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For the love of learning

I am not the same teacher I used to be. When I started, I was very focused on power and control. I assigned loads of homework, dished out huge penalties for late assignments, assigned punishments for rule breaking behavior and averaged my marks to get a final grade. I did some of these things because I was trained to do so in university. However, most of these teaching strategies were being done mindlessly, and like a lot of teachers, I was simply teaching the way I was taught.

Five years ago I was becoming more and more unhappy with my teaching (or lack of), and my student’s learning (or lack of). I was tired of laboring through marking. I hated nagging kids to get their homework done. Instead of students asking “what’s this question out of?” I wanted them to actually get excited about the content. I wanted change, and I came very close to thinking that change required me to get out of teaching.

But instead of pulling the plug on what could have been a very short teaching career, I started to question the traditional pedagogy that I had so mindlessly adopted. I began asking questions that would challenge the status quo. Many professional development conferences provide teachers with an opportunity to ask questions such as ‘how do I mark better’ or ‘how do I get my students to do their homework’. At first glance these look like very challenging and provocative questions, but they are still questions that promote more of the same. Far more powerful questions would be ‘Why do I mark?’ or ‘Why do I assign homework?’ Investigating into the motives for our actions, rather than merely examining our methods is a better use of our time, particularly if the subject in question is a belief or habit that we’ve come to mindlessly accept as a given truth. Mark Twain provided us with two very powerful and insightful quotes when he said, “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.” And,“ it ain’t what we don’t know that gets us in trouble. It is what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Three years ago, I came to two realizations: Firstly, I was letting schooling get in the way of my teaching, and secondly, much of my teaching practices were based on pedagogy that was at best unhelpful and at worst harmful. Through critical questioning and extensive research , I came to the conclusion that my pedagogy had to revolve around one priority – learning. And if there were things that worked to sabotage learning, then those things would have to be removed.

For the last four years, I have worked to identify and remove those things that traditional schools have done for so long (and sometimes so mindlessly) such as grades, homework, incentive/reward programs, and punishments/consequences. And when I share this with other teachers, I get a mixed response. Some listen intently, nodding their heads in agreement, as if deep down they have always sensed something wrong with their traditional practices. But some listen in shock and awe at how school could even function without such things as grades and punishments. It is those teachers who have such a hard time comprehending how kids can learn without all these extrinsic manipulators that concern me the most. They are so bought into ‘traditional’ schooling that they have never questioned its foundation. Or, and this possibility is even more concerning, they have a very distasteful and distrustful view of the nature of children. Meaning that without grades, rewards, punishment and homework, there would be nothing to stop children from running amok with sinister intent.

Some of this mindless acceptance for the status quo is driven by our society’s obsession with instantaneous results. We know what we want, but we want it now. Many teachers will admit that if they could take even one strategy, project, or idea back from a conference to their classroom and use it the next day, they would consider the conference worthy of their time. When given the choice, how many teachers would go to a session based on theory over a session based on practical application? Most of us want practical strategies that can be used now, rather than having to sit through more educational theory. The danger of such a fixation on practicality is that we may adopt a practice based on illogical or disagreeable theory. Our best practices must be built on a foundation of best theory.

I drive my pedagogy with two proverb-like statements:

  • Students should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information
  • Working with students is not the same thing as doing things to them.

If you want to read more about my journey, this was the introduction to a longer article that you can read here.

I write about my journey daily on my blog For the Love of Learning.

About joebower

I believe students should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.


18 thoughts on “For the love of learning

  1. Joe,
    I love the second Mark Twain quote–hadn’t heard that one before. It’s so true, though–he was one smart man.

    “When given the choice, how many teachers would go to a session based on theory over a session based on practical application?” These are the kinds of conversations we simply have to push with our colleagues– the ones where we discuss WHY we do what we do.

    In my post I mentioned the early childhood conversations my county had in the 80s and early 90s because that’s what they did. . we shared practical stuff we were doing, but then the EC leader asked questions that probed as to WHY we were doing those things. . and the conversations around why changed practices in classrooms. MANY of us who participated in those are still working in my county and still think about the questions we struggled with together.

    I think many teachers on Twitter are wanting to engage in these kinds of conversations–and I have certainly seen and heard conversations after conferences like ISTE (NECC09) where folks were complaining about the sage on the stage presentations and needing more conversations. How can we facilitate that, though? When I and 6 others proposed a panel conversation that included small group conversations in the audience, it wasn’t accepted–we think it was because it was TOO far out of the box.

    How do you have those conversations in your school? How do we get those conversations as to “why” going across schools, counties, states and countries?

    Joe, thanks for sharing your stories and your questions. . . your thought-filled statements, challenges and questions here and in your conversations on Twitter always make me pause and think.

    Posted by Paula White | May 13, 2010, 6:17 am
  2. Joe, your blog, posts here, and article all provide riveting accounts of your transformation as a teacher. My classroom community has benefitted from your thinking, sharing, teaching, and learning. Thank you.

    I’ve undertaken my own journey, and reading about your work has been useful for me in helping me acknowledge and move on from my own lapses in authentic teaching and learning over the years.

    I struggle very much with communicating my vision and helping others undertake work like the work I did in order to get where I am in teaching and learning today. Do you think there is a path to pedagogical transformation – from traditional schooling to your proverbs? Do you think everyone has to find his or her own path?

    I’m still wrapped up in last week’s thinking about collaboration, leading, following, and helping others and ourselves discover new ways to teach and learn. When conversation and example and expectation and personal accountability are not enough to spur change in others, is it time to help them find a place outside the classroom?

    Perhaps in addition to our “must read” list, we should suggest a “must do” list to try to articulate the essential types of experiences and undertakings teachers could use to uncover opportunities for change in their beliefs and practice. Certainly this week’s posts paint some of that picture, but I wonder if a more concise set of suggestions might give teachers more concrete launch pads.

    Thanks again, Joe, for transforming your teaching and helping us change ours.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 13, 2010, 8:38 am
    • A “must do” list is an intriguing and controversial idea (as is a “must read” list I guess) in my mind! What sort of things would be on your “must do” list?

      Posted by Adam Burk | May 13, 2010, 8:50 am
      • Great question – thanks, Adam!

        • Ask for student feedback on your teaching and give students the time and safe opportunity to give it.
        • Ask for parent feedback on your teaching and give parents the time and safe opportunity to give it.
        • Ask students what they’d rather be learning during your class.
        • Ask yourself if they could be learning that.
        • Draw a web showing the connections between your classroom and everything outside it. Draw in connections you’d like to have in another color. Pursue them.
        • Make a two-column list of the ways your community supports your classroom. Use the first column to explore how do students, parents, the school division, tax-payers, community organizations, other teachers and personnel, and other members of the global community help your classroom? Use the second column to explore how your classroom helps the world. Seek balance.
        • Make another two-column list In the first, record of all the curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development you “have to do.” Strike-through the things you think hurt kids or limit their learning. In the second column, list what you commit to doing to change or replace those things to give students and yourself authentic learning opportunities.
        • Make a list of all the things you’re afraid to ask for or think you’d never get as a teacher. Go ask those questions and see what accountability you can extend to others in exchange for the freedoms you want for learning in your classroom.
        • When you get stuck, research why you’re where you are and where you can go from there to improve learning.
        • Grow into transparency in teaching, learning, and sharing your beliefs and practices with your learning community – blog, publish in print, podcast, or hold forums.

        Those are off the top of my head. What would you add? Should we come back to this?


        Posted by Chad Sansing | May 13, 2010, 9:00 am
    • Chad, What you’re saying here is really important to me too. Is there a path to pedagogical transformation, that you and Joe both describe?

      A list of MUST DOs would be incredibly helpful and inspiring to me

      Posted by Kirsten | May 14, 2010, 10:37 am
      • It’s difficult to articulate, but I’d like to try. Let me take some time to think and then comment later. Maybe we should use that question for next week’s topic, in some combination with the questions about what we must do?

        Are you in, Joe? Coöp?

        Thanks, Kirsten –

        Posted by Chad Sansing | May 14, 2010, 12:11 pm
  3. What about this being next week’s question? perhaps we should all involve someone else in our post for next week–pick a friend, a colleague, an admin and ask them to help brainstorm a list of “must dos”?

    Pondering now who I’d involve,


    Posted by Paula White | May 13, 2010, 9:52 am
  4. Perhaps we should distinguish between the “must dos” one needs to keep one’s job and the “must dos” one needs to help inspire learners. It’s the friction between the two that creates the tension for teachers. In the industrialized school culture teachers remain replaceable parts, as long as we teach in the factory. Time to think about moving our teaching outside school as we now know it.

    Posted by Bill Williams | May 13, 2010, 10:19 am
    • Yes, Bill you are correct and we are most certainly talking about the latter-the “must-do’s” to inspire learners. And I think by doing this and practicing them as a priority we can let-go of our fearful attachment to the factory system.

      Posted by Adam Burk | May 13, 2010, 1:17 pm
  5. It would be interesting if we could figure out the must do’s to replace the factory. What are the must do’s that make us unreplaceable. What allies do we need? And how do we communicate the Why of this.

    If you have not watched Simon Sinek video you should…..right along this line

    Posted by dloitz | May 13, 2010, 12:51 pm
    • David, I want to propose that the factory itself (its structure) is not the problem–although it is helpful to name it because it gives a mental image for the problem. The problem is our attachment to the factory, the ways our minds have been conditioned to accept the fact that these are the “appropriate” conditions for learning, and that no other way is possible or real?

      Posted by Kirsten | May 14, 2010, 10:39 am
      • Kirsten, this is a very important distinction to make. Thank you for highlighting it.

        Posted by Adam Burk | May 14, 2010, 11:18 am
      • I agree, It is hard to confront the problem though, because still a lot of educator and parents would not call it a factory nor would they not only accept that they are appropriate conditions to learn, but defend it with the passion we fight it. The evidence is out there, the problem ripe to be solved, the reform movement has being working for 100 years and yet nothing has truly changed and now it is about data and a test scores and the system treated like a robot you can just reprogram to be better…….but i guess we all know that. It is just frustrating! You can read Dewey from 1920 and hear the same arguments we make. You can read Steiner or Frobel and wonder why? we don’t truly want change. I think ti comes down to what Adam says we need a shift in society, not so much in the school. When society changes so to will the schools. The school are driven my the society even if we want to believe it is the other way around.

        Krishnamurti says it is the educator that needs to be educated not the student … and in some sense I would say it is the society that needs to change not the school….

        But I truly agree Kirsten…. those are not appropriate or acceptable conditions to have anybody spend time in.


        Posted by dloitz | May 14, 2010, 11:34 am
  6. Joe, I am really moved by this post and am going to use it as a teaching/talking piece in my own work. I find it very powerful that YOU were transformed to change your practice by your own dissatisfaction with your practice. What helped you? What nudged you along the way?

    Posted by Kirsten | May 14, 2010, 10:41 am
  7. I just went away and had to come back to say that I think Joe highlights something very important that I consider a lot in my work with schools–the fundamental view of children teachers and administrators hold–and their consequent actions as controllers, shapers, authoritarian or authoritative actors.

    Joe says, “But some listen in shock and awe at how school could even function without such things as grades and punishments. It is those teachers who have such a hard time comprehending how kids can learn without all these extrinsic manipulators that concern me the most. They are so bought into ‘traditional’ schooling that they have never questioned its foundation. Or, and this possibility is even more concerning, they have a very distasteful and distrustful view of the nature of children. Meaning that without grades, rewards, punishment and homework, there would be nothing to stop children from running amok with sinister intent.”

    Thanks for lifting up this critical point. If you fundamentally believe that children are people of BAD INTENT, who are always looking for sneaky ways to get out of important adult projects, then you are going to be into a lot of surveillance and control, disciplining and punishing. But if you believe that children are, for all their individual complexities, interested in getting on with the program, being successful in ways that are coherent to them (and others), and are wishful for respectful and mindful guidance and resources from adults (and others)–that children are nice people, as John Holt said– then you are going to have a very different attitude in terms of how you craft your interactions with your students.

    But I think most teachers are not aware of even having an underlying theory about children, or about human nature in general. They have acquiesced, mindlessly, to whatever the prevailing point of view is in their school, their social world, their parenting culture. And in most schools, the prevailing view is quite distainful towards children. They are crazy, unpredictable, wild, uncivilized folk–quite different from adults like you and me?

    Posted by Kirsten | May 14, 2010, 11:35 am
  8. I agree, Kirsten. Earlier this year, I read Ron Miller’s What are Schools for? and he points to this very point. it was an angle I had never thought about, but make so much sense to me. That is where philosophy plays into it. Truly education is the vocation of vocations as Bill Ayers says, but also the most holistic career. You need to really think about all disciplines and areas of study in my view to truly understand what it means to educate. I have been cataloging my education books the last few days and I am amazed at the different areas of study I have undertaken. From Philosophy to Psychology to Sociology to self actualization to governance and freedom to the art of listening to reading, writing, math and science. How education programs are one year is beyond me. I have just started my study and read a lot and feel like I am just starting to get to scratch the surface. I mean I 100 books that i have not even crack open but know are masterpieces of education. I guess if you approach learning to teacher as a life long study you can find time to truly understand what i means to be a teacher. Places like this help…..


    Posted by dloitz | May 14, 2010, 12:02 pm
  9. Thanks, Joe. Since you don’t use rewards and punishments, I’d like to ask you a question I also just sent John Spencer. My husband has been an elementary school teacher for six years and during that time has been moved around a lot (3rd grade, music, 6th grade, now a 4th/5th blend) and struggled in various ways. His main struggle: he disagrees with most of the philosophy behind traditional schooling. It has taken a while for him to realize this, but as of this new school year, he is trying to make whatever changes feel possible—e.g., he told the kids why he wants to avoid rewards and punishments, homework for homework’s sake, and grades (as much as possible). The no rewards and punishments thing went over well initially, but he’s feeling a bit lost now—a few kids have taken to disrupting class discussions a lot, and at times there is too little listening and too much chaos. Obviously, no rewards and punishments doesn’t mean no boundaries, but what do you suggest? How can he maintain boundaries and a healthy, respectful, pleasant atmosphere for all in this situation? Many thanks for your time. (And by the way, one of your posts was what first brought me to the Co-op. I was searching the Internet to try to find teachers besides my husband who want to banish homework. What a relief it was, and is, to find someone like you speaking out! So a big thanks for that.)

    Posted by Mindy | October 12, 2011, 3:34 am

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