What it Means to Teach

  • 17 June, 2011

I was recently reading a draft of a doctoral dissertation. I was eager to read it because it was written by a smart student who I know to be a good teacher, and who has focused on important issues in literacy education. But, I was disappointed.

  The study looked at how students thought about and reasoned about the complex information that they were asked to read. The scholar had challenged the kids with a collection of complex texts and videos.

  The reason for my chagrin was not the design or results of the study, but the reaction of the researcher. The kids had evidenced examples of sophisticated and complex reading/thinking behaviors, without instruction. The researcher wanted to celebrate the fact that these kids had exhibited sophisticated reasoning as they read.

  I was disappointed with my friend’s willingness (remember this is a good teacher) to accept what kids could do without any evident dissatisfaction. I’m certainly not suggesting that my young friend should have ignored the strengths these kids brought to the table (and kids have wonderful strengths), but I am perplexed at how easily satisfied teachers have become.

  My take on the study was that the measurement scale had to be screwy. If the instrument used to evaluate student thinking showed that kids could already interpret challenging texts at high levels without much instructional support, then we needed a more sensitive scale capable of showing what these students could still not do. Instead of doing a victory dance in the end zone, we ought to be trying to figure out what instruction could add to the picture.

  My hunch is that an errant measurement scale led the researcher to accept average levels of functioning (which most people could accomplish without schooling) as being the peak of performance, and I suspect such errors are common in American education. We have lost our sense of the power of teaching.

  When we see a youngster with an ACT of 18, we interpret it as both a statement of what he can do, and a prognosis of what he will ever be able to do. The test score becomes both thermometer and barometer, reading the current temperature and predicting future rain. But tests don’t have that power; they are like Scrooge’s Ghost of the Things to Come. The future of what any of us will be able to know or do is not in our past test results, but those things lie in the teaching and learning opportunities that will be available to us.

  Sadly, I can think of a lot of examples of teachers backing away from teaching when they see that kids may struggle: a book is hard, so we use an easier book or no book at all; kids are challenged by reading, so use video; kids have trouble interpreting character's emotional states in stories, so stop asking questions about why the characters are making the choices that they do; a student stops believing in himself or has no aspirations, then accept the status quo and neither push nor entice.

  All teachers need a sense of what the top of the scale looks like. They may need time working with struggling learners (something we make sure reading specialists do), but also with students who perform exceedingly well, who really do get to the top of the scale. Knowledge of what levels of performance are possible is something that can be taught.

  But this knowledge ultimately must be bolstered with something that cannot be taught so easily: teachers must believe in the power of teaching, too. Teachers have to know that teaching can reduce the distance between what students can do now and the achievements that we aspire for them. Our job, ultimately, is to aspire high for our students and then to use our teaching abilities to help kids negotiate those distances.


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What it Means to Teach


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.