Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Getting People to Learn

“There is no system in the world, or any school in the country, that’s better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools. But teaching is a creative profession. Teaching, properly conceived, is not a delivery system. … What great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage. In the end, education is about learning. If there's no learning going on, there's no education going on. The whole point of education is to get people to learn....” (Ken Robinson, TED talk “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley.” www.ted.com)

All of us have been both teachers and students. Most of us have been professional students for a good part of our lives. We have gone to school longer than most people have held their jobs. We know how to be a student. And so we also have a pretty fair grasp of what it means to be educated, a notion and reality that is likely to grow with age and wisdom, although not without some sense of irony.  "Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously." (G K Chesterton)

The idea that teachers are key to any school is something that is too obvious to be noticed. Like the advantage of having an opposable thumb, or the fact that our eyes work so well with our brain, or the reality that things like faith, hope, and love are part of being human, it’s one of those facts of our existence that is as comfortably taken for granted as the clothing we wear. The founder of the Brothers, however, started this entire Lasallian movement by not taking teaching for granted, but rather building his schools on the trust, community, spirit, enthusiasm, talents, and aspirations of those young men in 17th Century France who believed that education could transform lives. Ever since, every school that claims John Baptist de La Salle as its inspiration and guide has discovered the truth and power of the key insight that good teachers bring learning to life in young people.

Ken Robinson in his talk also shares contemporary insights that De La Salle would recognize. For example, Sir Robinson says that high-performance school systems “individualize teaching and learning. They recognize that it’s students who are learning and the system has to engage them, their curiosity, their individuality and their creativity.” De La Salle said 300 years ago that teaching involves “knowing each individually and discerning the right way to guide them.” He advocated the use of visual instruction, the incorporation of skits, dialogues, or songs to help children capture moral lessons, and included training in practical arts such as needlework, keeping accounts, and life skills. Good manners were also instilled as a necessary part to Christian upbringing.

Sir Robinson states that high-performance schools “attribute a very high statue to the teaching profession. They recognize that you can't improve education if you don't pick great people to teach and if you don't keep giving them constant support and professional development.” De La Salle believed the same, telling his teachers that they followed in the footsteps of the apostles, given the gift of instruction, exhortation, and teaching. (M 78.2, 145.3, 193.2) Such "great graces from God" entail a grave responsibility. "It is God himself who has led them to you; it is God who makes you responsible for their salvation [Heb.13: 17].” Professional development in the ministry of teaching was equated with personal development in the journey of following God. De La Salle and the early Brothers are credited with initiating the movement for “normal schools” that trained teachers, having done so for non-Brothers and Brothers alike during his lifetime and far beyond.

The point is simple: Great learning depends on great teachers, and this has always been the case, whether in the 17th century or in the 21st century. The deeper realities persist about teaching and learning. Through great teachers, students have the opportunity to discover glimpses of the Promised Land and to be drawn in by the numinous mystery of God’s presence within themselves and within the people and the worlds that they encounter.

What a wonderful responsibility, mysterious adventure, and great vocation!