I am going to begin this post with a personal anecdote and work my way back into some thoughts about curriculum design. A number of years ago, I had an idea for a book on psycholinguistics that I wanted to write. My wife and I discussed it, and Jane was extremely supportive of me (as she always is). Ultimately, we decided that she would return to teaching and that I would stay home and watch our two children. Our son, Tom, was just beginning kindergarten, and our daughter, Maureen, was three years old. In my mind, I would watch the children during the day, and then I would write my book during those long leisurely afternoons as they were taking their naps. Jane happily went back to teaching — with a bit of a knowing smile. Of course, Jane was simply providing me with the latitude to learn experientially what I was soon to discover: young children do not always nap; afternoons with young children do not yield long hours of reflective thinking/writing time; and, a house does not automatically pick itself up. Needless to say, I never did write that book, but I did get much closer to my children. And I learned so much about curriculum designing that it did change the course of my career.
An important part of that “at home” year dealt with my son’s first months as a kindergarten student. Maureen and I would pick Tom up at school and we would walk home together. It was only a half-mile walk for Maureen and me, but it often translated into roughly a mile for Tom by the time he finished chasing leaves, picking up rocks, rolling in dirt (mud if available), and so on. When we got home, I would fix the kids a snack, and we would talk about our days. I would always ask if Tom if he had any papers to show me, and, more often than not, he would smile proudly as he pulled a damp, wadded up ball of paper from the back pocket of his jeans. This, of course, was his school work. I would dutifully unwrap the ball of paper, and flatten out the pages on the table. It did not take me long to notice that Tom, who is left-handed, would sometimes write his name as T-O-M, while, at other times, he would write his name as M-O-T. At first, I was DAD/English teacher, and I ignored it. Some days (when a little English teacher would slip out), I would tease him by calling him Mot. However, there did come a day when I sat down with Tom/Mot, and I spoke as ENGLISH TEACHER/Dad. I pointed to each letter and explained carefully why the arrangement of letters on a page mattered. At the end of the lecture/discussion, Tom looked up at me with his wonderful blue eyes and said in all sincerity and sweetness, “This is really important to you, isn’t it, Dad?” And that just about said it all: It was very important to me, but it was not at all important to him and, therefore, it remained something for him to learn later when he was ready. Eventually he did.
What I learned from all of this is what I would call my Tom/ Mot Rule: children do not learn things simply because we are ready to teach them. They learn them when they are ready to understand. Parents/ teachers may be just stuffed full of learning intentions, but children/ students always come to these situations with learning intentions of their own. Sometimes those learning intentions are not aligned. We do children an injustice when we ignore the validity of their learning intentions and their learning situations. Learning is built on respect. Respect for the learner, respect for the curriculum, respect for the learning process, respect for the teacher. Effective learning is more an intentional collaboration among learners than a power struggle between learners. We seem to be in danger of missing that point, just as we seem to think that intellectual paradigms can replace natural stages in child development.
Somehow the way we are discussing “learning intentions” in our current educational environment just seems to subvert learning as much as it encourages it. Maybe we are naive. Maybe we are just misguided. It is not as if teachers are all Zeus clones living on Mount Olympus with instructional lightning bolts lined up like weapons in some curricular gun rack. We don’t just run over, grab a lightning bolt and hurl it down from on high. Rather than imply that those who can cite learning intentions with seeming ease are, by virtue of that facility, highly effective teachers, I would be more skeptical. To me, a good teacher has a more global command of the learning context. They know where their students are, what they are able to learn, and when they are ready to learn it. They understand the content that they have to teach. They know how to connect the bits and pieces of the curriculum (sometimes despite the arrangement in a textbook) to meet real student needs. They have the wherewithal to adjust their curricular designs. They can teach with great flexibility, but they can also teach with less flexibility. They understand when learning must be more active or less active. They know when it is appropriate to teach by telling (and that does happen in a class) and when it is a waste of instructional time to resort to lecture. They can serve up neat, little sandwich lessons, and they can serve whole big messy meals of learning that spill off the plate and onto the tablecloth and maybe even onto the floor. And, by the way, they take the time to teach children how to clean up afterwards as a joint responsibility of learning. They do not do that bit for the child. They understand engagement but they also know how to connect reflective learning to the curriculum. They use formative assessment more than summative assessment. They motivate learners and do not force them into compliance with tests that sting like tasers.
To my shame, this Tom/Mot Rule did not occur to me until after I was teaching for ten years. I know that, when I did return to teaching after that year at home with my own children, I understood more about the needs of other people’s children. I did not begin my American literature course that year with “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards just because it was among the first readings in our textbook. I am still a little ashamed to think of all the Septembers I did begin that way and just assumed that my students would readily jump out of summer and eagerly into a course that began with a sermon by a Puritan minister. Chronological order in a literature course might well be a valid intellectual construct for the presentation of literary works in a textbook, but it in no way parallels the thought processes that govern teenage learners. My development as a teacher was stunted until I understood (really understood) and respected the learners in my classroom. I needed to see that I too was one of the learners in that room, and that their learning intentions were as valid for me to consider as mine were for them.
The fear of not being a “world class” educational system is no excuse for a lack of respect and intellectual thought at any level in education in any country in the world. Fear is not a good enough motive for effective learning on an individual level; fear is also not a good enough motive for educational reform on a national level. Maybe we all need to think more in terms of what we can be than what we fear we are not.