Not Knowing Any Better

I recently spent a few days at some schools in Colorado and have come away with many stories I could share about the great work that educators there are doing. But there is one particular scene that has really stuck with me because it resonates far beyond the little classroom nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains where I sat.

In my travels, I happened by a class of first graders who were sitting quietly in a circle on the floor with their teacher. Students were taking turns reading aloud from a passage about the defense mechanisms of earthworms, a fairly detailed description of the various behaviors and resources that worms employ when threatened by predators. Periodically, the teacher would ask students to speculate on the meaning of words or phrases that might be more difficult to understand. Many students offered fairly complex responses to the teacher’s probing questions. Yet, there were also moments when students seemed genuinely stumped by what the author was trying to communicate, not to mention getting hung up on some vocabulary that seemed, to my untrained eyes, well above grade level (e.g., words like “predator,” “threaten” and even “coelomic fluid”).

After the class, I described the scene I had observed to the principal and asked, “Am I right in thinking that this passage was beyond what students should be expected to know?” “Yes, probably,” she answered. (Not having been privy to the particular lesson, she wasn’t absolutely certain.) To which I then asked, “Why did this first grade teacher make it so hard for her students?” The principal answered with some complicated reasoning and context, but it was the end of her thought that really stuck with me. She said, “As first graders, they don’t really know any better. They think this is what school is supposed to be. So, why not?”

Indeed. School is supposed to be hard. We want students to stretch their minds, to dissect and analyze a reading passage to discern meaning and to strive to solve difficult problems. They should be able to think on their toes and take risks. They won’t always be right, but they should always be trying. Anything less would be a waste of their time and, thus, ideally, it should be that they know nothing else but their teachers holding high expectations of them. If schools can instill these habits of persisting toward proficiency among young students, these young people will, one hopes, progress through their whole school careers—their whole lives—with an attitude that learning does not come easy, but rather that the depth of the challenge is what makes solving it so worthwhile.

An essential reminder for those of us who fight for schools to have more resources - including time - in order to generate conditions for optimal learning. We should never forget that the ultimate condition is nothing less than the simple belief among educators that every student should be pushed to learn ever more. This is what school is supposed to be.