As educators, we know that the teacher-student relationship can profoundly shape lives; indeed, many of us choose education for that reason. I view teaching as a privileged calling. Teacher-educators serve a pivotal role in shaping our society through their work with pre-service teachers, who themselves will one day touch the lives of countless more individuals. In thinking about my goals for teaching, I draw upon findings from cognitive science, problem-based learning, authentic intellectual work, conversations with many wonderful colleagues including Drs. John Saye, Jada Kohlmeier, Cory Callahan, and Lamont Maddox, and my own experience as an educator.
Learning occurs best when it is situated within meaningful, real-world problems that are worth the learner’s time and effort. Learners must believe that the knowledge and skills taught are helpful for their future lives and that they will be empowered to decide and act. Whenever there is an authentic purpose for learning, students are more likely to engage and put forth the cognitive and emotional effort required for meaningful learning. Modern life demands this level of inquiry and reflection. Teachers must, therefore, move beyond instruction that only demands rote memorization of discreet facts to the examination of fundamental, ill-structured social questions.
Experts and novices think and solve problems differently because there are differences in their ability to connect new information to existing schema within their minds. Experts more easily grasp the big ideas and central concepts within their discipline. Helping novice learners to develop more complex schema is one of my goals as a teacher because such expanded schemas permit learners to think more deeply and to approach problems more holistically and efficiently. By organizing instruction around problems, big ideas, and questions, I seek to provide the mental structures needed to facilitate learning. I work to engage students’ initial understandings or misconceptions by modeling strategies and skills that not only confront the more traditional vision for schooling but that also can be used to develop the skills and dispositions needed to address authentic problems.
After many years of being a classroom teacher, teacher-educator, and educational researcher, I have come to deeply understand that learning must be active but also challenging. Aristotle said, “Learning is not child’s play; we cannot learn without pain.” We learn most when we are pushed just beyond our limits but venturing outside our comfort zones takes risk and risk opens the door to the possibility of pain. I believe that knowledge is constructed and that transmitting knowledge alone too often ignores the role of the learner in the teaching-learning process. The challenges of modern public and economic life require that learners be able to build complex models of problems, whether they be personal or public in scope. However, no single individual can understand all that there is to know about the problems we confront as human beings. Therefore, students benefit from exploring multiple interpretations of problems through dialogue and deliberation with others.
I sincerely believe that all students are capable of deep, critical thinking if they are given appropriate structure and support. Through my work with teachers, I have come to conclude that optimistic beliefs about students often predict whether we as teachers will take risks in the classroom. If we our expectations are low, we have no reason to take risks. Necessary support can be offered to all students by employing developmentally appropriate scaffolding, providing instruction that engages multiple ways of knowing and communicating, and by modeling exemplary performance. Scaffolding can be static and planned in advance of anticipated difficulties but it might also be dynamic and situational. Providing peer-to-peer support and time for deep thinking are necessary to structure the learning environment optimally.
Note: For readability and clarity, I have omitted references. However, ongoing and nearly continuous conversations with John Saye since 2006 significantly influenced my thinking. Of most significance was: Saye, J. W., & Brush, T. (2004a). Promoting civic competence through problem-based history learning environments. In G. E. Hamot & J. J. Patrick (Eds.), Civic learning in teacher education (Vol. 3, pp. 123-145). Bloomington, Indiana: The Social Studies Development Center of Indiana University.