Debate Magazine

No Disrespect Intended to Emily Dickinson, but . . . (from the Archives)

By Stevemiranda

I write often about how the real focus of school should not be the transfer of academic content from teacher to student, but rather a holistic program of human development. Usually, I highlight the importance of responsibility and maturity. But there’s another aspect to this that is just as critical.

A friend shared with me a story about a student who working in a group on a long-term project. The student is very productive when given a specific task towards the completion of the project. The problem is this: when that task is complete, this student has not yet developed the ability to look around and identify what needs to happen next and get working on it. He sits and waits for someone to tell him what to do.

The teacher processed this situation with colleagues, and now has a plan to use this as an opportunity to help this student grow. He can help this student identify this phenomenon and give him tools to strengthen his ability to transition from one task to the next, without necessarily waiting for specific instructions.

I haven’t mentioned the content of the project or the academic skills involved because I don’t think they matter. Academic content and skills are important, but there is a more important lesson here. Here’s what I mean: I’ll bet that if you asked employers which quality was more important—the ability to identify work that needs to get done and get started on it vs. the ability to, say, name the major battles of the Civil War or analyze the meter of an Emily Dickinson poem—you’d get an overwhelmingly one-sided response.

In this case—and I would argue that this principle is universal—academic content and skills serve as a means towards helping the student mature from childhood to adulthood, from a novice learner dependent on others to a self-directed one that is capable of greater independence.

We spend a lot of time in schools worrying about the product of learning, and not nearly enough on the process.

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