Debate Magazine

The Students Who Were Happy When I Handed Them a Textbook (from the Archives)

By Stevemiranda

Very early in my teaching career, I taught an American Government class at a traditional high school. Every day I would bring a new idea to class that I hoped would engage the students: campaign finance reform, term limits, third party politics, and, since it was the major current event at the time, even the WTO controversy.

Every day was excruciatingly painful. I would stand in the front of the room and haplessly try to engage students in a discussion. The room was thick with a kind of tension that I couldn’t understand, but that was impossible to ignore. This lasted about seven or eight weeks.

Unable to stand it anymore and willing to try anything, one day I started class by asking students to walk to the bookshelf and grab a textbook. Then, I instructed them to open up to Chapter 7, write the answers to the “Questions for Discussion” at the end of the chapter, and define all the words that appeared in blue.

What happened next was incredible.

A cool breeze blew through the room, birds appeared and started chirping, and the sun began shining through the windows. Everyone smiled. A quiet calm settled in as students chatted effortlessly while they earnestly tackled the assignment. Everyone finished the assignment on time and some even thanked me as they exited the classroom.

The students had been waiting for this moment all semester. All they wanted was to be given a task and told what to do. And if you ask the folks who set up the education system in the 19th century—with the intent of training workers for a factory economy—if it was working well, I’m sure they’d offer an enthusiastic, “Yes!”

But this isn’t the 19th century. We don’t live in a factory economy.

We should stop using this structure.

We need to create something new.

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