Debate Magazine

One of the Few Principles in Education That Can Be Applied Universally (from the Archives)

By Stevemiranda

I recently spent time with a friend, who had read my recent post, “Education is an intimate act, and that—by definition—is not scalable.” If nothing scales, he asked, then where do we begin imagining a new system of education?

I don’t think it’s true that nothing about education is scalable. But it’s true that a system of education that’s appropriate for kids in suburban Boston will likely be different from what’s needed for kids in rural Texas.

But it’s not just about geography. Ten years ago, I spent a year as a long-term substitute at a local high school teaching a range of classes, including a few months of U.S. History. I met with the department chair and he said, “We start the second semester with a three-week unit on immigration.” He gave me lesson plans that other teachers in the department were using, and I was expected to deliver something pretty close to that. In fact, we were all supposed to give our students the same multiple-choice test at the end of the unit.

Immigration was not a passion of mine at the time, and the lesson plans were not a match for my teaching style. But, I muddled along and did the best I could. My memory is that students did well on the test, but I have my doubts about how much they internalized about the immigrant experience.

I never could teach well using someone else’s lesson plan, for the simple reason that for education to work, it has to come from within. The course content has to come from the teacher, not from the state or from a colleague two doors down. And the desire to learn has to come from within the students, not from their teachers or parents wanting it for them.

It’s this intimacy—the relationship between a passionate teacher and a curious student—that may be one of the few principles in education that can be applied universally.

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