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The Curious Teacher

An aspiring teacher, exploring the dynamics of education, with the student at the center

New Soul Day.


You can compete ’til the cows come home, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll learn anything above and beyond waiting for more cows to come through the front door. Perhaps this makes a decent euphemism for the conceptual path I’m meandering down..then again, maybe not. I’m in a digressive-state-of-mind at the moment, and basking in every moment, so if this sounds like bird twitter, I can assure you I’m flying in a purposeful direction.

Without further animal metaphors, moving ahead with my more substantive thoughts.

Competition in the classroom might seem a no-brainer for some (it’s a common component of classroom culture in the US, after all), while for others it may prod at least one eyebrow raise and make you go “hmmmm”.

As a burgeoning teacher who certainly grew up in an educational system that seemed to value individual competition more often than not, I happen to be raising and hmmming about this one, and not for the first time.  I dodged NCLB, which was written into legislation one year after I graduated high school, so being a student in this latest era of neck-and-neck, do-or-get-lost-in-a-vicious-cycle is a hair out of my experiential paradigm – but it’s not difficult to witness and imagine the pressure-cooker affect that NCLB has on students (and teachers).

The purpose of competition in the classroom and its direct and indirect effects is rooted in complexity, with various viewpoints and considerations.  There’s the context, or setting, to consider when utilizing; the form of competition being implemented; and the transferred or imbuing effects on the classroom culture, individual internalization, etc.

When you review the tip-of-the-iceberg research (and examine your own past experiences), you realize that there is no “winner takes all” answer when it comes to competition’s role in the classroom.  Individual grades on classroom worksheets or tests, for example, have the potential to be useful assessments of student progress and vehicles for meaningful feedback; they also have the potential to be empty markers that breed “winners” or “losers”.

Both identities have their pitfalls; it’s just as easy for the winner, for whom traditional direct classroom instruction is more easily accessed, to put forth the minimum effort needed to achieve that red A and trump his or her classmates, as it is for the loser to lapse into giving minimum effort, simply because he or she begins to believe “I’ll never understand how this dividing fraction stuff works” or “I’m just not as smart as ____”, both dangerous and unnecessary self concepts that erase like sharpie once they’re written in the mind.

So do I truly believe that competition has no right to be cultivated in a classroom?  No, that wouldn’t be an accurate statement.  What I do believe is that competition, like any other developmental concept or applied teaching strategy, is not monochromatic – meaning, it’s hue changes depending upon the use or purpose.  As teachers, we must educate ourselves – read the research and knowledge available on the nature of competition and its affect in the classroom and society, and test out our own inquiries and refine our ideas based on our own conclusions.

I believe one of the most important differences lies in whether or not competition yields itself to Mastery of focused skills or content or Performance in relation to peers.  Do both have a place in our society?  Of course, no doubt competition (in its broadest sense) is an inherent element of human nature.  And in the classroom?  Yes, under well-chosen circumstances.  But I believe the former lends itself much more smoothly to a receptive and tolerant learning atmosphere that seeks to build solid foundations of knowledge and skills, particularly in the elementary years when children are in the process of building those knowledge-and-skill-based neurological maps.

Even at the secondary level, I hold a firm stance that balancing both types (while yes, leaning slightly more towards the former) is imperative to developing individuals who have the knowledge and ability to truly think for themselves and can actually begin to apply those skills and knowledge in steering their own well-beings.

And of course, I can’t help but wonder if the structure(s) of project-based-type classrooms and schools are ideal breeding grounds for a cooperative sense of competition, the kind that fosters more intrinsic motivation to learn the content; produce the most quality product (through individual contribution combined with knowledge and skills distribution); and to then compare products in a positive-critique fashion – part of the lessons-learned and self-reflective phase, which I have come to realize is (most likely) the most essential element in the long-term learning process.

And in terms of those who insist that competition is an inevitable necessity because it prepares students to go out into the world and compete for jobs, status, and other individual gains in a dog-eats-dog world…a legitimate concern I suppose, but I this Rand-ridden idea can just as legitimately be seen through other eyes…“The unrestricted competition so commonly advocated does not leave us the survival of the fittest. The unscrupulous succeed best in accumulating wealth”, said Rutherford B. Hayes, once upon a time.

When we look through a Hayesian lens, a greater question we can ask ourselves is – as teachers and as human beings who are part of a much greater interconnected web – what exactly do we want our children (and selves) to produce and compete for in life?  And if the answer is something greater than just contributions (no matter how relatively ‘superior’) for the sake of greater material wealth or status, then in what ways should and can we facilitate the development of healthy self-regulation alongside an appreciation for the contributions of every ‘last’ individual student in the classroom?

A  question that is seriously worth milking (you had to know that was coming).

And worthwhile reading that’s right on topic, if you forgive me and are so inclined –

Collaborative learning is toted as the ultimate tool in helping children to construct and make sense of knowledge.  Indeed, there is much research to show that children in the primary grades and later elementary years tend to learn, or internalize more information, when working cooperatively with their peers.

As Martin Henley notes, in Classroom Management: A Proactive Approach, learning is “trial and error”, and students need to move; they need opportunities to directly interact with the material being learned and with each other.  Restlessness, particularly at this age, can set in after just 10 minutes of sitting, which then not only contributes to diminished focus and awareness but also serves as a gateway to ‘behavioral’ problems.  Such data is supported by positron-emission tomography and other neuroscientific data, showing that movement encourages the brain to release chemicals like noradrenaline and dopamine, which heighten attention.

Of course, not all activity-centered learning, which by its very nature lends itself to peer collaboration, is created equal.  And surely not all key content is best learned in group form.

This notion, seemingly simple but really ever dynamic and complex, sparks the beginning of what I see as one of my primary missions as an educator…the quest for creating a proactive and interactive learning community that is most conducive to students (emphasis at the elementary level) learning new information and being able to relate and apply that information in ‘real life’, whether it be through unguided interactions in their lives outside the schools walls, or on a particular form of assessment – including those dreaded standardized tests – within school jurisdiction.

I can never be sure quite when or how I took up an interest, or even heard about, project-based learning (PBL) – but ever since that anonymous moment, it has been a qualified force in steering me towards finding out all that I can about this relatively new (over the last couple of decades) phenomenon, which has been implemented in various school across the nation.  The Buck Institute for Education, a non-profit organization that focuses its work on PBL, is at the forefront of the movement and their website is invaluable for learning more about the nature of PBL and for sourcing meaning and ideas –

Collaboration is one of the key 21st century skills that is inherent in the PBL system.  I suppose at the end of the day, my question is – how much is just “the right amount” of collaboration, particularly at the elementary-school level?  When does the traditional “industrial-style” system of having students learn at separate desks in individual and disciplined fashion generate the most merit and reap the most benefits?  How can a PBL system be implemented in the elementary grades and effectively incorporate both of these types of learning styles?  Would all or most schools benefit from such a system?  And how does this type of learning contribute to or affect the standardized-assessment system that our schools currently rely upon? …the rabbit hole looms.

These, and many other tangential but related questions, will be basking in the forefront of my executive function as I launch my  Master’s-thesis research into what PBL is and looks like at the elementary level; what it can or could look like; and how such structures have the potential to affect students’ learning and current assessment outcomes.

Though biases will have to be mitigated along the way, or at least put into a properly-balanced perspective, my hunch is that there is more hip than hype in the idea.  Much, much more to come, as I share my developing approach, ideas and progress in this, perhaps, undervalued pedagogical realm.

Perspective is a rampant word in our society, particularly in a culture where individualism is valued for its one-does-not-meet-all approach. But when it comes to actually ‘teaching’ perspective…well, two things come to mind – what does that mean, to teach perspective, AND how can it be done?

From where I’m sitting at this moment in time, I define perspective as a personal viewpoint that one takes on any particular issue or how one views any situation at any given time – each one of us has a uniquely colored lens, if you will, tinted by our life experiences, our fears and desires, our second-to-second encounters and interactions with the environment. This, in and of itself, is impossible to teach – how could we possibly teach something that can only ever be seen through another’s eyes?

But we all have a perspective, and we all see and interpret the world with that intact (whether we’re consciously aware or not), and that is the unifying band that ties us all together as a relatable race of beings. To awaken students to their own individual perspective, and then to the idea that others have their own perspectives (which may be quite similar or very different from our own, depending on the case) is – or what I can only imagine to be – one of a teacher’s ultimate challenges.

I went for one of my typical 3.5(ish) mile runs about a week ago; my house is less than a block away from a rather secluded beach, and sometimes (even in the dead of winter) I end my run by walking down to the shore, more often than not just to gain a sense of presence, of wordless beauty – communicated so eloquently by the sea. I stood on the compact sand, looking out over the waves, and bent at the waist to stretch my hamstrings; as I grasped my ankles and peered at the fading blue sky, a flash of thought suddenly appeared in my mind, as quickly and fleetingly as a seagull in mid-flight – “who’s to say that the sky is really up, and that the ground is really down? Right here and now, it could just as easily be the other way around.”

I realize that this insight might prompt some to say, “yes, but considering that most of us don’t go around walking on our hands…” True. But what if? And what if we were the type of animal that spent most of our time on this earth in a relatively upside-down position, say much as a opossum or a bat might do? If either one of those creatures was able to and had the need to conceptualize such an idea, might they refer to the ground as ‘up’ and the sky as ‘down’?

It’s not a question to truly ponder over or to get carried away by on a philosophical stream. The point is, one man’s up might be another animal’s down, and that’s just dealing with a rather concrete and everyday, normal experience. This is the type of concept heavily inherent in the interpretation of historical events, for example. The pedagogical direction in which my cohort has been pointed is to first and foremost consider whose viewpoint or perspective is being communicated through any particular historical text, whether that be a primary or secondary source (particularly the latter), and to then discuss and explore other perspectives that might be relevant in viewing such a situation i.e. painting a more complete and accurate picture.

One of my favorite examples in a related junction is the topic of man-made maps – when looking at any particular type of map, be it a climate, economic or resource, topographic, or physical map (and the different sources within these types) – which one is ‘right’?  There isn’t one of course; each type of map provides a different perspective, some being more accurate than others and some being more relevant depending on their purpose, but they each provide (broadly speaking) a contributing viewpoint that makes up a collaborative whole.

I can think of a simple activity, which would work with any grade level (even starting in K) in which you have the children look around their environment and make personal silent observations about any of the things that they notice (and having them write these down in the later grades would be a beneficial extension).  Then, gather in a large circle or some other conducive group formation and have each student share some of their observations.  It will be quite obvious that some observations are very similar, while some are very different.  This provides a great launching point for discussion, which could go in upteenth directions (depending on the environment and group at hand).

Perspective is an inescapable but often invincible concept to children, let alone adults.  Teaching that concept can be a richly engaging experience, and one that can be taught from any angle and at any point in time.

I have, what I deem, to be good and purposeful intentions for writing this entry – to convey my thoughts and opinion on what I deem to be an obvious but possibly overlooked facet (isn’t that often the way?) of what initially separates effective teachers from those who…well, are just not as effective in the classroom.

I don’t use the label ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ – it is not my intention to place judgment. What I do believe is that when deciding to enter the teaching profession, having genuine intentions is a key ingredient to long-term success.  Intention is the gateway factor that determines and serves as the catalyst for developing potential maximum effectiveness in an educator.

I’ll be the first to admit that having genuine intentions does not necessarily make an effective teacher – it doesn’t make anyone effective at any one thing, per se.  What it does do is set a course for individuals to develop their potential for being an effective teacher. Often, true intentions stem from authentic passions or natural leanings, and if one’s craft is assessed and improved upon on a continual basis, then an effective level of performance is not out of reach.  What do I mean by ‘effective’, you might ask?

Peruse any reputable teaching blog or publication for what makes a teacher truly effective; scout out a revered teacher(s) within your own sphere; search your own mental archives for that memorable teacher(s) who painted learning in a new light, and you’re likely to come up with a core list of attributes.  While opinions may vary slightly, those characteristics that are so often embodied by successful individuals in a particular domain are no truth unseen.

From my personal observations, comings and goings, I give my top 5 characteristics for a potentially effective teacher:

  • Committed – To the individual student’s and the collective class’s understanding of the content at hand and learning progress; to adapting to a particular environment and finding the best learning resources/opportunities within for the benefit of the students’ learning and well-being; to the planning and effort that is necessary in order to plan the best possible lesson (at that moment in time)…
  • Curious – About students in the context of their role as learners in the classroom, and beyond the school walls to their family roles and places in the local community; about one’s own teaching craft and style and how that can be improved upon through continuous reflection and professional development; about available teaching resources and opportunities within the school, community, and beyond; about life as it reveals itself in all its glorious detail in every present moment…
  • Receptive – To fellow teachers’ best methods, strategies and ideas; to constructive (and perhaps not so constructive) criticism from authority figures, students, and other relevant observers; to students’ wants or needs within the context of optimal learning in and out of the classroom; to new teaching strategies, philosophies and ideas that pop up and that can be sourced from countless avenues…
  • Empathetic – To students’; students’ family members’; and fellow educators’ perspectives and life situations, as they relate to students’ learning experiences and capacities…
  • Confident – This last characteristic is certainly not static, nor an end place, but speaking from the threshold, one may have to ‘put on a show’ of this attribute in the beginning…

…Traditionally, when I wake up on days in which I’m scheduled to be in the classroom for a practicum placement,  a chemical cocktail enters my bloodstream – and I always seek it straight up, to feel the strength of these emotions, though I’m careful not to identify.  I feel excitement at the prospect of bearing witness to unassuming faces, to witnessing those unexpected and new connections made, to basking in the presence of busy bodies and minds; and I also feel rather terrified, which stems not so much from the unknown as it does from the bare-bones knowledge that as an educator, I have an incalculable responsibility to guide these children and to help facilitate the construction of new knowledge and the development of their characters as human beings.

One day, perhaps I’ll be able to look back, comfortable in my evolving craft, and feel some semblance of unwavering confidence…and maybe that day will not come in such a black and white form.  Until then, you can bet all of your socks that I have a stomach mimicking flocks of birds and an autobahn-fast heart whenever I get up in front of the classroom to teach a lesson.

Still, at the end of the day I have faith in knowing that my reasons for wanting to teach have little to do with boosting my own confidence or securing a noble place or reputable name for myself in this world.  I wake up, wanting to teach and find the most relevant and innovative ways to help illuminate and develop young minds – but knowing that when all else fails, I intend to offer every last child the unique recognition and support he or she deserves.  Whether or not this will be easy is no question – it won’t be.  But if I can develop my most effective teaching craft while doing so, then perhaps my insights might help others look more closely at their own intentions before deciding to take up the teaching profession.

I’m not quite of certified-teacher status, but as a Master’s student immersed in the process, I’m on my way.  Questions, ponderings and musings about teacher craft, student development, systemic issues and structures, occur to me on a daily basis.  The aerial view is overwhelming, and without an eagle’s eye (I have only so much hands-on experience in the classroom at this point – roughly 140+ hours, and counting) the environment can also seem rather confusing and complex.  Even as a newbie to the world of education and its place in our American society, it is not difficult to see how the educational system as it exists within our nation can leave novices and veterans alike dizzy, vulnerable to falling into the abyss, only to be spit out and left in the cold, stripped of a clear purpose.

Speaking from the position of a teacher on the ground floor, I find myself wanting to use the balancing strategy employed in dance, gymnastics, or any other sport that requires much movement around a center.  Spotting, or keeping one’s eye on a stationary point as one’s body spins, forwards and backwards, side to side – you name the direction – provides balance and is imperative to performing a skilled and even poignant routine.  If one doesn’t keep an eye on the central and defining purpose of what education is all about – how to pass on information and ideas in ways that are in the best interests of the student – one risks falling off the beam for good.

The revolutionary (and at the very least provocative) Howard Gardner has driven home the seemingly obvious idea that setting an overriding purpose, establishing a pinnacle goal, is essential if an effective teaching system is to flourish. It is no secret that numbers (tests), compared rankings (from the microscopic level of between students to the macroscopic level of between countries), and competitive federal funding has overwhelmingly fallen into the driver’s seat behind America’s mainstream educational system today. And it’s clear to anyone who understands what education should be about that the driver is clearly asleep at the wheel, with our youth strapped in, helpless to a degree, in the passenger’s seat – an unnerving thought to say the least.

But just as history tends to repeat itself, time also has the amazing ability to provide space and room for growth and change. Out of darkness comes light, that is the yin and yang of nature at its finest.  Abstract analogies out of the way (for now), I am convinced that America’s education system will be subject to such a fate – it must lend itself to becoming a shapeshifter if today’s and tomorrow’s youth are to survive in an unpredictable and progress-based world.  If the majority of educators and citizens alike can once again explore the teaching methods, curriculum strategies, and educational polices through the lens of what’s in the best interests of the student and individual, then I believe there’s hope yet for the future of education in America – and I place quite a few eggs in the hope basket.

And this student-centrism is the perspective that I will be integrating into my own views, as I utilize this space as a learning tool to inquire, investigate, and expound upon implementing pragmatic strategies in the classroom; addressing the affects of culture in the classroom and the effects of the external community on the classroom; and probing at issues that exist in education, as we knew it, know it, and visualize it for tomorrow.  If such an effort helps to improve my character and makes me a better teacher in the end, I think it’s safe to say that no one benefits more than those students with whom I’ll interact with and influence in and outside of the classroom.

I had a stimulating conversation last night with an individual who happens to be quite significant in my eyes; this is no extraordinary feat, as the exchange of interesting ideas and new perspectives seems to be part of that mysterious primordial glue that binds us as a complementary pair.  The particular topic of convo, however, got my wheels a-spinning (again) about the official first entry for this journey of a blog, which I’ve had every good intention of starting up but that I’ve, for no good reason, not undertaken as of yet – perhaps due to a combined sense of excitement and fear, a similar sensation that arises whenever I consider the livelihood that I’m currently pursuing,  i.e. a “day” job as an elementary teacher.

I happen to spy this type of emotional wave as a positive indication of serendipitous direction – some self-regulation to accomplish concrete goals required.  And this can be particularly challenging when one – such as myself – is prone to fear of self-worth when it comes to undertaking goals that have significant personal value.  Yes, I’m willing to admit my weaknesses in order to reflect upon and improve my habits, disciplinary regimen, and ultimately my frame of mind.  Is this penchant for self-confession an example of good character?  If I surmise that the relative answer is ‘yes’, when, where and how did I pick up this intrapersonal skill?  Certainly it wasn’t all at once, but I wonder if some quotient of ‘good’ character genetically inherent, or is the result largely shaped by our multitude of life experiences?

Such was the general theme of the aforementioned conversation.  And I am prone to side with the latter perspective.

Moral edification; character building; moral fiber – call it what you will, the fact still stands that such values that most humans deem to be representative of good character – which I might broadly define as taking actions that benefit and improve the being of others, as well as one’s self – appear to be universal, perhaps differing slightly within context, but infiltrating the best of all cultures from one generation to the next.  Character-building is not necessarily from whence all educational content and activities should stem; but I think it’s undeniable that such is the lifeblood, the undercurrent, that provides the driving force behind American society’s spoken primary goal of education – to produce thoughtful, responsible and active citizens who function at their full potential within a greater democratic society.  And in the course of development, children consciously and subconsciously look for guides and models.  As teachers, this is our greatest responsibility, to serve as models for and to provide effective tools for efficaciously shaping the human character – no questions, all hands down.