The goal of education

Consider this quesiton: Is it more important for a six-year-old to be able to read and write, or to be curious and engaged in the world around him?

I would hope that most people, elementary school teachers especially, would prefer the second option. However, our education system has so overemphasized the importance of economic skills, we sacrifice children’s natural curiosity and enthusiasm for learning just so we can get every single six-year-old to read at “grade level.” (something the majority would eagerly learn to do anyway, without the daily homework checks and constant pressure/prodding to get them to read a book.)

I’m currently a junior at Wake Forest University, preparing to become a physics and/or math teacher at a public high school. Although I love learning and teaching both of these subjects, my real passion is to change the way that teachers approach education in this country. What type of goals do we want to teach students to set? Do we want them to set their own goals for their life and work? Or do we want them to accept the goals of others, of their bosses, their society.

Each teacher should address these questions and do their best to teach in a way that reflects their sincere beliefs about education’s importance. As for me, well, here’s an example of how I would want to introduce myself to a class:

“Hey, alright, I’m the new physics teacher. It’d probably make sense for me to begin by talking about what physics is, why we study it and all. And I will get to that, but not yet. I know, as a former student myself, that most days a lot of y’all won’t really want to be in here; that you’ll be watching the clock, waiting for the 45 minutes to be up, I know how that is. Well, I want to go deeper than that; I want this class to be about more than all that.

“So first, I want to talk about why we’re here; what’s the purpose of education. How many of you spend a lot of time thinking about what career you want to do? That’s the kind of question I want you all to be thinking about; not come to a decision about anytime soon, you got plenty of time before needing to do that! But I want you all to feel free to explore different subjects, and hopefully find some areas that really interest you, or that you just love doing. I want you all to know that I’m here primarily for you all, to help explore these questions. I believe it’s important for me, as a teacher, to be interested in what you, as the students, are interested in.

“I’m not gonna stand up here and preach about how important it is for each of you to learn physics. The fact is it’s not very important for a lot of good jobs that are out there. What I will say though is that there is a reason people have been studying the same core subjects, math, science, literature, history, and language, for thousands of years, and the reason is not that you need to know about these things to get a job. The reason is that these subjects contain powerful ways of understanding and thinking about the world and the culture we live in. Really learn math and science, and you’ll learn more than just how stuff works; you’ll learn a precise and logical way of thinking. You’ll learn to analyze situations and to apply logical solutions. Learn about literature, and you’ll learn how to express your thoughts in ways that are meaningful to other people, in ways that are really able to affect them and get them to think about what you’re saying.

“A lot of times these powerful approaches get lost behind an overemphasis on grades, or on the economic applications of a subject. I want to keep the physics’ and also other subjects’ potential to transform your thinking at the front of this class’s agenda.”

Anway, if you’re interested in looking further into this line of thinking, I got a lot of my ideas from Alfie Kohn’s website: Specifically I would recommend the article “From Degrading to De-Grading” about 1/3 of the way down the page, as a good article to start on.

I just started this blog when I realized I wanted a separate site for my thoughts on education. So, there’ll be plenty more posts on the way soon!


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