[Originally posted in the blog Lumiar School (http://lumiarschool.wordpress.com) on Oct 12, 2007]
The conventional school demands too much – and, paradoxically, too little — of teachers.
It can be safely assumed that teachers (whatever the name they had then) were originally supposed to help children in their learning. Period.
For thousands and thousands of years, learning was mostly done at home or within the confines of the family circle. The teacher, therefore, was the family: mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, older siblings, cousins… In the simplified context in which this took place, the older family members had, in their ensemble, all that was necessary to help the younger ones learn. Among them they mastered the content of what was to be learned:
- First, practical stuff: language (for a time only spoken language; later, and not in every family, reading and writing), rudimentary arithmetic, and the practical skills required for the family businesses: the external business (generally, farming, herding, hunting, fishing, etc.), as a rule reserved for men, and the domestic business of keeping the home (cooking, cleaning, sewing, needle work, etc.), as a rule reserved for women;
- Second, still practical things, but now placed on a “higher plane”: the “art of living”, or moral, spiritual and (perhaps on slightly lower plane) aesthetic education.
The first component was more or less taken for granted as of course, but the second one was considered really important, since it was meant to prepare children to live their lives not only in this life, but also in the next… The “art of living” generally included:
a) Moral education: help children understand the difference between (moral) right and wrong [concept], understand (or simply accept) what makes a given action (morally) right or wrong [criterion], classify different concrete actions as right, wrong or (morally) indifferent [according to the criterion], and, more importantly, do what is right and refrain from doing what is wrong;
b) Spiritual education: [generally, especially in Christian circles] help children understand that we have a body but we are a soul, that the soul survives after the death of its body, that how we behave here on earth will bring us rewards or punishments in the next life, that, therefore, it is important to read (or listen to) the scriptures, pray for divine guidance and help, go to church, etc.
c) Aesthetic education: [more directed to girls] help children develop some finer habits, such as draw, paint, sing, play an instrument and, in general, appreciate what is beautiful and shun from what is ugly.
As life became more complex, the family had to resort to external help in the task of helping their children learn all that was considered worthy of learning. It was then that figure of the tutor or mentor appeared – and it was in this context that the modern school, as (supposedly) an assembly of tutors/mentors, was invented.
Many things made these developments necessary – but one of set them is quite important (and they took place around the end of the fifteenth, the sixteenth and the seventeenth century): the invention of printing, the explosion in writing that followed (and that marks the beginning of literature in the vernacular of most modern languages), the discovery of up to then unknown parts of the world, the Protestant Reformation, and the appearance of modern science… The protestant reformers had an important role in the process, because they insisted that everyone ought to learn how to read in order to read the Scriptures and not by deceived by the catholic priests (the cost of not doing this could be eternal damnation…). The result was that schools started appearing everywhere next to most protestant churches.
One important consequence of this was that the business of educating children became more complex and a gradual “division of labor” (with its consequent creating of specialized functions) began to occur. The family, for a time, retained the practical functions of preparing boys for the external family business and girls for the business of housekeeping. Moral and spiritual education were to a large extent shared by family and church. Aesthetic education (“education of sensibility”) somehow lost importance. And tutors/mentors and/or the school (“assembly of tutors/mentors”) assumed an area that did not quite exist before, but that was destined to grow: “intellectual education”.
With the appearance of various modern languages and their accompanying literature, with the discovery of new worlds, with the creation of several protestant denominations (competing amongst themselves and not only with the Catholic Church), with the appearance of modern science, that gradually evolved from astronomy and physics to biology and chemistry, with the appearance, from the 18th century on, of the so-called “human sciences” (history, geography, psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, etc.), the intellectual scenario – the world of ideas – grew in complexity and importance. Suddenly the family seemed quite inadequate to the task of helping children learn things that were so varied and complex. And, curiously and somehow paradoxically, this new world of ideas aroused the interest in the old world of ideas of the Greeks and Romans…
Not even one single individual tutor/mentor, usually employed by families of higher means, could be expected to master all that children, especially those of the higher and middle classes, were expected to learn… Richer families began to hire several specialized tutors/mentors. The emerging middle class (and, later one, also the rich) had to resort to the assembled tutors/mentors provided by the schools… (The poor generally were left out – until quite recently).
And this way we come to the present (conventional) school… This school is, from the beginning, and almost by definition, a specialized learning environment: it tries to deal with intellectual education alone, and even then, only with one segment of it. Moral, spiritual and aesthetic education are normally outside its scope. And professional and vocational education are generally assigned to specialized institutions and are not considered as important.
The convention school of today (and society, in general) wants teachers to be a number of things…
Above all, it wants teachers to be content specialists, that is, it wants them to know well one of the subject-matters (academic disciplines) in which the curriculum is presently divided.
With the explosion of information that characterizes our age, expectations regarding the area of specialization of the teachers were proportionally adjusted (that is, reduced). Today it is not considered reasonable that a teacher should be a specialist in the whole of biology, or physics, or even history. Teachers must choose sub-specialties: 20th-Century Brazilian History, for instance, in the case of a (Brazilian) history teacher…
But expectations became also more and more “focused”… Besides the choice of specialties within specialties, teachers started to concentrate on the specific content that is supposed to be taught to the classes under their responsibility: “I’m an eighth grade Math teacher”; “I’m a High School English teacher” (or “I’m a teacher of English as a second language”…). (So, in the latter case of the specialized English teacher, do not expect him to know how to get children to learn how to read and write, much less enjoy reading and writing… When he receives them, he expects them to be way past that stage).
But the level of specialization has an even more problematic consequence.
Each of the different areas of specialization can be divided into two parts: one that contains what we could call “the legacy content” produced by specialists in the past (even recent), and another that contains “the method of thinking or inquiry” that, when applied, can produce similar content…
This distinction is very important.
I will try to show why using as example my own area of specialization, philosophy. It is likely that human beings have been philosophizing for a long time. But philosophy, as a systematic form of inquiry into what there is, where we come from, what is the purpose of us being here, what is the right thing to do, what is the right way to organize ourselves in society, why do we consider some things pretty and attractive and others ugly and repugnant, and how do we know all that we presume to know – this form of inquiry had its birth among the Greeks during the centuries that preceded the Christian era. And it spread, far and quick. More than two thousand years later, we do have an incredible amount of written records about what past and contemporary philosophers have thought. This is what I call “the legacy content” of a given area of specialization.
To help a child to learn philosophy can, in this context, be interpreted in two different senses:
- to help the child assimilate the most important ideas (according to some criterion) of what other philosophers have thought and written;
- to help the child develop the competence and the skills needed to like in a similar manner.
Most teachers of philosophy do only the first – and often do not even know how to think philosophically for their own consumption. I have no doubt that the second is the most important. As a matter of fact, the written thought of other philosophers only becomes interesting when one begins to master the art of philosophizing yourself. Otherwise it is terribly dull.
What I have just said about philosophy can be said with the same propriety about the other academic disciplines. Most teachers in today’s conventional schools are not involved with helping children learn how to philosophize, how to think like a scientist, or an artist. They are only involved with imparting to the students what philosophers, scientists and artists have thought and done. Their business is “content delivery” – an ugly expression that, unfortunately, reflects quite well what most teachers do: their area of specialization is, for them, only a bunch of content that others have thought and that must now be delivered to students, who, almost by definition, are unfamiliar with it.
Since the content of a given area of specialization tends to grow fast, teachers are unable to keep track of the content even of their narrow specialties and so tend to narrow even more their specialization down to the point where they know almost everything about almost nothing. And that is what they transmit to their students.
Just to be clear, here is what they do not do – and are not required to do by their schools:
a) Help their students master the methods of inquiry of their specialized disciplines;
b) Help their students understand the larger context in which disciplines were defined and function;
c) Help their students understand that most interesting issues transcend the boundaries of traditional disciplines and even the boundaries of mega-areas such as philosophy, science and art;
d) Help their students deal with the practical competencies and skills required by different professions;
e) Help their students deal intelligently and honestly with moral, aesthetic and spiritual issues they will inevitably confront.
That is why I said, above, that the conventional school we have today demands too much – and, paradoxically, too little — of their teachers.
Lumiar tries to face these issues in several different ways.
Perhaps the most creative and interesting way is by splitting the teacher into two pedagogical figures: the tutor/mentor and the teacher/master.
The tutor/mentor is a full-time employee of the school. Each of them is supposed to be responsible for about fifteen to twenty students. This responsibility involves the personal development of the student in every relevant aspect (physical, social, emotional, moral, spiritual, intellectual). The tutor/mentor is supposed to get to know well the children for whose development he is responsible. He is responsible for knowing what the children already know when they enter the school, what their natural talents, inclinations, interests, hopes and expectations are (inasmuch as it is possible to discover these things with respect to small children), he is expected to help the children, with the help of their parents, to choose the learning projects in which they are going to be involved, he is responsible for overseeing the children while they are at play, he is charged with periodically assessing their learning and the overall development (with the help of his observations and of reports written by the teachers/masters), etc. And, above all, unless problems arise, he is not replaced by a different tutor/mentor as the children progress in their development: he is a constant reference to them.
The teacher/master is, in a way, the content specialist to whom the responsibility for the children’s development of specific competencies and skills is – to use an almost abusive word in the context — outsourced. They are not full-time staff. They are hired to offer specific learning projects to the children – to plan, develop, implement, execute and evaluate the project and to assess what students have learned by and after taking the project.
There are three features that are sought in the teachers/masters:
a) They must be masters of a particular content – that is why they are called masters;
b) They must be able to look at that content from the point of view of the competencies and skills required to produce it (or something similar) rather than as a content to be delivered to the students – that is why the school is reluctant to call them simply teachers;
c) They must have a genuine interest in the area and a visible love for what they do.
If these three features are present – mastery, focus on methods of inquiry, and motivation – they ought not to have problems with getting students to voluntarily offer to take part in their learning project: they do not have to be cajoled, persuaded, seduced, much less compelled, to participate.
If the tutors/mentors provide constancy and continuity, the teachers/masters provide change and diversity.
The administration of the school is responsible for guaranteeing that all the essential areas of the Matrix of Competencies that serves as curriculum are covered by learning projects offered, led and coordinated by the teachers/masters. These are responsible for guaranteeing that the students involved in their learning projects not learn the content of the project itself, but that they also develop the basic competencies and skills defined by the Matrix of Competencies. And the tutors/mentors are responsible for guaranteeing that what students learn in the different learning project contributes to their coherent development as persons – not only as the unique individuals they are, but also to their social existence as citizens and to the preparation that becoming a 21st-century professional requires.
The conventional teacher has been split in two at Lumiar – and even his mastery of a given content, in the case of the teachers/masters, is refocused to the methods of inquiry rather than to the transmission of the legacy content produced in his area of interest.
Campinas, on the 12th of October, 2007