Teaching and Learning Contradictions

“We shouldn’t squander our valuable instruction time with routine management tasks. Immediately upon arrival, students should be engaged in some form of review of learning 
or preparation for learning.”

Rick Wormeli

In a post I wrote last year about leadership contradictions, I suggested the following:

 “...leadership is a venture filled with contradictions. At times, I find myself believing in what can seem like completely opposing ideas.” 

Upon reflection, I discovered that I also view the concept of learning as a venture rife with contradictions. In fact, there are scads of examples, including the quote above from one of my favorite educators of all time, Rick Wormeli. I agree with Rick 100% that valuable teaching and learning time should be reserved for, well, teaching and learning. At the same time, I also believe that--at least at the beginning of any course or school year--we can actually maximize learning time if we invest time spent on “routine management tasks” that we will encounter throughout the year, so that we need not waste time on these tasks subsequently as the year progresses. Here are three other contradictions I wrestle with when it comes to learning:

Contradiction #1:

  • We must teach to mastery
  • We need to keep pushing forward through the curriculum
When I was principal of a middle school, a teacher asked me, “Do you want me to make sure every student has learned the material or do you want me to keep up with the curriculum map?” My unhelpful answer was, “Yes.” Like virtually every educator I know, I believe that one of our primary responsibilities is to ensure that all students master grade level learning standards. Unfortunately, not every student will master each learning target, objective, or standard in the same way or on the same day. And the fact remains that there are many other standards awaiting to be taught and learned. We cannot wait until every child in every class proves mastery of a learning standard before moving to new learning. It does not mean, of course, that we do not find ways to circle back with students who need additional support on previous standards.
This is challenging to say the least, but we must do it. As an educator, I believe: We must do everything we can--individually and with our colleagues--to ensure all students master grade level standards. We must also keep up with pacing guides/curriculum maps to ensure that we teach all grade level standards during the course of a school year.

Contradiction #2:

  • We need to focus on innovation
  • All students must master basic skills
We can never settle for the status quo in education; our customers (students) are too important. We must give our very best each day, but when we learn new and better ways to “do school” we must do so. We cannot simply keep adding more of what is familiar or merely improving upon the familiar. Today’s best practices will not be tomorrow’s; we must innovate, continuously creating new and better practices. Innovation does not mean we overlook basic skills, however. Every student must be fully literate, in particular, mastering reading early in their educational journeys. New, bright shiny toys and bells and whistles must not (and need not) replace direct, explicit, intentional instruction in the areas of reading, writing, mathematical computation, and scientific inquiry, to name but a few “basic” areas we must always emphasize in our schools. As an educator, I believe: We must continue teaching basic skills, particularly at the primary grade levels, and we must constantly and actively pursue new and better ways to ensure we are motivating and inspiring all students to learn all that they can.

Contradiction #3:
  • It’s all about the kids
  • It’s all about the teachers
Something I say often--and look for in others when hiring staff--is that every important decision we make must be based on what is best for students. I believe that to my core. Yet, I also believe that the most important variable affecting student academic achievement is the quality of the teacher in every classroom at every school. Every educator I know would probably agree with the statement that “it is all about the kids,” but it will never be “all about the kids” unless we are also “all about their teachers.” We
must support them, coach them, celebrate them, inspire them. Kids may well be #1 in our schools, but teachers are--at a minimum-- #1A. Without honoring teachers and making sure that we are all about teachers, we will never be all about kids. As an educator, I believe: Schools should be places at which we are all about kids. Schools should also be places at which we are all about the teachers.

I could list many other learning contradictions, including the fact that I believe students are much different today than they were many years ago, while I also believe that students in our schools today are pretty much the same as they have always been. What learning contradictions have you noticed in your experiences? I would love to hear what you would add to the list. Education and learning are challenging undertakings, in part, because so little is black and white and so much is gray; learning is rarely an “either/or” proposition. At the same time, the contradictions that make teaching and learning so challenging are also what make our efforts so rewarding. What we do is more art than science. At times, that can be discomfiting. Yet, it is a productive struggle and one we must recognize, embrace, and learn from. How can we thrive in an atmosphere where there are so many contradictions and so few obvious answers? Recognizing these contradictions and understanding that there is seldom one right way to act are important ways we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

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