“Teaching is successful only as it causes people to think for themselves. What the teacher thinks matters little; what she makes the child think matters much.“– Alice Moore Hubbard (1909)
Alice Hubbard lived a remarkable life. She was a colleague of ours and a multi-published author, as well as a vocal advocate for women's suffrage. Perhaps most amazingly, she ended her days onboard the infamous Lusitania, deciding with her husband to go down with the ship gracefully.
But for our purposes today, it's this thought of hers that I'd like to focus on, this idea that what the teacher thinks is of small relative importance to what the student thinks.
I think that cognitive science metes this out, but that it requires a strong caveat.
Cognitive science has made clear for us that our minds remember only that which we think about. It's such an important idea that in his primer on cognitive science, Why Don't Students Like School?, Dr. Daniel Willingham dedicates a whole chapter to it. The chapter's title is instructive: “Why do students remember everything that's on television but forget everything I say?” Because, Willingham argues, they're far more likely to think about what they are watching on TV than they are to think about what you're saying.
Thankfully, there's hope for this dilemma, and the hope begins by accepting this reality: students remember what they think about. In other words, a big part of my job as a teacher of ninth grade students is getting them thinking as often and as deeply and as meaningfully as I can about the things that we're reading and listening and speaking and writing about.
But the caveat with Hubbard's statement, for me, is that the better I think as my students' teacher, the better my chances for getting them to think better. (That's a lot of betters.) It's what some researchers call the Peter Effect — “Silver or gold I do not have,” the apostle states in the third chapter of Acts, “but what I do have I give you.” A teacher can only give students what a teacher has.
In short, what we think and how we think matters greatly. Your mind, colleague, is a big deal. You are an intellectual athlete.
And yet, this athleticism only has an impact when we get our students thinking, too. Students remember what they think about, and the quality with which information is stored is the quality with which it can be retrieved.
We must get them thinking often and we must get them thinking well.
That's a decent job description of what it means to be a teacher.
N. Andre says
Yes Dave, it is true and that is why the quality, direction, and focus of our thinking matters. As a teacher in the heart of NYC, in the midst of culture wars that we cannot close our eyes to, [I know you have beautiful growing children], the quality, character, and motivation of our thinking matters. When our motivation is solely as you aptly state, creating better readers, writers, thinkers, speakers, listeners [as you make clear in, “These Six Things”], and being better individuals – then the sky is the limit. I also teach Global 9 – and as we learn about ancient cultures, world religions and belief systems, there is so much to stimulate their minds and assist the students in cultivating their own value and belief systems. Coupled with caring about them, and showing them that “intellectual pursuits’ have value there is much good we can do, but as you make the point in your post, it starts with the quality of our own minds. I would also add, and the quality of our own hearts; to love and cherish our students and want the best for them now and beyond our time with them! Dare I say, Happy Holidays Dave and thanks for all you do!
Dave Stuart Jr. says
I love this so much. Thank you colleague.
Alesha Cary says
This resonates very strongly with me today, particularly in light of the release of the Atlantic Monthly’s report on AI text generation. As teachers, we’ve spent a lot of time relying on a game of “gotcha” to catch kids who are cheating, or rather “not thinking” about our content. The new tech is going to make it incredibly difficult to continue playing “gotcha,” and I’m frankly ready to stop playing period. Maybe it’s time to ask the questions that make them WANT to share their opinions and show them how our content is relevant to what matters, rather than recycling the same questions that just send them to the internet to avoid thinking.
Alesha, you are so right!