Teaching as Responsibility

There’s a strange reform happening in education. In some sense, teachers are mere media—they are a means of getting subject knowledge from wherever it resides into the cognitive world of their students. In a sense, this is fair enough. But teachers are different from media like books, TV, the internet, etc. in a very significant way: teachers bear responsibility for learning in a way that these other media do not. By taking this responsibility seriously, we can begin to see the ideas behind many of the most important educational movements of our day.

(My principal focus in this blog is the K-12 teacher in a publicly funded system, but much of what I say can be extended and applied to most other teaching and learning situations.)

I have heard teachers claim that their job is merely to “deliver curriculum” to students. And if by “curriculum” they mean the relevant subject content, then I think they’re diminishing themselves, their profession and insulting their students. A book or a video can “deliver curriculum” in this sense. We’re paying you too much if you’re only doing what any old medium can do.

The teacher is responsible. For many things. But first and foremost, the teacher is responsible for student learning. Not just some students. Not just the ones who cooperate and make the teacher’s life a joy. All of them. Bright, dull, pleasant, confrontational, communicative or stonewalling. The teachers’ job is to take the goals of the course (“outcomes” in the modern world; but this may change) and find some way to have the students interact with the disciplinary content so that (s)he learns. And this is a much bigger deal than simply delivering content.

I’m going to stop here. The claim is simple and in some ways painfully obvious. But it’s also radical. The teacher is more than medium. The teacher is responsible for each and every student’s learning. This has far-reaching implications and I’ll get to them over the next few weeks. Think about students with special education needs. Think about students who are not attending or are at risk of dropping out. Think about students who want to delve deeper and deeper into their studies. Think about students who are capable and engaged, but not in the subject being taught. Think about the student who didn’t learn on time for the test, but learned later. Oh yes, we have miles to go before we sleep.

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