Wednesday, August 21, 2013

It took only six years before I wanted to quit teaching

I started teaching in 2000.

I'm now starting my 14th year.

In my chapter Reduced to Numbers: From Concealing to Revealing Learning, I reflect on my 13 years:

I am not the same teacher I used to be. When I started, I was focused on power and control. I assigned loads of homework, dished out huge penalties for late assignments, assigned punishments for rule-breaking behavior, and averaged marks to determine the students’ final grade. I did some of these things because I was trained to do so in university. However, most of these teaching strategies were being done mindlessly and, for the most part, I was simply teaching the way I was taught.

It took only six years before I wanted to quit teaching. I had become increasingly unhappy with my teaching and my students’ learning. I was tired of laboring through hours and hours of marking, and I hated nagging kids to complete their homework. Instead of students asking “What is this question worth?” I wanted them to actually get excited about the content. I wanted change, and I came close to thinking that change required me to leave the profession.
Instead of pulling the plug on what could have been a short teaching career, I started to question the traditional pedagogy that I had so mindlessly adopted. I began asking questions that would challenge the status quo. Many professional development conferences provide teachers with opportunity to ask questions such as “How do I mark better?” or “How do I get my students to do their homework?” At first glance these look like challenging and provocative questions, but they are still questions that promote more of the same. Far more powerful questions are “Why do I mark?” or “Why do I assign homework?” Investigating the motives for our actions, rather than merely examining our methods of implementation, is a better use of our time, particularly if the subject in question is a belief or habit that we’ve come to accept as a given truth. I have come to see that:

"[t]here is a time to admire the grace and persuasive power of an influential idea, and there is a time to fear its hold over us. The time to worry is when the idea is so widely shared that we no longer even notice it, when it is so deeply rooted that it feels to us like plain common sense. At the point when objections are not answered anymore because they are no longer even raised, we are not in control: we do not have the idea; it has us." (Kohn, 1999a, p.1) 
For too long, I was letting schooling get in the way of my teaching and too many of my teaching practices were based on pedagogy that was at best unhelpful and at worst harmful to my long-term goals. Through critical questioning and extensive research, I came to the conclusion that my pedagogy had to revolve around one priority: learning. If there were things that worked to sabotage learning, then it was my professional responsibility to remove them.

Since 2006, I have worked to identify and remove things like grading that traditional school has done for so long. And when I share this with others, I receive mixed responses. Some listen intently, nodding their heads in agreement, as if deep down they have always sensed something wrong with what Seymour Papert (1988) described as School with a capital S, which is a place that he explains as having a bureaucracy that has its own interests and is not open to what is in the best interest of the children. Unfortunately, when most people close their eyes and think of their Schooling, many have experienced no other kind of School than the one with a capital S. Some listen in shock and awe at how school could even function without such things as grading. The people who have a hard time comprehending how children could learn without extrinsic manipulators concern me the most. They are so invested in traditional schooling that they have never questioned its foundation. Unfortunately, some have a distrustful view of the nature of children; they believe that without grading there would be nothing to stop children from running amok.

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