Have you ever had that sneaking suspicion that, at one time, many years ago, you were provided with everything you needed to know about life, but have somehow been slowly forgetting and losing sight of these things along the way? I do, and I am pretty sure that I learned most of those important life lessons from Dr. Seuss. My personal favorite as a teacher is one that escaped me as a child: “It is better to know how to learn than to know.”
I could not have said it better myself, nor will I try to. I have tried time and time again to introduce, explain, and instill this sentiment in the consciousness of my students, and have thus far failed to truly convince them. And yet with with this statement, the much-beloved author of classics like Green Eggs and Ham and Whorton Hears a Who speaks to the heart and soul of the teaching profession.
I think its really important, and here’s why. At some point in their upbringing, students are engrained with the idea that they go to school to be filled up with knowledge, like pouring some measurable content into an empty vessel. We reinforce this expectation with a variety of formal assessments, which we prepare students for by cramming them full of useless information which they will regurgitate later and promptly forget. Students are taught through this process that knowing the right answer is the end game. When they arrive in the real world and are expected to think and problem solve and use content that was not delivered to them in a cookie-cutter format, many are lost. They feel unprepared, and why shouldn’t they?
I love the idea of a teacher as a facilitator, rather than a delivery person. My job is to facilitate learning, not to fill the students up with knowledge. I would much rather a student leave my class knowing how to discover and arrive at an answer on their own than to leave knowing the answer alone. That is what I hope for my students, and that is what I try to provide them with. I want to teach them how to learn, and boy do some of them need it! Years and years of the kind of instruction described above provides me with students who come into my class aghast at the idea of doing some critical thinking, of answering the question “why” and practicing guesswork long before they arrive at the “right answer” with which to fill in the blank. Slowly but surely I chip away at the deep-seated thoughts and behaviors which are single-mindedly directed toward the acquisition of knowledge, rather than the process of learning. One encounter at a time, I try to show my students how much they already know by simply practicing that process: always reminding them that how we learn is just as important as what we learn.
Some of my favorite ways to do this:
1. Asking “why?” (my favorite question to use in the ESL classroom)
2. Asking “how do you know?” (drawing their attention to the process they used to arrive at the answer)
3. Silence (not filling in the missing information for them, but waiting to allow them time to do it themselves)
4. Teaching the process by which they can arrive at the answer (ex. First, notice this....then, ask yourself this....)
5. Focusing on the journey, not the destination (I often grade homework and other assignments as simply complete or incomplete, and when I check assignments I ask them about how they did it, rather than pinpointing individual answers for accuracy)
This is often an uphill battle! Many of my students have these expectations: they want the right answer and they want it from me, as soon as possible. I try to model behavior which focuses on how to learn, rather than what to learn, as often as possible in my classroom. Even though it has taken students some time to recognize the value in this approach, I think it is totally worth it when I can reach a student and instill in them a confidence in their own skills and abilities, rather than a headful of compartmentalized knowledge.
And maybe I’ll print the quote and post it somewhere in the classroom, because even if the students don’t take my word for it, I know none of them would dare question the wisdom of the illustrious Dr. Seuss.