The Ever Evolving Educational Philosophy

A word cloud from my educational philosophy

Where do we learn what we believe? There have been countless answers to this question, both constructed institutions such as churches and schools and the informal “contact” beliefs from family, friends, authors, and others met and admired, or disdained along the way. Rarely does someone we do not remember distinctly truly impact our learning. This question makes some broad assumptions. If it is belief, do you have to learn it? Can you question what you believe? I find schools, specifically high schools, are one place to ask these probing questions about identity.

Formal schooling is often explained as a place to develop skills and knowledge necessary for later life pursuits; however, in an age where the job most of our students will pursue does not yet exist, the skills and knowledge are only part of the equation. High schools capture students at a brief, but interesting moment in their lives. To generalize: they know enough, and thus, they think they know everything. The frustrations of managing quasi-adolescents lead many into generalizations about their general disrespect, laziness or ineffectiveness. I think high school is important because not only can students start to define what they believe, but they can question it. They then have the materials at their disposal to explore their interests, and hopefully their beliefs.

The study of history is an appropriate venue for these questions. I am not just a quick convert after reading The Students are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract (Sizer and Sizer), where I found the most compelling examples of teaching morality existed in the realm of the history classroom. I aim to complicate my students understanding of history and help them to battle with their established beliefs. In this history classroom, we do this on a relatively micro level to start. The battle to find “truth” in history allows for some fun myth de-bunking, and also some tougher questions about the role of history in societies, and the impossibility of finding the “right” narrative. Through recognition of the complicated task of historians, I hope the students are enabled to privately and publically question their own beliefs. Training students how to ask questions and how to deal with muddled, complicated answers is the primary goal in my classroom whether through analytical essays, creative essays, class discussions, projects etc. This teaches analytical thinking, but also prompts, or at the very least enables, honest internal reflection.

A student in my AP US History class said to me earlier in this year (eerily similar to an anecdote from Sizer and Sizer), “this class is my favorite class, but I really don’t like America anymore.” We then talked about patriotism, the historical mandate of learning US history by the government, and what provides a foundation for nationalism. The class asked the question: can you be patriotic and still acknowledge the negative history of America? Teenagers are particularly attuned to hypocrisy, because of this, they are already asking excellent questions, for example, after viewing a segment from the miniseries John Adams where a tax collector was tarred and feathered by a mob led by John Hancock and Sam Adams, they asked the question: “Was America founded by a mob?” When our administration frames a newly required program as “full participation”, they fire back “mandate”. To put it bluntly, you cannot bullshit teenagers. Their entitlement to ask exposing questions is exactly what makes them a joy and a frustration to teach. Suppressing their anti-establishment impulse for vague notions of “respect” is the norm in American high schools, but I hope in my classroom students feel free to ask the hard questions, and understand that the hard questions are often the most important to ask.  This approach can be problematic. When students feel respected in a classroom, and are empowered to state their opinions, they will often criticize other teachers, or school programs, testing my professionalism and my commitment to being honest with them. These are invaluable moments, and yet are difficult to manage. I believe in an open classroom where students know I value their ideas and opinions, but I also believe I need to be a role model for professionalism and respect. Residential schools permit the establishment of multi-faceted relationships with students, on the fields, in the dorm at night, sitting around a dinner table, or around a campfire during special programming and in the classroom. I believe the success of this model is because it fosters relationships between students and their teachers; I cannot expect to teach a student successfully if I do not know, recognize and demonstrate respect for their individual stories.

Recognition of the individuality and diversity of student experiences is essential to teach effectively, but it is also important for students to recognize my stories. While there are some stories I openly discuss, such as my challenges to pronounce words and speak effectively, or my struggle to get into college; there are topics I keep private, for both professional and personal reasons. It is also important for me to acknowledge some of the groups with which I belong early in a school year. Each year as I introduce myself I recognize I am female, white, straight and privileged through my education. How can I expect students to talk about gender issues, race, sexuality or privilege if I do not share my stories with them as well? While discomfort with these topics can often lead to greater understanding, this is often causes some problematic discomfort of only having an identity as a teacher. It is important to retain a private sense of self, outside of the identity of being a teacher, and for students to see this as a mark of professionalism and balance in my life.

I believe in teaching history, not only because it prompts hard questions, but because compelling stories are the ways in which we interpret and find meaning. When coaching students to learn, my job is to make the material compelling, so that they want to ask those difficult questions. Through local history, film, literature, creative writing, and many primary sources, history can come alive. My favorite style of teaching is by having students start to love and empathize with a villainous historical character. Now, this is not because I am a Nazi sympathizer, for example, but because I believe students can only truly understand the Holocaust if they understand the reasons people supported Hitler. Understanding the plight of the victims, or the heroic actions of the resistance are also important, but I would argue the most important group to understand and study in this era is the majority group under the Third Reich. It is also important for students to learn to recognize what lenses they bring to their study of a historical subject. They had an opinion on Nazis before this coming to my class; it is critical to investigate the extent to which this lens could distort or minimize the depth of their interpretations.

I believe teenage students learn best when they feel valued. When they believe their teachers value their work, the drive to understand the material comes from a place of wanting to maintain that perception. Many want to be treated as adults. As soon as a student feels a teacher thinks little of them, many will respond with limited engagement, and see school as a required mandate, rather than a place for them to figure out who they are and what they want to be. The role of assessment in the formation of a strong teacher-student relationship is important. A student can feel a teacher does not value their work from something as small as a poor performance on a reading quiz. Utilizing a standards-based assessment approach, where students are encouraged to engage in the process of learning, and are not afraid of taking risks, facilitates the establishment of trust, empathy and respect between teachers and students. The broader role of the teacher should be to foster a classroom dynamic of a team. When a classroom is seen as a place where you are practicing daily towards a greater goal, failure is seen as a learning tool rather than a punishment, classmates become supportive teammates and the teacher, as the coach, guides the team towards a fuller understanding of the world around them, and hopefully themselves.

How could I assess my philosophy of education? I came up with these questions to ask my students at the end of each year…what do you think? 

  1. Describe three times when you took an intellectual risk in this classroom. Did the grading procedures have an impact on your willingness to take risks?
  2. Imagine you were given two contradictory sources, and you knew a bit about the topic and you had an inclination to agree with one of them. Describe the approach you would take to interpret and assess the documents.
  3. To what extent did you feel valued and supported by Ms. Berry on the following scale: 0- not supported, 1- partially supported, 2- supported, 3-very supported. Please explain your response with specific examples.
  4. Think about a belief you held before coming into this class (you may still believe it, or you may have changed your mind). How would you respond to someone stating the opposite of what you believe(d)?
  5. Pick one word to describe the study of history. Use an example from this class to explain why you think this word describes history well.




On Being Wrong

Socrates utilized probing questions to induce thinking in his students. He used the spoken word and his ingenuity as his core lesson plan. With the advent of Christianity, monks became the conveyors of knowledge. Then, Johann Gutenberg invented the first printing press, and with his invention, the written word spread quickly across Europe. European history textbooks tout Gutenberg’s invention as a critical historical factor in the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses spread quickly throughout Europe because of this invention. Interestingly, John Wycliff had written in the same vein as Luther a generation before; why is he not the central figure of the Protestant Reformation? Well, he never got published. He did not have the wonders of blogs to disseminate his ideas to the masses.

When I taught the Protestant Reformation last year, I used a world history textbook. This text, claimed through its title, to be a history of the world. My students and I discussed what, exactly this means. What is left out, and what is included? We used this video that charts all of the Wikipedia articles, both by geographic location and historic date in less than two minutes to guide our discussion. Each “blip of light” is an article, and you can “see” the historic knowledge of our generation. We acknowledged the uncertain utility of Wikipedia and the dilemma with citing it in the “anyone can edit it” phenomena. However, we found that Wikipedia, is ironically, one of the least biased sources as you can publish in any language from any country–what publishing company can say that?

So back to my world history textbook. It was wrong. Gutenberg was not the first to invent a printing press. It took one, quiet, international girl to have the opportunity to research any non-western, 50-year-old topic, (my parameters) for National History Day to teach me about how I, the textbook, and Western civilization had it wrong. The Koreans invented the first printing press. Check out the website she made here.

As teachers, by definition, we are purveyors of knowledge, through our intellect and our ability to ask probing questions. Socrates did not quite fit this definition; the Socratic method is still utilized famously in law school because it fosters independent thinking, not because it necessarily spreads or shares knowledge.  The monks limited study to the ecclesiastical world; nobles sent their sons to be tutored in monasteries in the Middle Ages. Knowledge was a commodity. Traditional western pedagogy then took a form of even more rigor and discipline at schools like Eaton and Oxford.  In America, and specifically New England, we inherited the legacy of puritanical schools for boys. While my synopsis of western education is trite and grossly oversimplified, in our educational model inherited from the monastic tradition, the teacher is the grand, even sacred, purveyor of knowledge.  The information a traditional teacher is expected to know is awesome in scope.

I think, as many others would argue and have argued, education and the world has been revolutionized by the internet. Thomas Friedman’s “world is flat theory” via fiber-optic cable is a wonderful analysis, but it does not quite address the role of tradition in this new, flattened landscape. In the academic realm, change is slow. Stodgy, old professors who tout grammar and ancient languages are resistant to change. They are not trend setters. Boarding schools cater to college, we are in name, “college preparatory institutes” as such, the logic follows, prep schools are punctuated with tradition. However, I think the phrase “independent” boarding schools is important to note. This independence allows the exercise and experimentation of various forms of pedagogy.

I was asked a question by a student today in class and I was wrong. This litany on education and the shifts were inspired by my error, and is perhaps my coping method with being wrong. To top it off, I was being observed  by the chair of my department. My typical response to a question I do not know the answer to in the age of technology when they are on their computers/smart phones already is “use the resources available to you–google it”. However, as I had just asked the class to close their computers, for some good, old-fashioned, not type-set discussion, my typical response would have been nonsensical. I said, “I am not sure”. Fatal last words.  As I continue to lead the class I was struck with questions steeped with my insecurities as a young teacher: “Did I just lose all credibility?”, “Will I be seen as an idiot to my department chair?”, “What role do I have in the American history classroom if I do not know if the Stamp Act was part of the Intolerable Acts (the question of my demise)?” I breezed through the question, did not let my doubts get the better of me, and told the student I would look into it.

I felt worse than the textbook that had it wrong. I, as a teacher, the bastion of knowledge, simply did not know. However, I really believe, (and this is not just because I want to feel better about my ignorance) that knowledge is no longer a commodity. The internet has fundamentally changed what it means to be a teacher (not an original thesis, but true). It really does not matter if I know the French Revolution started in 1789. It matters that I can explain how the combination of the enlightenment rhetoric, absolute power of the monarchy and hungry people led to revolution. Better yet, it is important that I link the French Revolution to the Arab Spring and while I do not know every dictator that was overthrown by name, I can teach that those revolutions began with a combination of a new “enlightened” rhetoric of twitter, the absolute power of a dictator, and hungry people. I would trade my students knowing and remembering the date 1789 for my test, for them to be able to make a connection between history and the present. I no longer want to try to be a bastion of knowledge, because Wikipedia has that covered, I want to try to be content with being wrong. In many ways, as teachers we need to go back to Socrates, who relied just on his intellect and his ability to ask the right questions to be an influential teacher.