A million years ago, when I was student teaching at Wiley Jr. High in Cleveland Heights, my co-operating teacher told me that there are two rules in teaching:
1) Some students will not learn.
2) There is nothing the teacher can do to change Rule #1.
Pedagogical reform reliably returns to the issue of Can. If we've heard it once, we've heard it a million times-- all students can learn (most recently with the addendum "to a high level of achievement"). And I do not disagree.
But our challenge is not Can. Our challenge is Will. And if we are unwilling to see the difference, we do our students a huge disservice even as we treat them with great disrespect.
I could probably learn conversational Chinese. I have a checkered past when it comes to learning foreign languages, but if I dropped everything else that I'm working on, really buckled down, and applied myself, I could learn to at least get by with at least some spoken Chinese, though what I would do with it I have no idea. But I've done a cost-benefits analysis, and I've concluded that while I could learn conversational Chinese, it's not really worth the time and trouble, and so I will not be taking on that project.
Because I am a grown-ass man, nobody gets too excited about my choice. Nobody finds me oppositionally defiant or learning disabled or just plain a problem. I'm just a person who made a personal choice about how to spend my time and effort.
But if I were seventeen years old, making the same decisions about identifying gerund phrases or understanding Hamlet or solving quadratic equations-- well, then We Would Have a Problem.
There's another helping verb that hovers unacknowledged over these discussions, and that verb is "must." As in the assumption that if we have a well-designed program of instruction being delivered by an effective teacher, well, then, the students must learn.
This assumption, embedded in so much reformster pedagogy, denies the students agency. It denies students the basic human ability to choose how to spend their time, attention, and effort. It treats them with the utmost disrespect, saying, in effect, "Well, of course, they will do as they're told. You just have to tell them correctly."
At its worst, this approach "creates" more defective students. After all, if I have a perfect instructional program in the box and it was unpacked and delivered by an instructor who did just what she was supposed to do, and the student still didn't learn, there can only be one explanation-- there's something wrong with the student. At least, that's the only explanation possible if I assume that the student is not a sentient human life form with the ability to make choices based on her own values and priorities.
Now, as a professional teacher, my job is to get students to choose to learn. I'm teaching high school students, so I face a different version of this challenge than my elementary colleagues. But for me, step one is to recognize that I can't make my students do anything, and they don't have to do anything. I can con, cheer, encourage, bribe, cajole, reward, punish, push, tug, trick, and sell them to get there, but at the end of the day, they will choose to learn or they will choose not to. And I tell them all this on day one, and it has been very successful for me, because the message they hear is that I will treat them with respect.
See, I think this is more than a pedagogical issue. I believe it's a moral and ethical issue as well. It is basic respect to treat other human beings as independent, autonomous entities. It is disrespectful-- I will even go so far as to call it evil-- to try to deprive other human beings of their ability to direct their own lives. Yes-- when you give people the freedom to make choices, they will sometimes make bad ones, but if you are not free to make bad choices, you are not free. Yes, there is a corresponding moral imperative to do all in power to help people make better choices, but there is a line, and we cross it at exactly the moment that we try to take other people's choices away.
It's not correct to say that students who are live in poverty or deal with a disability or come from an unstable home environment cannot learn. They can-- but they face obstacles that make the costs-benefits analysis more difficult, that make choosing to learn a less obvious or easy choice. Recognizing that is NOT "blaming the victim" nor is it "making excuses." If we are going to encourage them to make sound choices, we have to understand what their choices look like so that we can show them choices that make sense, and arm them with the tools they actually need-- so that they will choose to learn. In some situations, we must also fight hard to make more paths available to them.
So we have a huge obligation to help students choose to learn and grow into their best selves. And we have a huge obligation to recognize their freedom, their ability to make use of their free will. Isn't the ability to make good choices one of the core abilities we want to foster in schools? And how does one learn to make good choices, if one never practices making choices?
A system where the individual students don't matter, where
they have no choices, where they are simply pushed through a process like
toasters on an assembly line, a system, in short, that assumes that
students must be compliant and that they have no power to choose-- that
is an immoral system. As invested as we may be in the students' outcomes, their lives are not ours to control.
We absolutely need to recognize that all students can learn. We also need to recognize that whether they will learn or not is their choice, not ours. How far we will go to help them choose well is our own choice, our charge, our responsibility.It's our job.