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Such stuff as schools are made on
Q: Why do I have to keep teaching the same things over and over?
Jeff had a plan. He would teach his eighth-graders to write a paragraph in two weeks. He spent the first week reading and discussing paragraphs, presenting models from books of essays and from his file of successful student writing. He talked about topic sentences, supporting evidence, sentences that tied evidence to the topic idea, and summary sentences. In the second week, he led the class through the creation of a couple of group paragraphs, which he wrote on the white board as the students shouted out suggestions. They really seemed to get it. On Thursday, he assigned each student to write a paragraph to share with the class on Friday.
Following Friday's class, Jeff walked into the English department office and threw the papers on his desk. "You'd think they'd never seen a paragraph before," he shouted, his voice crackling with anger, defeat, and despair.
Jeff's voice is part of a choir of frustration heard in many faculty rooms and classrooms. "I keep having to teach the same thing over and over again." "We studied all that last semester. Why can't you remember it?" "They had that yesterday, and all but two failed the test today." "People, this should all be review. I haven't got time to teach it to you again."
These voices reveal some basic, usually tacit assumptions about learning, assumptions that have been passed on from generation to generation of teachers. They form the basis of how teachers have been taught to teach. For example, learning is the result of teaching. I taught paragraph writing—or addition or the Civil War or the preterit—last semester; therefore, my students have (top)
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learned it or should have learned it. Frequently, teaching and telling are used as synonyms. Many teachers talk about entering the profession motivated by the generous desire to "share their knowledge" with students; they want to tell students what they know so that students will know those things. And, often, everyone (teachers, parents, even students) substitutes some form of the verb "have" for "learn" or "know" or "understand." Bill "had" it yesterday, as though a skill or concept is an object that is fixed and can be held or possessed like a pencil or a book. These voices also suggest that if students could perform some skill they "had" yesterday, like writing a paragraph or solving an equation, then they ought to be able to perform the same skill just as well or better today.
All of these assumptions suggest that learning means knowing stuff and doing stuff and that we can judge the knowing and doing using various tools (tests for concepts, or exhibitions for skills like writing). Traditionally, schools treat this stuff as isolated bits that can be retrieved from memory, rather like pulling an apple from a bag. Once it's in the bag, it is accessible. Those who fail to access it are lazy; those who fail to put it in the bag in the first place are stupid (usually couched in a more acceptable euphemism–challenged, working below grade level, less able, differently abled). Despite the progress of advocates for constructivist approaches to the classroom and for differentiated instruction, the persistence of the language that dominates the lamentations of teachers like Jeff, who struggle endlessly to design effective lessons, reflects the persistence of traditional assumptions about learning. "They had this stuff last week. They can't remember anything, and I can't teach it again."