Last year I posted the statement of educational philosophy I submitted when I applied for my present job and some additional reflection on it. As part of the Klingenstein Summer Institute, I had to draft another statement of educational philosophy. I was given the following prompt: What beliefs do you hold about the power of schooling, about the conditions under which students learn best and about the role of the teacher? What do you believe is the purpose of schooling? What do you believe is the purpose of your curriculum area and/or grade level? Write a succinct and lucid statement that does not exceed one typed page.
This statement is less concrete, but it gave me the chance to articulate some larger ideas about education. I structured it around four words that I believe are the heart of education- story, community, inquiry, and joy. There’s something intimidating about writing your philosophy of education because putting it in words feels like allowing it to become something that someone could shove back in your face at confirmation hearings or a parent teacher conference. So, I’ll say, This is my philosophy of education at this moment in my life and it’s subject to change. I’m also aware of the myriad of ways in which I daily don’t live up to this philosophy, but I’d rather be working towards something that’s more than I am than articulating what I’m already doing.
The teacher of history and literature is first a storyteller. She tells the stories as they have been told to her, but this is not sufficient. She invites students into the stories, to see the ways in which their lives intersect with and add to the stories. She trains students in the skills they will need to make meaning from new texts that they encounter and to become storytellers themselves. She also leads students in questioning the stories they have been told, in exploring places where the narrative is broken or incomplete and in considering ways of addressing opposing narratives. Written texts are an important part of the narratives of communities, but so also are song, film, and images. But story is not limited to the humanities, science and math tell stories, too. Numbers and data points are unintelligible without narrative to accompany and often the same quantitative data can tell vastly different stories depending upon the storyteller.
The story cannot be divorced from the community, and so education is about studying communities while within a community. Education is also the preparation of students to be members of communities they will join. This means equipping students with the skills they will need to be part of these communities. These skills are broader than “what it takes to get a good job.” They are also the skills that will help students discern what a good job is.
Education must consider the ways these different communities can be constituted. To limit learning communities to the classroom in general or to a particular classroom is to practice a kind of provincialism that does a disservice to students. The work of the classroom should not be seen as merely preparation for the “real” work of the world. We must disavow ourselves of the notion that the only learning that matters happens at school. While we wouldn’t turn children out into the streets and force them to fend for themselves, education should seek to connect the life of the school with the life of the world. Students and teachers should be connecting with others down the hall and around the world in sustained collaboration.
Schools must also consider the kinds of people who are absent from their communities. One of the great opportunities for schools is the possibility of being a microcosm of a diverse community. Too often, though, schools become enclaves for kids and teachers who look, dress, and talk just like each other.
Asking good questions is some of the most important work of the student. Too often education rewards students who ask fewer and narrower questions, perhaps because as an adult it can be frightening or uncomfortable to admit that we are unsure of the answers to their questions. Education ought to encourage students to continue to ask the questions two year olds ask- “Why? How?” As teachers, our work is to help students form those questions and begin to articulate answers to these questions.
Inquiry is not solely the work of students. A teacher is responsible to her students, to her subject, and to her community to continue to ask questions and thereby learn. A teacher must be the most voracious of all learners for her passion will sometimes be called upon to carry students who have difficulty mustering it for themselves for a given subject or a given period of time.
Many might argue that what educators ought to aim for in schooling is engagement. I don’t disagree that engagement is preferable to apathy, but too often engagement is a code word for passing interest or happiness. Joy is more difficult to measure than “time on task” or “oohs and ahhs.” To be joyful, one must believe in the worth of the work which one does. Schools then must seek to find that which delights students, instead of just entertaining them. Delight does not imply ease, for many ends which are delightful are reached only after considerable difficulty.
The difficulty for many teachers, including myself, is the ways in which this vision of education challenges our desire to be in-charge, to be powerful in our own classrooms. I believe excellence in education requires teachers to daily subjugate this desire to faithful telling of stories, earnest pursuit of vibrant communities, continual inquiry, and seeking joy for ourselves and our students.