You can lead an ass to water, but you can’t make him drink. That is one idea that doesn’t get much attention in the current educational system. Nor does the corollary that those who are really thirsty will go out of their way to quench their thirst. Instead, all the emphasis seems to be on leading or dragging, not on keeping the trough filled and accessible for those who are really thirsty. What makes a good teacher may not be teaching ‘technique’—although of course that is of some importance. Most people I know would say the best teachers they had were good because of their enthusiasm and knowledge, even if one could barely decipher their scrawls on the chalk board.  Unfortunately, enthusiasm for the subject is too often minimal in those aspiring to that good secure job as a teacher.  (I’ve had students planning to be English teachers tell me they don’t like to read!)  And knowledge of the subject matter doesn’t seem to be a priority in many aspiring for that relatively cushy job. (My wife remembers students in her Faculty of Ed class on teaching history objecting to a test that included actual questions about history, instead of just ‘how’ to teach it.) As always, there is no shortage of criticisms and proffered solutions.  But perhaps the problem has no solution; for perhaps the sad fact is that some people are simply not very thirsty for knowledge, including, alas, many of those who are being paid to deliver it.

One could make it harder to get that teaching credential by combating grade inflation. But does that really make a difference if the grades themselves reveal nothing about the person’s knowledge or enthusiasm?

Generally private schools hire more on the basis of subject expertise than formal ‘teaching credentials’, and they attract more thirsty students who have to compete to get in. But does that disenfranchise students whose parents don’t have the financial resources to opt out of public education—or are even aware of the option?

The teachers, being parents, are often more enthusiastic and committed and expect more independent learning—and the student-teacher ratio is hard to beat.  But does that only work if the parents are well-educated enough to guide their kids to successful independent learning—and are not just using social isolation to prevent their kids from learning about things that might threaten their traditional religious beliefs?

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4 Responses to 2011-09-30—TEACHING TEACHING

  1. Stephanie says:

    On a related note, this was in the Globe and Mail this week:


    It made me sick to my stomach….but didn’t surprise me at all given how poor the math skills are in our first year class.


  2. Stephanie says:

    The Globe and Mail commentary section is really on the mark this week. Here’s an excellent article about the importance of research (and teaching) in universities:



  3. David says:

    Hi Ken,

    Lots to think about.

    I think the metaphor apt but that you wander from it, in the sense that your solutions don’t really address the problem of how to get teachers to the river so their thirst may be quenched.

    The problem isn’t students or candidate teachers lacking “thirst”. I really disagree. The problem is that we don’t let them drink.

    Why not create school , even Faculty of Eds, as places of learning and not “being taught”. Why don’t we teach teachers that the objective of education is NOT how to teach but how to make learning happen?

    The problem isn’t “thirst”. Learning is a strong, evolutionary trait. The problem is the nature of the systems in which we construct for the purpose of learning. We ask the faithful to be thirsty and then we always keep that water just out of reach. No wonder most give up or find the easy way. And also, I’ll mention how elitist our educational system is by promoting the notion that it’s all about “the head up”.

    But interesting thoughts you raise. I’m not sure of anything but that we got to change a few things.


  4. Andrew says:

    I would disagree with your description of private schools. In Ontario a private school is the second last choice of employment for secondary school teachers.
    1st choice – public schools
    2nd choice – Catholic schools [temporary contracts for non-Catholics]
    3rd choice – Private Schools
    4th choice – Large tutoring companies

    The private schools have a small pool to draw from for hiring. At most public boards they are cutting off applications due to the sheer volume. It is a numbers game. I remember back 10 years ago when there was a shortage of teachers how desperate the private schools were to find some.

    The students that go to private schools generally don’t compete to get there, rather they are born into the families that send them to private schools. Many students at private schools are hard to serve and not necessarily engaged.

    Some high end private schools promise university entrance for all students regardless of proven or unproven abilities.
    My solution is to get rid of compulsory schooling.