Teaching is impossible. What to do instead?

The human touch in the education model of the future

Since the industrial revolution and the emergence of human capital as a concept, adults have been trying to educate the next generation. If you think about it, education is one of the best things we can give. A remote controlled helicopter will break within the first 15 minutes. An ice cream cone is eaten and digested (or spilled on the floor) within a few minutes. Cash is spent, goods are consumed. But knowledge lasts, and it compounds in a way that no other gift can. (Side note, the name of my company, Prenda, means “gift” in Portuguese.)

Literally millions of people have devoted their careers to educating the next generation. I applaud each of these people, including the professional educators on both sides of my family going back generations and many personal friends in the field. I also appreciate the many educators that have labored to give the gift of education to me and my kids. We all know they can use more appreciation for the work and effort they give.

Traditionally, we have referred to these people as teachers. They teach, a word defined by Merriam Webster as “to cause to acquire a knowledge or skill.” Unfortunately, the very idea of teaching — causing someone else to learn — is fundamentally impossible.

Teaching is impossible

Are you raising your eyebrows yet? Maybe shaking your head in disapproving suspicion? Let me explain.

Teaching is impossible because it is a thing you do to someone else. You cause them “to acquire knowledge.” An analogy I have heard often is that the minds of the children are like containers, and the teacher pours liquid knowledge to fill their minds.

The problem with this analogy is the fact that the students are human beings. They have the fundamentally human ability to decide what happens in their amazing human brains, and with that comes the annoyingly human characteristic of stubborn resistance to coercion.

Daniel Greenberg, a long-time educator who spent decades helping kids learn and developed the model for Sudbury Schools, explains it like this:

You can’t make someone learn something — you really can’t teach someone something — they have to want to learn it. And if they want to learn, they will.

Clayton Christensen, a Harvard professor most famous for his theory of disruptive innovation, has compared our minds to Velcro. When we ask a question, we open up a patch of Velcro where some new information can stick. If we don’t ask the question, the answer simply bounces off and no learning happens.

Unfortunately, we adults spend a LOT of our time throwing information at the non-sticky side of a Velcro sheet, and not nearly enough time encouraging kids to open up the Velcro by asking questions.

The best thing we can do

Think back to the most effective teachers in your life. They may be professional educators from college, high school, middle school, or elementary school. They may be informal teachers, like sports coaches, scout leaders, church leaders, music teachers, or librarians. What do these people have in common?

For me, the most memorable teachers were the ones that encouraged me to ask questions. They made me want to learn. Ms. Pew believed I could learn anything. Ms. Tolar gave me logic puzzles I couldn’t solve. Cameron McKay took me on hikes in the Arizona desert and pinned down rattlesnakes with a forked hiking stick. Justin Peatross showed me how fun high power laser physics can be. I could go on.

Getting a student to ask questions is a critical skill for anyone trying to “teach.” I would argue that it’s the most important thing we can do, and maybe the only thing we can do that will have lasting effects. And even though some students will always resist, the best thing we can do is to motivate, inspire, and invite them to take ownership of their learning by asking questions.

It’s a fundamentally human endeavor. Computers and websites are great at providing answers in the form of data and information, but they will never replace the human touch — a real, living person modeling and encouraging a lifelong quest for learning.

How to help kids want to learn

Over the past 150 years,education has become an academic discipline. There are countless research papers, studies, methodologies, pedagogies, and frameworks. As the body of knowledge has grown, the number of answers has increased. And with more answers comes a reduction in questions. It’s a discouraging cycle, made worse with the obsession with standardized tests over the past decade.

Let’s set all that aside for a moment and ask what an adult can do to inspire kids to ask questions and learn. Here are some ideas I came up with. I’d love to hear your ideas, too.

  • Humility/willingness to learn. If you feel a need to be the expert in the room, then you will provide answers. That means fewer questions and less learning. Better is to model an openness to learning. Warning: this approach can be uncomfortable for the ego.
  • Respect/high expectations. You know how you can tell how someone feels about you, even if they never say it directly? Kids notice too. Genuine respect for the kids you work with is rare and empowering. Setting high expectations for kids is a way to respect them, transcend labels, and unlock their best selves.
  • Interest/personal connection. Humans are inherently social, and we all walk around all day looking for gold stars (go check your instagram if you don’t believe me). Kids will never get tired of positive responses, recognition of their effort, and a genuine interest in what they think/make/do.

The interesting thing about these things are that they have almost no correlation with the things society measures and values. Advanced degrees mean nothing. Superficial tactics are useless. The thing that matters is who you are at the core, and I believe there are lots of great people out there that embody these attributes.

I hope they will decide to host a nanoschool.

This post is a continuation of a series about the future of elementary school. You can read the original concept and sign up for updates here.

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