Teachers and Love

In my previous post, I began writing my philosophy of education that focused on 5 areas.

  1. Teachers must love their students.
  2. Teaching can be a good career and even a calling, but it is a primarily a JOB.
  3. Every student learns in roughly the same manner.
  4. Teachers should show their students the truth as far as possible while building their students’ knowledge of the world.
  5. Knowledge truly is power.

I summarized #1 like this.

My manifesto starts with controversy. Love, you say? Inappropriate. However, you are wrong. In the case of a teacher, love for students simply means wanting the best for them. You may argue that I should just drop the word love and go with “Teachers must want the best for their students”. I disagree with that because the word love is more powerful and brings weightier connotations. I want this statement to have that weight and those connotations.

Education is a service industry and its aims are best achieved when teachers seek to serve their students. I believe that this service is best acted out not simply out of duty or even affection, but love.

I chose to start my philosophy with love because it is both a tone and context setter. I firmly believe that our actions as teachers should flow from love. My main reason for starting here is not because I naturally love my students. My natural inclination is to teach my classes and get out because relationships are difficult and often frustrating (especially with young children). But I believe my default approach is incompatible with the approach a service industry job requires. Relationships matter. I started with love because I am a Christian and believe it is foundational and more important than knowledge. (1 Corinthians 13:2, If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”)

So, the next obvious question is what does this look like?

In my overview article, I described the love a teacher should have for their student as “wanting the best for your students.”

However, this is not so helpful as a road-map. It is too broad and vague. We must put this love in its context, education. What is the purpose of education? I propose that the primary purpose of education is to help students learn about that which is true and/or valuable while helping them learn about society and the world. I will unpack this more when I get to #4. In short, education should help students learn about the world and their culture’s values.

This then makes teaching the primary role of the teacher. While this seems commonsensical I feel it needs to be said. Google isn’t a magic cure all. Skills that are not based in knowledge are ultimately empty and not useful. Students must know stuff without looking it up.

The other way teachers can love their students is by enforcing the rules in a warm manner. I have seen some schools referring to this as “warm-strict”. I think this is a fantastic approach. Essentially this approach tells students, “We have rules, and you must follow them for your own good and for others.” But, and this part is key, it also makes clear to the students, I value you for you.

Finally, I will get to the most traditional aspect of love, the relationship. The reason I go to this part last is because I view teaching students and warmly enforcing the rules as foundational. They allow for relationships with students to grow. When students know that the teacher and school value learning, they are more apt to try and learn. If you are not teaching, you are not loving your students, plain and simple. Warmly enforcing the rules is important because it helps to embody the idea of love. When the students know what the rules are, that they will be punished for breaking them, and that they will be valued no matter what, they will be more likely to both follow the rules and learn.

Finally, it is in this calm, focused environment created by the warm-strictness and the focus on teaching and learning that allows the relationship between a student and a teacher to flourish. Here, the teacher can interact and get to know students and their academic interests in the classroom while learning their personal interests during breaktimes/lunch/etc. Notice my order. In the class, I believe it is important to focus on academics as a way to love your students. Sure, you will pick up on their personal interests in the classroom, you will have times where you tell jokes in the classroom, but your focus must be on educating them. Use the down times in your school wisely. Get to know your students. Make it clear that you value them. Even if you feel you can’t tell your students you love them, express it.

My Philosophy of Education

Consider this an introduction to what will be a much longer manifesto. Based on my morals, and what I know about education, this is how schooling should be, this is the start of my philosophy of education.

  1. Teachers must love their students.
  2. Teaching can be a good career and even a calling, but it is a primarily a JOB.
  3. Every student learns in roughly the same manner.
  4. Teachers should show their students the truth as far as possible while building their students’ knowledge of the world.
  5. Knowledge truly is power.

 

  1. Teachers must love their students.

My manifesto starts with controversy. Love, you say? Inappropriate. However, you are wrong. In the case of a teacher, love for students simply means wanting the best for them. You may argue that I should just drop the word love and go with “Teachers must want the best for their students”. I disagree with that because the word love is more powerful and brings weightier connotations. I want this statement to have that weight and those connotations.

Education is a service industry and its aims are best achieved when teachers seek to serve their students. I believe that this service is best provided not simply out of duty or even affection, but out of love.

  1. Teaching can be a good career and even a calling, but it is a primarily a JOB.

This line in my manifesto is important for two reasons, teachers and society. Society will tell teachers that they should do more with less, because times are hard and the budget is short, you should do it for the students. And so teachers give more for their students. However, many teachers give until they are empty and then their minds and/or bodies give out. It is important that teachers remind themselves, “While teaching may have fundamental importance both for society and the individuals involved, it is simply a job, there will be others if I need it.”

  1. Every student learns in roughly the same manner.

The above words are essentially seen as fighting words in the world of education. However, I believe they are words worth fighting about. We know that in order to learn, it takes multiple exposures spaced over time to learn the material (Spaced Repetition). We know retrieval practice, calling something to mind strengthens the brain’s connections, regardless of whether those connections are right or wrong. This is why it is so important for students to practice accurately. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes more permanent.

Teachers should teach with the understanding that all students who will be in their classes essentially learn in the same ways. This will free them from endless differentiation and allow them to focus on the structure of the lesson and delivery of the content to the benefit of all students.

  1. Teachers should show their students the truth as far as possible while building their students’ knowledge of the world.

There is objective truth and a large purpose of schooling is to reveal it to students. This is most clear in math and parts of the sciences. For example, 2+3=5. This is an objective truth. Or the law of universal gravitation. The “as far as possible” is included because in some subjects, truth is not the primary focus. For example, while there are certainly truths about the language arts that students must know (decoding, phonics, punctuation), showing students the truth when analyzing Shakespeare becomes harder. Because, often times this literature is subjective and about societal or individual preferences or moral and about what is ultimately good or evil.

In these cases, teachers should expand students knowledge of the world while acknowledging the challenges of parsing ethical decisions of characters in plays or people in history.

  1. Knowledge truly is power.

The importance of knowledge has not diminished in the internet age. In fact, at the very least, it has maintained its level of importance. Think simply. While going to the bathroom is a skill, when you break it down, it becomes apparent that even a rudimentary skill is built upon knowledge. A child must know what a bathroom is and how it is used before they can hope to apply the skill of successfully using it.

This rings all the clearer when we make the skill academic. Think about writing an essay. You first must know all the letters and how they work together. Then you must know the vocabulary and relevant grammar rules. But you still cannot hope to write an essay until you have learned about that topic. Even if you have the skills needed to write, you can only write well if you deeply understand the topic you will write about.

We will give one last example to bring the importance of knowledge home. The skill of decoding (sounding out words) is absolutely useless without comprehension. You can only comprehend words that you know. It may be the 21st Century, but knowledge is still king.

Concept Based Teaching: A Partial Embrace

Part 1
Part 2

Implementing a concept based curriculum can be a challenge because curriculum has traditionally been based around topics, not concepts (Erickson, 2011). Erickson contrasts topic based curriculum and concept based curriculum in the following manner.

Topic Based Curriculum Concept Based Curriculum
Coverage Centered Idea Centered
Intellectually shallow Intellectual depth
Fails to allow for transfer Concepts and generalizations transfer
Fails to meet the intellectual demands of the 21st century Develops the intellect to handle a world of increasing complexity and accelerating change

While this was taken from a powerpoint (above link) and therefore the text must be brief, I am not happy with her comparisons here. It is simply saying the old is bad, but my way, my way is the way forward, my way is good. It is intellectually lazy. However, a bad presentation does not necessary make the idea (concept based teaching) bad.

To actually implement concept based teaching, you need to focus on a concept, not a topic. For example, traditionally, I would teach my 6th grade students about various topics such as river erosion, glacial erosion, wave erosion, and wind erosion. In a concept based teaching approach, my “big idea” would be Forces that shape Earth’s Surface and the concept would be Weathering and Erosion. My students must know about weathering and erosion in various situations (river, glacial, wave, wind) if they are to understand how and why weathering and erosion help shape the Earth’s surface. I would continue teaching in much the same way, but with the key difference being that I would actively work to link the topics together in my students’ minds. This is where I see the biggest positives from this approach. Teaching for conceptual understanding forces teachers to intentionally show their students the connections and relationships between different topics.

So in this example, I would teach students how the water cycle is driven by the sun. And that the sun creates winds. And then the water cycle and winds interact with Earth’s surface structures which formed via plate tectonics (Another concept with various topics to link back and connect with).

The idea is for a “big idea” of teaching for conceptual understanding is to force synergistic interplay, which, according to H. Lynn Erickson involves students shifting between factual and conceptual levels within the structure of knowledge. And, to be honest, I do not like the term synergistic interplay. There are already terms for this (schema), why did she feel the need to invent a brand new one?

Regardless, let’s look into how the designers of conceptual understanding say you should implement their system.

Rachel French, “For a teacher new to [concept-based instruction], I recommend that you begin by thinking about the kinds of questions that you ask in the class. Aim to ask a mix of factual and conceptual questions to guide students to deeper understanding.”

This sounds great to me and lines up with what research shows. We should teach students facts, but not facts in isolation.

Ms. French goes on to say,  “Try an inductive approach for your next unit. Instead of telling the students the understanding at the beginning, use your factual and conceptual questions and let them do the thinking to come up with the understandings themselves.”

This is part that I cannot go along with. This method is simply too time consuming to be effective.

After students have mastered the concept in one situation, I would be fine with giving them the pieces and having them make connections themselves. For example, I have taught my 6th grade students about weathering and erosion. After going over the necessary terms, we then immediately apply them to a scenario. There are 2 hills, Hill A and Hill B. Both hills are in a rainy environment and are the same height and slope. But Hill A is covered with thick vegetation, while Hill B is bare. We then work together to explain which hill will undergo less erosion and why. As we do this, I am making explicit each part of the “erosion formula” (amount of water/water speed, slope, soil type, plant coverage). Next, I might give students more independent work in a similar scenario but where students compare and contrast erosion rates on two rivers by going through our “erosion formula”. At this point, depending on how the class is doing, we may move to other scenarios that would involve further transfer. Such as wind erosion in deserts/grasslands.

I may have irresolvable philosophical conflicts with how the creators of Conceptual Understanding say it should be implemented. Based on my research, H. Lynn Erickson and Rachel French are advocating for an inquiry based approach where students “come up with understandings” themselves. By using this type of inquiry approach, we may be leading students to make false connections and as a result, students may be building inaccurate concepts by learning something that is untrue.

I think that this approach can also easily lead to advantaging the advantaged and disadvantaging those who are already disadvantaged. This happens because the advantaged students who already have a wealth of background knowledge/academic language would be more likely to make correct connections/understandings whereas the disadvantaged students would be more likely to make incorrect connections/understandings and then they would fall further behind.

All of that to say, I am all for the goals of conceptual understanding and find the structure provided by H. Lynn Erickson to be tremendously helpful. (image below)

structure of knowledge

I will take aspects of conceptual understanding and apply it to my own teaching and I am confident that borrowing aspects of Conceptual Understanding will improve my teaching and help my students to understand how different concepts are related and interact.

Concept Based Education: The Structure of Knowledge

H. Lynn Erickson has developed a model for the structure of knowledge where multiple facts fit inside a topic. From the topic, at least one larger concept arises. Then, from the concepts, a broad, generalizable principal can be found. From this principle, one can create an accurate theory.

There are researchers who refer to both facts and concepts as knowledge, but Erickson finds it to be helpful to separate factual knowledge from conceptual understanding. The basic idea being that there are different types of knowledge. This would seem to make sense to me after all, we already distinguish between declarative and procedural knowledge. I also like that the foundation to Erickson’s model is facts. I feel strongly that knowing facts (memorization) is incredibly important for students to actually learn and apply concepts. So, while some researchers may quibble over certain definitions, I do like the diagram and find it to be useful.

structure of knowledgeThe next step is to understand each stage in the framework of knowledge.

Facts: statements that are true

Topics: collections of related facts

Concepts: mental abstracts that are abstract, timeless, and universal (Erickson & Lanning, 2014, p.33)

Principle Generalization: The relationship between 2 or more concepts (conceptual relationships)

The goal of Erickson’s structure of learning is to make explicit the goal of concept based teaching, transfer. All teachers want students to apply what they are learning to their lives. Doing so inevitably involves some amount of transfer. The basic idea behind concept based teaching is that facts and topics, in and of themselves are non transferable, but concepts are.

Whenever we apply our knowledge from one situation to another, we are always abstracting to a conceptual level. We are taking specific knowledge and generalizing into a broader form until it fits the new situation.

It is important to note, facts are important. You cannot get to the conceptual level if you lack facts. If you lack facts, you do not have any content to generalize or transfer. So, you must have facts, and you must teach facts. But you must not stop at a “fact” level. Go beyond facts. Have students apply them and generalize.

In my next post I will explore how we can teach for conceptual understanding. I am still unsure about teaching for “conceptual understanding” as I mentioned in my last post because it seems to be creating new, unnecessary vocabulary. That said, I am all for its aims. I want my students to know stuff and be able to apply it to a wide variety of circumstances. The more I read, the more positive towards concept based teaching I am becoming.

Part 3

The content for this post was largely from a free chapter in the book, “Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Secondary: Designing Lessons and Assessments for Deep Learning