I was recently asked what kind of job would make me not upset. I was asked this after stating I was feeling upset about my work, my job, and teachers as a group in general. It’s a good question and one that I often think about, but have never actually had to voice an answer to for someone else to hear.
I think I’d enjoy a job that lets me help others achieve their own self-selected goals while feeling competent in the process.
It’s great seeing someone achieve a goal they were previously unsure they were capable of achieving and knowing you played a critical role in that accomplishment. I've experienced this feeling from tutoring math in small groups and one-on-one, teaching adults English as a second language, and training a small mix of people at the gym.
I don’t think this does or even can happen in the current K-12 system. While I do think the system is to blame for this, it doesn’t have a mind of its own and so any change must start with teachers.
Teachers Must Stop Following Orders
Standards. Testing. Subjects. Curriculum. Content. Concepts. Skills. All of these are ordered from above in a top-down process. I’ve never seen a student walk into a classroom and say, “I really want to learn standard 5.4-1 today!” If any of these mandates happen to overlap with student desire, it is entirely by chance. That’s not good enough.
If teachers have any interest in helping students achieve self-selected goals (i.e. being “student centered”) that benefit themselves and society, we can’t start with a pre-selected package that “must” be taught. There are no sacred cows and nothing must be taught. There is more than enough room in the world for people of all sorts to pursue any number of goals and levels of mastery. In fact, it’s a good thing that people do this (see below on economics).
The next time a federal department, state department, district, or administrator orders us to teach a specific item, we should all refuse. Lets stick up for the well-being of students and society and facilitate their growth via accomplishing their goals.
Teachers Need to Let Go of Subjects
Closely related to following orders is the excess value teachers assign to what we already know. Subjects are not innately valuable. No specific person needs to know chemistry to live a fulfilled life that contributes to society and has purpose. We are all better off when some person or persons know chemistry and can innovate and produce new goods and services as a result of that knowledge, but the vast majority of people simply don’t need that knowledge.
So let it go!
Kids need to understand how to think critically, which means asking why a whole lot, finding and utilizing valid sources, and not being fooled into dubious beliefs. For example, I don’t know much about the finer points of advanced physics, but I do know that world-class physicists can put satellites into orbit and get my GPS to work exactly right. They’ve earned trust as valid sources because their knowledge “works” whether I believe them or not. Sources without this credibility can and should be largely ignored.
Teachers Need to Be Less Empathetic
Paul Bloom recently released a book entitled Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, which he talked about at length (among other things) in this podcast. The general idea is that people can actually be too empathetic towards the suffering of some people at the expense of others. The classic example in his mind is that of parents.
Parents care overly much about their own children and as a result spend far too much time, energy, and money on them relative to other children who could benefit far more. This applies to teachers as well.
Teachers stay after school to help students study for upcoming high-stakes testing all the time. They take work home with them to do on weekends and late at night. They buy their own supplies. They spend much attention trying to make students’ lives easier through various uses of calendars, reminders, and online platforms that students can check when they forget.
These are all accommodationist strategies. They allow the system to continue to persist by enabling it via harder and harder work. We should not support it in these ways. Rather we need to focus on the things of greatest benefit to whatever the student goal at hand is.
The work of value that can’t be finished in an eight hour school day is the work you are most looking forward to coming in and finishing the next day! It gives you reasons to hop out of bed and show up early. It doesn’t mean grinding away and burning the midnight oil.
Working on genuine problems in interdisciplinary settings is exciting and doesn’t require cramming for a test, marking at home, or setting 100 reminders. It’s hard to forget what you are working on when you are super interested in it, you find immediate value in it, and it isn't swamped by 20 other to-do list items.
Teachers Must Understand Economics Better
On the whole, teachers seem to lack any understanding of opportunity cost, comparative advantage, or the process of economic growth as a result of new ideas.
Opportunity cost says that everything has a cost. If we choose to do one thing, we implicitly choose not to do something else and so we forego that other opportunity - hence opportunity cost. This should be at the top of every teacher’s mind when working with students. Is spelling important? Sure, but what are you giving up to teach perfect spelling in an age of autocorrect? The chance to learn coding? If that is the case, the value of coding is almost certainly greater than the ability to spell correctly when writing by hand and should be passed over in favor of more coding, or some other more valuable and interesting topic.
Comparative advantage is the idea that we should specialize in whatever has the lowest opportunity cost for us. This is a relative advantage, not an absolute one, and so every person on the planet will have a comparative advantage in something, just not all the same somethings. If I can produce widgets with a lower opportunity cost than you, I should produce widgets and you should produce something else. We can then trade with each other and we are both better off.
Comparative advantage directly implies that we shouldn’t all be doing the same things. What do we see in K-12 schools? Everyone doing the same things! This means less diversity and less freedom to pursue personal interests and develop mastery in niche areas.
This brings us to the process of economic growth, which fundamentally rests on new ideas that give rise to ever greater productivity (more output from same input). Who doesn't want more per dollar? We need people doing different things because that is how we get new goods and services of value. If you don’t think new goods and services is of ultimate value, I recommend living in the stone age for a week and seeing how you enjoy it.
Effects of the 4 Changes
I really believe that if teachers stopped listening to others tell them how to do their jobs, weren’t so attached to their subjects of interest, were less focused on the short-term suffering created by the current system, and understood the real need for diversity and weighing up opportunity costs, then students would be much freer to pursue their own goals and teachers would be much more capable of helping them achieve those goals without the needless burnout we see so much of today.
Focusing on truly student-centered learning could unlock a sea of student passion, interest, and creativity accompanied by the long-term motivation needed to work hard and solve meaningful problems. We need novel solutions to all sorts of local, national, and global issues and we won’t get them by teachers remaining subservient to the current system. This type of change needs to start on the frontlines with teachers acting as professionals, who don’t take crap from anyone and don’t continue to fail students by not standing up for what they really need.
As a nice benefit from all these changes, I think teaching would become much more fulfilling. It'd be so much easier to understand what success means and looks like when one can see the elation on the face of students who are growing and becoming ever more actualized as a result of accomplishing intrinsically meaningful goals.
The first personally meaningful goal I ever accomplished was finishing a half marathon in college. I chose to do it, with some nudging from my girlfriend at the time. No one forced it on me. This was followed by self-publishing a Kindle Amazon book at 24 years old, climbing Mt. Whitney at 25 years old, and squatting over 400 pounds at 26 years old. All of these were done outside of school and none of them happened in K-12. That is too little, too late and the students of today can do so much better if we help and guide them.
I hope for a future where K-12 students are regularly publishing books, making YouTube videos, coding apps, and starting NGO's that change the world. To do any that, we have to stop pretending we know what is best for them and get out of their way. We're here to help, not impose.