Two weeks ago during my staff's professional collaboration time, our principal asked the literacy team to consider an article in an ASCD publication regarding student similarities and differences. While I can't remember the title or author, I do remember the pages were laden with pictures of butterflies. The images were meant to remind the reader of the uniqueness of each student. The argument of the article, however, went something like this:
- Students are all the same in some ways
- Students are all different in other ways
- Research suggests that constructing instruction around student similarities is more effective than structuring it around their differences
While I certainly appreciate the benefit of strategies that build on student similarities, I think we have to be careful about reading too far into the research here.
The industrial model of public education that imagines schools as learning factories we currently work under does not blend well with an understanding of students as unique learners. As a result, educators teaching in the industrial school system have long grappled with finding ways to reconcile the system's demand that students be treated the same with the learner's demand that s/he be treated uniquely.
Assigning grades, class size, rows of desks, classes that last the same amount of time every day, and denying students the right to eat in class are all policies designed with the system in mind. And while one may argue that some of these things are important for students to learn in life, it is primarily true as a means of preparation for future systems.
It only recently struck me that perhaps the indicator of quality teaching is the ability to negotiate this conflict between system and student in the interest of the student.
Students are different in myriad ways: language acquisition, gender, interests, relationship with parents/authority, race and culture, cognitive ability, emotional maturity, social inclination, etcetera. The more ways students are different, the longer it takes a beginning teacher to find systematic (i.e. practical) ways of appreciating those differences. And this, I would contend, is one of the many reasons it is so challenging to teach in urban schools: their students are often different in more ways than students in other kinds of schools. (Of course, it also provides grand educational opportunity.)
The best teachers, given an industrial system and increasingly post-industrial thinkers, are those who find ways to stretch the system to its breaking point (and sometimes beyond) in an effort to appreciate the learner's uniqueness.
- Twenty-five different students in one classroom working on twenty-five different assignments
- Assessment that appreciates a learner's starting point but still expects advancement in line with others
- Grades being assigned with more and more comments as to the student's strengths and areas for growth
- Creating teams of teachers who have the same core group of students so collaboration can focus on meeting individual needs
And so I have come to understand the master teacher as the broker of authentic learning experiences (both unique and shared) who is simultaneously hounded by the sometimes damaging demands of an overbearing system. S/he must make decisions about when to allow the system to have its way and when to invest energy looking for ways to circumvent it. While the expert may stretch the system just beyond its breaking point, the system nonetheless imposes a limit beyond which even the best cannot pass.
I wonder: What does the teacher's role look like beyond the industrial model of schooling? How do we push forward so that learners gain necessary skills and knowledge without the uninspired weight of the system that keeps many from thriving? Importantly, how do we answer these questions in the name of society generally, and not solely in service of a particular class or special interest?