The singular and important role of the classroom teacher in getting students to learn is well established in the research literature (see here and here). I have no quarrel with that frequent finding (whatever the metrics) to confirm that teachers are instrumental to student learning. What is far less clear is what part do five to 18 year-old students play in the chemistry of learning.
It is a question that I have puzzled over in my many years teaching high school and graduate courses. And I have no certainty in answering it.
For some teachers, as one told me after I observed his mediocre lesson, “I was selling but the students weren’t buying,” students bear the lion’s share of the responsibility. They are expected to come to class, obey the rules, do the homework, participate in discussions, and do well on tests. Those are students’ responsibilities. Other teachers (and policymakers) see it differently, that is, teachers bear full responsibility for motivating students, insuring that they have the classroom resources to succeed, and hammering home what has to be learned. Teachers, researchers, policymakers, and parents would quibble if one were to allocate percentages, for example, for the teacher is–to pick arbitrarily a number–70 percent and the student is, say again, 30 percent responsible. The uncertainty over percentages occurs because of different meanings attached to such phrases as “good” and “successful” teaching and learning.
Consider that “good” and ” successful” teaching are necessary to reach the threshold of what observers call “quality” teaching. To lead us through the thicket of complexity in meaning, I lean on Gary Fenstermacher’s and Virginia Richardson’s explanation (hereafter F & R).
“Good” teaching is about the how and what of teaching. For example, the task of getting a child to understand the theory of evolution (or the Declaration of Independence or prime numbers) in a considerate and age-appropriate way consistent with best practices in the field is “good” teaching. “Successful” teaching is about what the child learns. For example, getting the same child to write three paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate understanding of the theory of evolution or the Declaration of Independence is “successful” teaching. Ditto for a student able to show that she knows prime numbers by completing Eratosthenes Sieve. “Good” and “successful” teaching, then, are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other.
Does that last sentence mean that “good” teaching may not automatically lead to “successful” teaching? Yes, one does not necessarily produce the other. How can that be?
F & R point out that learning, like teaching, can also be distinguished between “good” and “successful.” The above examples of student proficiency on the theory of evolution, the Declaration of Independence, and prime numbers demonstrate “successful” learning. “Good” learning, however, requires other factors to be in place. “Good” learning occurs when the student is willing to learn and puts forth effort, the student’s family, peers, and community support learning, the student has the place, time, and resources to learn, and, finally, “good” teaching. In short, “good” teaching is one of four necessary components to “good” learning.
Policymakers snooker the public by squishing together”good” teaching and “successful” learning. In doing so, policymakers erase three critical factors that are equally important in getting students to learn: the student’s own effort, family and peers, and the opportunity to learn in school. Current hoopla over paying teachers for performance is the most recent conflation of “good” teaching with “successful” learning. Such a marriage of separate concepts ultimately deceives parents, voters, and students by suggesting that “good” teaching naturally leads to “successful” learning.
So those current policymakers and eager reformers who recite the mantra of “no excuses” for students’ low performance place entire responsibility (100 percent) for learning on the teacher’s shoulders. And it is here that I want to look more closely at the student’s part in the learning process to restore the critical distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching and learning described above.
Other teachers and researchers have written about the sharing of responsibility for “good” learning (see here, here, here, and here). Most observers do see the importance of students playing a small-to-large role in their own learning. Those who champion student-centered instruction (e.g., project-based teaching, “personalized” and “blended” lessons) see students taking responsibility for their own learning through self-regulation, giving tough tasks a second, even a third try, and similar independent behaviors. But such behaviors do not need to occur only in student-centered classrooms. For those teachers more comfortable with directed lessons they teach, here too student responsibilities beyond showing up and being quiet can be cultivated and become habitual if the teacher creates a classroom ethos where students feel that they must contribute to their learning.
For the fact is that teachers, like doctors with patients and therapists with clients, are wholly dependent upon students for both “good” and “successful” teaching and learning. Those teachers who recognize that basic fact–as I have over the years–seek to cultivate student attitudes and habits that help them take responsibility for their learning.