If you look at a cross-section of a river, you’ll see that the water flows in different ways and at different speeds at different depths. Usually the flow is fastest on the surface and slows as you go deeper down. Things may look smooth on the surface, but there may be different currents below. If you only look at the surface, and judge the river by the speed with which the most visible things are floating by, you’ll be misled.
A school classroom is like the river. On the surface are Knowledge and Information: the subjects and topics being studied. They are usually pretty easy to see and describe, and it is pretty straightforward to see how well they have been captured by students. Also they change pretty fast. Ah! There goes Adding Fractions… Here comes The Boston Tea Party… And just behind it I can see The Periodic Table…
Then, below the surface, are all the forms of Literacy and Expertise that enable students to understand, discuss, and make use of that knowledge and information. This is the Know-How that brings the Know-That on the surface to life. The skills of reading, writing, and calculating, the ability not just to know Spanish but to think in Spanish, or to wrestle productively with a tricky math problem you haven’t met before… all of these skills take time to practice and develop. And they are a little trickier to describe and track.
But down in the darker depths of the river a third kind of learning is always going on: the gradual development of Attitudes and Habits that influence learning itself. These attitudes and habits determine how students respond to difficulty, complexity, and frustration. Do they feel interested or threatened? Do they tend to engage and grapple by themselves, or do they wait passively to be rescued and directed? Do they share mistakes and misunderstandings confidently and openly, or do they try to cover up their fallibility? Like the banks and bed of the river, every classroom slowly channels and shapes students’ development not just as knowers but as learners too. And these attitudes, shaped at school, have a powerful impact on our students’ long-term success in life. They are the most important residues of those 12 long years of tuition.
When I was a high school chemistry teacher, I had no idea what effect I was having on these attitudes and habits. But as I look back, I see, somewhat ruefully, that I was – quite unconsciously and unintentionally – steering my students in the direction of becoming passive, dependent, cautious grade-addicts rather than imaginative, independent explorers. I made things too neat for them and rescued them from difficulty too quickly, so they didn’t learn how to struggle for themselves. I was in such a hurry to make sure they were capturing the packages of knowledge that I was sending down the river that I paid no heed to these slower, less visible forms of learning.
But I see now that I could have helped my students to learn chemistry in a different way – by encouraging, even insisting, that they think for themselves. I could have designed the river differently. Instead of telling them exactly what equipment they would need to do an experiment, I could have got them to figure it out for themselves. I could have laid out various kinds of resources for them to select from, and deliberately included some they were not going to need, to keep them on their toes. It might have taken a little extra time, but the long-term benefits would have been worth it.
What teachers do – how they design their lessons, how they mark students’ work, the language they use as they stroll around the room, how they arrange the furniture – impacts especially on the lower layers of the river. These attitudes are not so much taught as incubated, and we teachers design the incubator. Many teachers are – as I was – unaware of the effect they are having on their students’ mind-fitness for college and for life. But you can’t not be a mind-fitness coach as well as a knowledge-builder and a skill-developer, so it is better to be conscious and intentional about it. I think we all need to wake up to the lower-level effects of the way we teach – and if necessary, adjust our habits so that the attributes we say we want for our students are really the ones that we are cultivating in our lessons.