Perhaps there is no better question to tackle on the first day of the IB Conference of the Americas than what it means to be “educated. ” There is no shortage of opinions with regard to this question and it is at the core of what is being discussed in the various workshops at this year’s conference here in New Orleans. It is also the driving force behind the increased push for standardization, the CCSS, and of course the new teacher evaluation systems that are being implemented in many states.
I have found that my definition of this loaded term has transformed a great deal throughout my years in education. I can vividly remember graduating from college and preparing for my first job as a middle school English teacher. I spent my college years reading as many of the “great” (and not so great) books as possible and analyzing literary theory, criticism, and devices in order to gain a better understanding of each respective piece. I had been well educated, and was ready to impart all of the knowledge that I acquired to the future students in my classes. Upon graduating, and eager to get my hands on a guide that would provide some additional insight into all that students should “know,” I picked up a copy of William Bennett’s The Educated Child. At the time, the book was a revelation and provided me with a list of additional facts that I planned to embed in my curriculum and drill into my students. And for the first few years, I did just that. I spent countless class periods lecturing about historical relevance and posing questions around facts and details that appeared in the various texts that we studied. I fully believed that my students had left my classes having learned a great deal of information and having acquired critical knowledge that would serve them well. They had been well educated and were prepared for the future challenges of high school and beyond.
As time progressed, I was given the opportunity to move up to the high school in the same district and was fortunate to once again teach many of those same students during their junior and senior years. I had also grown a great deal as an educator over that period and my thoughts around what it meant to be “educated” had shifted dramatically. I had been a frequent attendee of ASCD conferences, was reading as many educational journals as I could get my hands on, and was helping to lead the exploration team for the implementation of the IB MYP Program in my district. My lessons and units were now guided by enduring understandings and my classroom had transformed to a space where students were exploring essential questions and engaging in higher level discussions around the “big ideas” of the texts that we were studying. During that first year at the high school, I had been discussing the importance of perspective and point of view in The Great Gatsby with one of my junior classes and casually referenced the narration of Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird. I had studied Mockingbird with many of those same students three years earlier and was sure that they would be able to recall at least some of the events from the novel. Instead, I was faced with a room full of blank stares. In fact, the students could hardly recall the names of the main characters and had absolutely no recollection of the “important” facts that I had quizzed and tested them on as eighth graders. Information such as what the children had found in the knothole of the tree and the costume that Scout wore in the final scene (she was dressed as a ham) was completely lost and forgotten.
Having changed my thinking around teaching and learning and ultimately what it means to be “educated,” I wasn’t surprised that the students had remembered very little. I had already come to the realization that English teachers are not in the business of “teaching books” and that there is so much more to be learned beyond the content in all subject areas. Included in this is the importance of thinking critically, challenging assumptions, making connections, and of course communicating effectively. The truly “educated” person is also one who can adapt to new surroundings and has the ability to learn new information quickly and as necessary. These skills, along with many others, are at the heart of the IB Learner Profile and must be embedded in all curriculum design and daily lessons. This will not only lead to better overall retention of content, but a more complete understanding of where each subject fits in the bigger picture. The good news is that the traditional “subjects” in high school provide us with a vehicle to allow students to develop these important skills. Therefore, we must continually challenge our own thinking and understanding of our respective content areas and consider how an exploration of each discipline will better prepare students to succeed in what is an ever-changing and evolving global society. It is not an easy task for one to “rethink” what has been ingrained over so many years, but it is precisely what we must challenge our students to do and is at the core of what it means to be “educated.”
Excellent reflection, John. The only constant is change. As you write, “…the importance of thinking critically, challenging assumptions, making connections, and of course communicating effectively” is what we English teachers (all teachers) can help hone in our students. I agree with you: “The truly “educated” person is also one who can adapt to new surroundings and has the ability to learn new information quickly and as necessary.”