them to be without them ever knowing they are doing the work to get there.
We learned to challenge students with questions that later became “best practices” for students’ success. One example of this was asking students if the aphorism, “If you don’t know why, you don’t know”, was true or false and have them explain their answer.
Another one was asking them, “What is the most important question to ask in order to be a successful student?” (The answer is the word “why” because you cannot know why the answer is correct without knowing the answer).
Yet another one was asking them why the statement, “What you cannot explain, you do not understand”, was either true or false.
These questions, and others like them, were designed to encourage students to have to examine, analyze, break down into smaller pieces the ideas that were being put before them. This opportunity must made available to all, and those students who chose to accept the challenge and the opportunity will experience learning at its richest level.
Whether in the Bronx or Westchester, we taught students in a way that would guide them in the right direction and lead them to the answer. However, it was they who had to embrace the knowledge, absorb it, take it in, apply it, make it a part of them.
We must encourage the interest, desire, willingness, and curiosity to learn. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” We must engage students in such a way that they want to drink from the trough of education.
Confucius stated, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Socrates said, “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”
Absent this quality, no matter what reforms are suggested or put forward, or how many technologically enhanced schools are built, or many students are equipped with the latest and greatest technology, I would argue that little, if any, learning will occur.
Students, first and foremost, must be helped to understand and to recognize their role and/or responsibility in the learning process.
In one of Bernie’s favorite stories, “The Convert” by Leone Bennett, Jr., there is a line that states, “…can’t nobody make you a man.” The story tells us that becoming a man is something only the individual can do for himself. The same is true about learning. No one can learn for you. Until students are made aware of their role and/or responsibility in the learning process, and held to that role and responsibility, we’re going to keep coming up short as it pertains to student success.
But it is our job as teachers to help them get to that point. We must find a way to find that hidden student within each of them, to bring back the toddler curiosity that too many have had stolen.