Teach Less, Learn More

A new graduate school semester is underway, and this semester I’m working with school library licensure candidates in the course, Curriculum and the School Library Teacher.  (Note that I’ll refer here to the individuals who are earning their state licensure as “candidates” and the K-12 students as “students.”)

So we’ve spent time during the first two weeks talking and reading about the influences that shape curriculum (what determines curriculum and what perhaps should), school librarians’ roles in curriculum-related processes (including instructional design, teaching, assessment, and curriculum development, among others), and what curriculum looks like in practice – beyond the “document” that is curriculum – in the library, classrooms, and in student learning.

In the class last evening, we considered the goals of education, asking “what is it for?”  What are we trying to accomplish when we teach?  What do we want students to know and do, and why?  What learning and skills are considered valuable- and who or what sets the standards of “value”?

Standardized testing, the Common Core State Standards, global communities, 21st century skills, space and time to think, and the varied demands of school were a few of the many topics that raised robust dialog, and the candidates’ insightful questions and reflections still have me thinking in lots of directions today.

One conversation stemmed from an exercise from the Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel book, 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times. A quick synopsis of the task is this: first, envision a kindergartner starting school “today,” and the world, career, and requisite skills for this child when he or she enters the job market in about 20 years.  Then consider what makes learning powerful and lasting.  Finally, think about the kinds of learning experiences that will effectively prepare this child for the world in 20 years and how the ideal aligns with the realities of education today.

Now, I sometimes take problems like these and point out that it’s not just “tomorrow” that we’re worried about, but learning for today – but that disclaimer aside, I thought it was interesting that in order to think through this scenario, some of the candidates refocused the question on themselves.  What skills did they learn as K-12 students that they still use now?  Communication, problem solving, conflict resolution, and cultural and political understanding were a few that they mentioned.  No matter the specifics of the contexts, this was the learning that they depended upon time and again.  They explored the old “when am I ever going to use this” question and identified skills that indeed, they still use, and as it turns out, even teach as school librarians: information literacy, reading, and a disposition for lifelong learning.

They also talked about a child’s perspective on the content we’re trying to (or required to) teach, and how sometimes peppering students with questions might inhibit the questions that kids are constructing and pondering themselves.

I think that these questions, these genuine inquiry processes that are inspired by the curriculum but maybe not mandated verbatim, are the ones that open up space for meaningful learning.  So the challenge becomes opening up space in the day, in the delivery and evolution of curriculum, in the interactions between students and teachers and students and one another, to acknowledge, encourage, and support this kind of inquiry and learning.  Trilling and Fadel emphasize the idea that teachers should teach less, and learn more.  How can school librarians teach less, and learn more?  What does teaching look like and feel like if we “teach less”?  What are the risks, and what might we learn?  And what might our students learn?

–Rebecca Morris

References: Trilling, Bernie and Charles Fadel. 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2009.

Image: Kindergarten Counting Bears, by shawncampbell on Flickr. Used with a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

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