“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.