As summer vacation winds down for teachers it is perhaps a good idea to spend a day or two thinking deeply about this most basic question: why do you teach? I am not asking this question in the sense often assumed, i.e. why do you personally want to teach? That kind of egocentric stuff never appeals to me. I am not interested in a teacher’s account of personal motive and hope. Rather, I am interested in the other end of the question, so to speak: Having taught, what should they have learned? i.e. What do you aim to accomplish as a teacher? What is your goal for the year, for all the years? What kind of a difference in their thinking and acting are you committed to?
I have often been alarmed at the responses I have gotten in workshops over the years. Many teachers do not have good answers; most have no such personal Mission Statement; most have not even written a long-term syllabus in which they lay out the key goals for learners (and parents) and how those goals will best be achieved. But then – I say this with no malice – you really have no goals. You are just marching through content and activities, hoping some of it will stick or somehow cause some learning.
Again, I say this as un-judgmentally as I can: if you have no long-term accomplishments that you work daily to cause – regardless of or even in spite of the BS you encounter – then you are acting unprofessionally. What a professional educator does, in my view, is to stay utterly focused on a few long-term learning-related goals, no matter what happens in the way of admin. mandates, snow days, early dismissals for sports, or fire drills.
Consider the following conversation to see what I am getting at, and why the problem is perhaps worse than you might have imagined:
History teacher (HT): Well, I have a clear goal for the year: I want my students to understand the 3 branches of government and the basics of the Constitution and bill of Rights.
Me (GW): I’m sorry, I must not have made myself clear. I wanted you to tell me what you were going to cause in learners, not just what you are going to “teach” and hope they “learn”.
HT: Huh? I AM talking about my goal for learning. I want them to learn the 3 Branches of Government, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. That’s my goal, that they learn it.
GW: No, that’s not a goal for learning. That just states the content to be covered. It doesn’t matter that you put a few pronouns and verbs in around it.
HT: What do you mean, then? What’s a true goal such that my ‘goal’ is not yet a goal?
GW: I want you to tell me how learners will be different as a result of an encounter with content. I want you to tell me what the result of learning the content will be. I want you to tell me what you will work to cause in terms of what they are eventually able to DO with the content. (These are all more or less the same request – tell me the desired outcome, not the input)
HT: Well, they can’t apply the content unless they learn the content!
GW: But in your goal statement all you said was: learn the content. You didn’t say what REALLY learning it means i.e. being able to do something with it. So, what will students be able to do that they could not do before they learned it?
HT: I’m confused. What if I say – and I know this is a word you value GW – that I want them to UNDERSTAND the 3 branches of government? Will that satisfy your demand?
GW: Alas, no. It doesn’t tell me what “understanding” will look like in this case. Unless you and I agree on what people who “understand” can do with content, you haven’t really answered the question. Look at it from my vantage point: if I stop by and visit your class, what should I look for as evidence that students are successful in “really understanding” the content you described?
HT: I’m getting frustrated; give me an example.
GW: OK, here’s a goal that I would hope every US History teacher would at least consider as being a key outcome to aim for: “I want students to leave my course realizing that there are inherent tensions, dilemmas; hence, ongoing and endless struggles in a divided and limited government. Realizing it means that they can recognize, on their own, how CURRENT and FUTURE debates and struggles turn on the same issues that have always been a feature of American political life and debate.”
HT: Awfully wordy.
GW: Just to make the point. Here’s a more concise version: I am committed to students leaving my course able to see that history is alive; how the key constitutional debates live in the present (not just the past), why those debates matter, and how they might act on their beliefs as citizens. So, if that’s the goal, I would look in your class for signs that students, own their own, were making connections between past and present.
HT: OK, I agree, that’s a worthy goal. And I really do care about that goal, too. That should be what happens after they leave my course.
GW: Whoa! If you CARE about it, you would ACTUALIZE it in your course design.
GW: You have to design backward from that goal and embed it in all you do with “content”. If you want students, on their own, to be achieving that result, then you have to deliberately aim for it. You especially have to think through How will I assess against this goal all through the course?
HT: But all that takes too much time away from the content! I don’t have that kind of time, there is so much to cover –
GW: Then, you were not being honest with me. Then, your real goal is just covering content. Which isn’t an educational goal at all – it only describes what you will do not what you will cause; it’s more like “throw some content against the wall and see if some of it sticks.” You sound like you don’t take any responsibility for any outcome when you say that.
HT: But covering is what I HAVE TO do!
GW: Huh? You have to cause learning. You say you have to teach in an ineffective, disjointed and boring way – because that’s what “coverage” is – to cause good test results? That doesn’t make sense. Common sense and all the evidence say that when the course is more focused, more engaging, and more coherent then kids learn more content. Did the best history teachers you ever had just march through a textbook?
HT: No, no. But you make it sound much easier than it is…
GW: I didn’t say it was easy. All I said was: be true to your goals, and build your course backwards from your goals if you want to achieve them.
HT: But there is more content to cover than there is time!
GW: Huh? That gets it all backward. The only question that matters is: what is the best use of the time you have, given the goals of the course? Not all content is equal; not all content is worth teaching in a textbook (especially if the book has content for Texas but you teach in Montana); not all content is equally important. That’s the point of having goals: you have a plan for prioritizing and using the precious little time you have, to achieve the optimal results in learners.
HT: What, then, does a well-designed course in US History look like – a course that is goal driven not just an aimless march through content? Our curriculum map is written as a march through topics.
GW: Most maps make all the mistakes we are talking about. Alas, this is an old and stubborn habit to overcome. Here’s a useful quote to ponder in summing up our talk today:
The purpose of a statement of objectives is to indicate the kinds of changes in the student to be brought about so that the instructional activities can be planned and developed in a way likely to attain these objectives; that is to bring about these changes in students. Hence, it is clear that a statement of objectives in terms of content headings or generalizations is not a satisfactory basis for guiding the further development of the curriculum. The most useful form for stating objectives is to express them in terms which identify both the kind of behavior to be developed in the student and the area of life which this behavior is to operate.
HT: That’s cool; who said it?
GW: Ralph Tyler, 60 years ago. We still aren’t listening. Check out his beautiful little book from which the quote comes – filled with rich insights. Next time we meet I’ll share some curriculum frameworks that are more likely to help you achieve goals that now fall through the cracks of coverage.
Last year I built a self-survey of one’s goals as a teacher; you are welcome to use it for free. Once you are done you will see all your results and a summary of other people’s answers. But the main point of the thing is to be reflective about the issues raised in this “conversation”. Let me know your thoughts after taking the survey and trying out some of these ideas as to what worked and what didn’t.