The difficulty in education is finding a balance. On the one hand, we’re tasked with delivering a curriculum. Be dynamic, we’re told. Get the students to discover, explore, and take responsibility for their learning. Give them options. Be accessible.
And make sure they score well enough on the exam to get into a university of their choice. Show them how to be successful, provide ample opportunities to practice assessments, and give timely, constructive feedback.
Tension? Yes, without a doubt. But there’s also space. I think real learning happens within that space, learning in terms of how to be in the world.
This is the learning I like to think of as “people-building.”
When it’s all said and done and our students graduate, what do we want? We want to know that we’ve raised good people who will do great things that have a positive impact on the world, on all of us. We want them to care about those around them, about their place in the world, and about who they are as individuals. We hope that they have grown as people, that they see themselves as agents of positive change, and that they recognize and uphold the human dignity of those around them.
At the end of the day, we hope we can say things like, “She’s come a long way” or “He worked so hard this year” or “I can’t wait to see what they become”. We worry about some of them, of course, but we hope we’ve set them up to live good lives.
We hope we’ve raised good people.
And we hope we’ve helped them understand who they are in the world around them, understand that they are part of building the world they want to live in. This is the learning that takes place in the space between curriculum and test. This is the learning that actually matters.
So how do we get there? Last year, I started the year asking my students about what they did not understand. A poster on my wall read, “What’s something you don’t understand that you want to understand by the end of this year?”. We returned to this question several times throughout the year and discussed it fully the last week of school. Some of the responses took me by pleasant surprise.
This year, though, I’m beginning with something slightly different. The question that I’m working on this year is deceptively simple:
Who do you want to be?
Not what. Who. Who do you want to be?
We spend a lot of time asking students about their future plans, even when we know their plans are often unrealistic and will likely change as they grow older and have more experiences. Becoming a certain type of person, however, matters a lot more as we choose whatever it is that we’re going to do.
I’ve learned that there’s something special about asking a teenager, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. It’s a different question than, “What are your plans?” because it allows them to imagine and it doesn’t presume that they have plans. Often, a dream exists but they don’t know how to get there. Acknowledging the dream means starting from a place of possibility.
But I’ve also learned that this question isn’t enough. A deeper question is “why?” – Why do you want to be a doctor? Why do you want to be a teacher? Why do you want to run a hotel? Why do you want to be a millionaire? Why do you want to be a firefighter?
It’s the “why” that brings us to “who”. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to be a teacher. It took me much longer to figure out that I wanted to be a teacher in order to help young people understand their world. Teaching was the way I knew I could get there. I know more ways now, and think about them often. But who do I want to be? I can fill in a number of adjectives and I’ve learned that it doesn’t really matter what job I’m doing as long as I’m helping others see or experience something in a different way.
So what kind of person is that? Who is that? Those are questions I want my students to consider. I wonder what conversations would transpire if we focused on the internal elements of becoming rather than what it looks like on the outside. What we’re actually doing in any capacity with young people, really with all people, is making the choice to affirm or reject. The choice to love or be indifferent. The choice to accept or to disdain. This is what happens in the space between “dynamic curriculum” and “passing the test”. This is what matters.
Over the summer I met up with an old friend, also an educator now, and we talked about what matters with our students. At the end of the day, everyone will learn to read and write and do basic math. They’re going to be fine. The question is who will they become as individuals. In a perfect world, school would be about navigating what’s around us and about raising good people. But that’s not how the world is and that’s not how school is. There are other pressures, too.
I’ve found it helpful to remember, however, that what I want for my students, and what their parents want when we actually sit down to talk about it, is for them to be good people. What students usually want for the people around them, though it’s often harder to be introspective, is that they are good people. We tell students all the time, “This test doesn’t say anything about your worth as a person” and yet our education system and society are structured in a way that at least on paper, which carries a lot of weight, it does.
So as much as I can this year, I’m going to ask my students to think about who they want to be. Maybe we all have to play the school game to put them in a position to have choices, but good people generally turn out to do just fine. And maybe if we think more about who and why and less about what, we’ll be closer to a world that is better and more peaceful for all.