Who Gets What

By Dr. Eugene Maier

I came across a couple of statements a while back that disturbed me. The statements expressed similar notions of what education ought to be about. They came from disparate sources and I wondered if they expressed a common viewpoint.

One statement was made by the vice chairman of the Oregon Board of Education in an article discussing the state's attempt to come to some definition of "acceptable performance in reading and math. He said, "Our intent is to get all students to the same standard." While across the nation, a mathematics professor in an Ivy League College, commenting on K-12 education, states. "Teaching is the art of getting the students to learn the subject matter."

I know how formidable and oftentimes futile it is to get my spouse or kids to do something I want, even when I am communicating clearly and—at least to my way of thinking—have the best interest of everyone at heart. How am I supposed to get students to do what I want? Bribery, cajolery, duplicity, and coercion may help, but using such tactics in the classroom turns education into manipulation.

Perhaps I misconstrued the statements. I looked up "get" in my dictionary. It lists 14 different meanings, each with variations, when "get" is used as a transitive verb. Substituting these meanings for "get," I ended up with such statements as "Teaching is the art of delivering the students to learn," "Teaching is the art of causing the students to learn," "Teaching is the art of subjecting the students to learn," "Teaching is the art of irritating the students to learn," "Teaching is the art of achieving as a result of military action..." None of these eased my apprehension.

To teach is to profess, to make known. To educate is to educe, to draw out. The successful teacher/educator lays out subject manner so it is accessible to the student, drawing out their existing knowledge and providing ways for the student to expand it. Whether or not this happens, that is, whether or not learning takes place, requires the consent of the student. If the student refuses to consent, no matter what the teacher does, there is no learning. To assert that teaching is getting students to learn, or to attain certain standards, places educators in an untenable position—it assumes that students will always do what teachers want.

That doesn't mean that educators have no responsibility for students' learning. Whereas learning will not take place without the consent of the student, the converse is not necessarily the case. The consent of the student doesn't guarantee learning. The student may want to learn and, indeed, put considerable efforts into their attempt, and still not succeed. No doubt, there is a myriad of reasons for this, not the least of which is ineffective instruction.

The quality of instruction is something that educators can rightfully be expected to address. Instead of focusing on getting students to learn which, ultimately, only the students themselves can do, let's focus on getting effective instruction to students. Instead of attempting to get all students to the same standards which, given one recalcitrant student, is only possible if there are no standards at all, let's get our teaching to a standard that supports learning.

How do we do that in the mathematics classroom? Here are some suggestions: Provide meaning and context so that mathematics doesn't become a litany of rules for manipulating symbols. Connect material to the students' existing knowledge. Honor the student's innate number sense. Conduct classroom activities that aim to develop intuition and insight. Foster an atmosphere in which students can explore and conjecture without censure. Value ideas that don't work along with those that do—examining ideas that don't work can be a more powerful learning situation than carrying out ideas that do. Make assignments that stimulate learning and are devoid of busy work. Show enthusiasm and interest in what you are teaching. You can add to the list.

Every teacher I know wants every student they know to learn. But wanting students to learn and getting students to learn are two different things. Students are human beings with minds of their own. As such, they can foil any attempt to teach them anything. No one can teach someone something they are unwilling to learn. To believe that teachers can get students to learn is to believe that teachers are omnipotent. I believed that when I was in the second grade, but I don't anymore.