The Luxury of Learning is Lost

copyright © 2004 Betsy L. Angert.  Empathy And Education; BeThink or

The words said were, “We do not have that luxury anymore.”  The speaker stated that she loved the luxury. The luxury that she was speaking of is that of teaching in a manner that enlivens learning, engages, and ensures that students internalize information. She was referring to her joy for teaching in a manner that creates learning, the learning that lasts for a lifetime. Is it true that teaching in this manner is an indulgence; and that she is no longer able to partake in this possibility?  How sad.  

Now, to believe that teaching in this fashion is a “luxury” and that it is lost, never to return is a concept that I cannot, or more accurately, wish not to consider. I cannot help but wonder; why does she feel that she no longer has this?  When, why, or how, did she lose what was once the objective in teaching?  How could or would she consider taking the time to guide learning, to give students an opportunity to truly learn, an extravagance?  I wondered why, and yet I knew.

Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition. – Jacques Barzun  

Days have past and the words still haunt me. The idea saddens me. I no longer wonder, for I knew then and sadly, I must now acknowledge that I do know. I know, for I experience it each and everyday. I read of it in the newspapers, in editorials, in professional journals, and in books. I hear of it from friends, from family, from any, and many that have even the smallest sense of what is going on in our nation’s schools. I speak with instructors, and others that are familiar with “education” as it exists today, and there is much concern. The policies and practices that are present in our schools, throughout this Nation, cause much trepidation.

Currently, I am employed as a substitute teacher, what some so sweetly call a “guest teacher.”  I have a Master of Arts degree in Education, with a focus on Instructional Systems. I am credentialed in Psychology, Social Science, English, Art, Computer Concepts, and Computer Applications. I taught at the University level, instructing in the Teacher Credentialing programs. After receiving my degrees, my own formal education continues. Therefore, you might guess that education is important to me. It is!

As an educator, one that has had her own classroom, created her own curriculums, taught those that were training to be come instructors, as one that has recently “visited” classrooms that are not her own, and as one that has been a student, I recognize the need to be sensitive to authentic learning rather than to the appearance of academic achievement. More so than academic achievements, a love of learning is what I would wish to facilitate.  

I acknowledge that there are achievements today or the appearance of these; some students truly are accelerating academically, though I wonder if they are truly learning. However, on any and many days, I experience, just as other educators do, that students, even in the best of schools, and even the best of students, no longer read the text for meaning; they simply search for answers, short and simplistic answers. I not only experience and observe this; I ask students if this is true. I listen to their admissions. I hear their perplexing sighs when asked of their work and of their learning and their answers concern me.

Students often share that they can master the art of test taking and yet, they do not fully understand the concepts. They state that they do not know how the information relates to the subject, to their lives, or to the wider world. They express that they can read and recite the words, and yet they do not comprehend the content or the context. Oh, yes, they can answer questions, regurgitate the text; nonetheless, when you ask them to explain these in their own words, even those pupils that seemingly can paraphrase what they read tell me that they do not truly connect to the meaning. When asked to probe more deeply, to present a parallel from their own lives, they express that they are lost!!!

Teachers also express their own sense of feeling lost. They are lost in imposed schedules and lost in a simplistic stress on standards. They are saturated; they must create a credible trail, one that validates that the subjects are being taught well and that students are learning. The trail, or the trial, is in the test results. Students and teachers are now lost in statistics. Today, in our nation’s schools the focus is on the visible and verifiable. Yet, learning and facilitating growth are neither of these. Nonetheless, in our frenzy to find validation for what we are doing or not, we wok to produce a product, our pupils scores present a pretense of success. Genuine learning and true teaching are also lost. It seems that gaining knowledge and inspiring instruction are now missing from our Nation’s classrooms.

In teaching, you cannot see the fruit of a day’s work. It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years.
 – Jacques Barzun

At times, the fruit of “teaching” is invisible for a lifetime. For those that are forced, or feel a need to feed only formulas, facts, and the foundation necessary for gaining knowledge, never create what bares the fruits of learning. This is true even in the best of schools. I experience this in a community that is elite and highly educated. Just as those in schools that are fighting to survive, learners and instructors are coping with the stress of scoring and testing strategies. The level of angst is felt within all districts, dioceses, and in corporations that deliver educational services. I am aware that, now, education is governed by rigid regulations. There are ample frustrations filtered through the fulfillment of learning and teaching. It seems that for many, it is just as Einstein expressed, “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.

It is for this reason that I am sharing an account of a day in the life of an educator; I wish to advance awareness and to open a discussion for what many experience. I would like to ask each of us to consider what occurs when we concentrate on the concrete. I believe that when we do, we all lose much. Students no longer have the opportunity to truly understand what teachers are attempting to teach; nor do they often love their growth. We have also lessened the opportunities for instructors.

From my own life history, I believe that if we do not love learning, then we do not choose to develop the habits that create a deep desire to investigate, innovate, or imagine, even on our own. I believe that if we focus on creating a love for learning, a curriculum that demonstrates care for the student, for the subject, and one that is sensitive to the nuances of the process of progression, and then success will be guaranteed.

The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. – Ralph Waldo Emerson [American Lecturer, Poet, leading exponent of New England Transcendentalism]

The other day I was teaching in a Social Science classroom. I was working with students that I have worked with often over the last two years. Frequently, their teacher requests that I assist in her absences. She has shared that she values my desire and ability to facilitate understanding. She has had many an occasion to observe me teach. On this day, she asked that I have the class read and discuss seven to ten pages. I was told not to go farther for she, the contracted teacher, would prefer to save the next lesson for another day.

As we read and discussed, I asked the students to reference a portion and then share, in their own words, the meaning of what they just read. I know for myself and I have verified that this is true for others, many can read aloud and then not know what they read. Therefore, I always ask students to take the time to breathe and begin to internalize the words that they read aloud.

Many in prosperous and professional communities, such as the one in which I work, can and do this well or so it seems. I realize that appearances can be deceiving. Often, when asked to provide a parallel, or if they understand what the words mean, when asked if they comprehend the ideas and the concepts, the meaning behind the words, students repeatedly admit that they do not understand these. They cannot offer similar concepts; they are unable to relate the material to their own life experiences, nor do they truly grasp the greater significance. Many, most, and often all confess that they can recite and regurgitate as expected or as needed to appear knowledgeable, yet they do not truly understand or internalize the information.

Therefore, I discuss the readings further, present parallels, share stories that suggest similarities between the lives of the students and the lives of those that they, or we, are studying. These enliven the essence of the lesson. As I do, and did on this day, as I ask questions that assist them in sensing the similarities between themselves and the text, I discover a captive audience, one that cares to learn, asks questions, offers comments, and is engaged. I discover students no longer feel lost. Learning looms large when I take the time to stimulate student learning.

On this day, as on many others, each of us, the students and I, feel enriched and enlightened. These exchanges are educational; they create a joy in learning. Students often tell me that these discussions, the drawing of parallels, are not only memorable, they help them to truly learn.

Then it happened, and I learned again, what I would rather forget. In reviewing the day, I mentioned to the students’ teacher that we as a class were energized, the text was meaningful, and the discussion exhilarating. However, we did not finish all of the pages she assigned. She sighed deeply. She expressed her dread for falling behind; the need to complete the curriculum as the calendar dictates, and then she said it, teaching in a manner that stimulates students so that they truly understand, well, “We do not have that luxury anymore.”

Sadly, the lesson learned is that what I do, what I did, what many educators do, and would prefer to do again, evoking authentic learning through deeper discussions, facilitating learning that lasts a lifetime, creating curriculums that are energizing and enjoyable for all, is a luxury, one that lost. I wonder what have we created.

Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; but directly involve me, and I’ll make it my own. – Confucian text

I do not wonder why this teacher, or why do many teachers throughout this nation no longer have, or feel that they have, the luxury to truly teach. I do wonder why it is that now, capital and careers are more than important than learning. I wonder and I ask; I ask those that profess, propose, and then impose policies that stress schedules, simplistic, narrow and naive standards, to please explain this to me.

I wonder why the rote, routine, rehearsed, and rigid is more reassuring to the masses than real learning is. I wonder why scores, statistics, and strategies have supplanted an interest in our students. I wonder why we settle for “standards” and no longer allow the minds of our students and teachers to soar. I wonder when we will learn and when will our classroom objectives parallel those we have for our future.

Post Script . . . Not long after my own writing, the Los Angeles Times offered another illustration of how students are shortchanged. I offer this reading for your review. Please review and reflect upon this report from the Sunday, November 28, 2004, Los Angeles Times.“Are Schools Shortchanging Students”