Chuck Abell

Teachable Point of View

When I look at the volatility in the world today, the world our students will be inheriting, I see reflectivity as the primary trait that individuals need in order to be successful both in the short and long term. The ability to critically examine not only the “phenomena” of the world – actions, sensory detail, language, and so on – but also the subtle principles and intentions underlying all activity is not only desirable but essential. High SAT scores, a large paycheck, or a handsome physique are no guarantees of long-term success, much less happiness, and if we are to be true to our profession as educators, we need to model – and teach – critical thinking at a much deeper level. We need to help students ask the deep, probing, meaningful questions and to assist them in finding satisfactory answers to those questions. Along the way, naturally, we need to teach our students the techniques of communication – grammar and writing style and reading strategies – but we need to first clarify the purpose of such conventions.

Frank Lloyd Wright, in discussing the Principles of Organic Architecture, declared that “form and function are one.” In my years of teaching, I have likely used as many teaching methods and strategies as I have had students, many of these strategies arising at the spur of the moment when the situation called for a change of course. If you asked my students to characterize my teaching style, you would likely hear descriptors such as “intense”, “metaphoric”, “persistent”, and, hopefully, “passionate”, all of which point to the central tenet of my teaching philosophy – students need to learn. They need to make meaningful connections between what they already know and what they are learning. They need to evolve, to expand their web of knowledge. I sometimes think that my job as a teacher is to make myself obsolete, to “graduate” students who can effectively imagine, describe, and analyze the world around them without my help, or at least possess the willingness to ask for guidance from others when needed. Educating, in many respects, bears a strong resemblance to “parenting”.

The touchstone for legitimate student learning must be constructivism – the philosophy by which we allow students to arrive at their own understandings “organically” rather than merely being passive receptacles for the teacher’s knowledge. That said, constructivism must be understood in terms of broader theory. Students are often not so much inventing new “truths” or principles – to expect them to do so would be totally unrealistic, even in literary interpretation – but rather are allowed to “discover” great truths in their own time and way, so that it may feel to them like they are inventors. At all levels of instruction, for instance, students too often make premature, ill-reasoned conclusions that are ultimately unsupportable by the texts they are reading/viewing – in these case, it’s crucial that we avoid giving them false assurances that “ any interpretation will do”, and instead push them to reconsider contradictory evidence and revise their theories. If necessary, allowing students to debate about interpretations can be an effective means to honing critical thinking skills. In the end, as the Know-Understand-Do process reinforces, students need to develop some enduring understandings of the nature of the world without and within, and teachers are uniquely positioned to guide them along the way.

What becomes of our R-H graduates – or perhaps high school graduates in general – is a critical question. Education, in my view, is a lifelong process, and each stage of the process has its own distinctive features. High school students are at a formative state in their learning, a point at which, hopefully, they are taking more ownership of that learning, or at least generating the discipline needed to fulfill their responsibilities, as distasteful as those might sometimes seem. Our job is to truly connect with the students – while also applying an appropriate balance of “carrot and stick” – to facilitate their success in all areas of their lives. In the end, it is not about theory – as valuable as that theory can be; it is really about students – regardless of ability, race, age, or any other category. Teaching is the art of being intensely responsive to the learning needs of our constituents.

For more information on my work in the Fellows Program please see my paper on Integrating Problem-Based Learning and Cross-Sector Collaboration in a High-School English Classroom.