By John Potter and Billy Pasour
“At the point of encounter there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.”
– Paulo Friere
In his important July 15th article, “Nothing Can Replace a Good Teacher,” Jay Mathews outlines the plight of Melvin Marshall, whose reading is four years behind grade level, and whose language arts class was taught entirely through the computer. Melvin had little to no interaction with his teacher on a daily basis, and recently a lawsuit has been filed on his behalf seeking to set right the flawed educational practice of “virtual learning.” We applaud Mathews for insisting that education without student-teacher collaboration is not, really, education.
Virtual learning “solves” two problems; it gives the teacher more time for clerical tasks, and standardizes assessment. Assessment is the real issue here. The argument is that standardized assessment acts as an early warning for ineffective teaching. Parents and politicians are deeply apprehensive of children’s minds being spoiled by overzealous or inept educators, so the methodologies of the teacher in the classroom become diverted from best practices and directed toward acceptable practices. In the case of Melvin Marshall, the teacher was diverted to the point of not actually teaching. This is the unintended and obvious consequence of policy based in fear.
Learning is a human endeavor. It happens when two or more people with open minds convene in dialogue. Those in such a dialogue must recognize that their knowledge is incomplete, as is that of their dialogue partner, and faithfully work to integrate new ideas into their understanding. This type of dialogue is quite natural among friends, but is largely absent from our schools, where the knowledge conveyed by teachers, textbooks, and, now, software seems absolute and immutable. Learning becomes a matter of memory, yet memorizing is nothing like truly learning. Learning is to delve into the unknown and conquer it through reason.
To properly teach, teachers must be aware of their own ignorance, and accept that
it is qualitatively no different from the students’ ignorance. The curriculum and methodologies in the classroom must support an exploratory approach that allows every member, including the teacher, to dialogue as equals, deepening each other’s relationship with the subject and other group members. In this setting, students are not locked out
of knowledge by assessment, but rather assessment comes from the teacher herself, who best knows each student’s capabilities and contributions. Student and teacher alike are invested in the material, and the all-too-common question – when am I ever going to use this – doesn’t arise.
Any educational aid which circumvents, rather than fortifies, the student-teacher relationship is not merely insufficient but altogether wrong-headed, and more attention needs to be paid to what we expect education to be before we try to design a solution to its shortcomings. As adults, former students fondly remember the teacher who touched their lives, not the worksheets that drilled information. What gives the art of teaching lasting value is a partnership between teacher and student forming deep intellectual connections that last a lifetime.