Creating a Culture that Cares – a response

Tiffany Eaton articulates a strong personal statement of support for  new educational thinking in her post Creating a Culture that Cares at TimeSpaceEducation.

Her starting point is the stark contrast between two different types of experiences we have from one day to another as teachers. One is the moment when you look at a bunch of slack-jawed, apathetic kids and think, “What’s wrong with them? Why aren’t they interested in learning?’ And come on, we’ve all been there. Don’t lie. At these times you might sympathize or feel frustrated – probably a mixture of both. As Eaton puts it,

Surely kids are not innately programmed to sit on a dirty patch of carpet, cold flooring or at rigid desks and listen to us lecture about stuff that, quite frankly, they’re not interested in learning.

You get that – they’re children, not robots. But part of you still thinks, “Why not? Why hasn’t someone programmed these kids to sit on a patch of dirty carpet and be interested??’

And then there are those other times – perhaps rare, perhaps not, when it just takes off, and you can’t believe how independent the students are being, how passionate they are, how they’re organizing themselves and actually thinking… how at this moment you could just saunter along to the lounge, get a coffee, have a chat with a colleague, and they wouldn’t even notice you’d gone.

Hopefully we’ve all been there as well. If only, we think, it could always be like this. Or we think,

That’s it! I’ve made a breakthrough with these kids. From now on it’s going to be like this EVERY DAY!

And the next morning you’re back to the whole slack-jawed dirty-carpet scenario.

The whole art of teaching, then, is figuring out what makes the difference between these two experiences in the teacher-student relationship, and how to get from one to the other. Tiffany Eaton’s article – and the editorial viewpoint of TimeSpace, I think – is a resolution to get down to the students’ level, to get into the their heads and see it from their point of view: to be authentically student-centered, to be creative and take risks, to create real-world inquiries to which we ourselves don’t know the answers, to understand that each child has to construct meaning and understanding all over again for him or herself, and to not make the mistake of thinking we can do that for them.

All of which I passionately agree with. In the constructivist approach, we have highly relevant, enlightened philosophy of education rooted in theory and proven in practice. We’re lucky in that.

There are longstanding, well financed research programs devoted to this approach, such as Project Zero at Harvard. I was lucky enough to go there for the Summer Institute in 2002 and learn about constructivist philosophy through a week-long series of lectures and workshops. Everything I heard instinctively rang true, and yet was new to me. Fresh out of English independent schools as I was, I hadn’t heard any of this. And yet it was absolutely how I wanted to learn when I was a student, and how I suddenly wanted to teach. Like so many great revelations, once they are articulated they seem obvious. It was not so much as ‘Eureka’ moment as a ‘well, duh!’ moment.


[If I could photoshop, I would change this image to read, ‘WELL, DUH!’ on the side. But I can’t.]

[This one’s quite funny, though.] Image

So what was I saying?

Oh yes. The thing is that more and more teachers are aware of and subscribe to this approach. The IB seems to approve. There are high-profile advocates like Ken Robinson having real impact through new media. More and more, we agree on the ideal. And yet, and yet, and yet…

As a TOK teacher, ie a teacher of 17-18 year-olds, I am faced with the same problems as Tiffany. They’re not sitting slack-jawed on a piece of carpet, they’re slumped at desks, heads buried in their screens, or sleeping… brain-waves low, Facebook cravings high… all kinds of cravings high… and I’m thinking, ‘What’s wrong with these kids? Why don’t they want to think?’

Why haven’t they heard of Aristotle??!!

The moment doesn’t last long, because for some reason I still remember what it’s like to be that age. By your senior year, you just want out – after 12 years in a school or others quite like it, you’ve had enough, and you know you’ll never think anything new within these four walls or as long as they’re making you sit on these tiny little chairs! (this is Viet Nam).

That’s how it can be, and it’s often the most promising kids who reach this point earliest.

So if an elementary teacher and a high school teacher are both thinking the same thing – why don’t these kids want to think? – then it’s tempting to draw the conclusion that from the beginning to the end of this whole process, we, the teachers, have made absolutely no difference at all! Or worse, a negative difference – we’ve actually stopped them thinking. We’ve killed their desire to learn.

We did it.

It’s a horrible idea to face up to, and certainly not one you can dismiss out of hand. You look at a two or three-year-old, and they’re into everything, questioning everything, capable of learning multiple languages simultaneously while riding a unicycle and mixing a cake. What they learn in those few years is in-cred-ib-le.

Then they go to school. Fifteen years later they have turned, with honorable exceptions, into the opposite of what they were: incurious, disempowered, monosyllabic, their language acquisition long since stalled.

What happened?

There are many answers, but for me Tiffany Eaton hits on one of the most important elements, something which has grown and grown precisely at the same time that constructivism has been spreading its enlightened challenge. She hits the nail on the head throughout the piece, but for me these were the sentences that resonated most strongly with thoughts I have had myself:

  • Why are we directing our students to think in our way, guiding everything they do with checklists and step-by-step procedures?

  • After our students (all too) obediently follow our specific instructions day after day, why do we then we complain that they are not capable of thinking for themselves?

Can you say ‘scaffolding’?

Can you say, ‘task-specific rubric’?

It’s a ‘Well, duh!’ moment. 


Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

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