Education must be about the free flow of ideas in a community of learners and teachers. I find a system of rigid hierarchy, with students as the passive recipients of knowledge, to be an ineffective, if not counter-productive, technique of instruction. As Yeats wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Yeats, like Paolo Freire, inspires my core philosophical belief about education, that simply providing knowledge without the tools to critically examine one’s self and one’s world does not fully develop the capacity of students to achieve all they are capable of. My ultimate goal for my students is a simple one. I hope that they will have the confidence, analytical tools, and awareness to become active participants in our society, and fully aware individuals, confident in their own identity.
As a teacher, I believe that my role is to facilitate student exploration of ideas without imposing my own opinions and values. Each student (and teacher) brings unique insight to literature, life, and the issues discussed in class, and a teacher who fails to allow the consideration of all ideas is not truly helping students develop into more critical thinkers; she is teaching them to accept, to acquiesce—and our society cannot afford to transform minds that are naturally inquisitive and critical into those that are staid and unmoving, or worse, easily swayed. Only open dialogue, in an environment that is safe for intellectual exploration, forces students to fully consider their values, their knowledge, and their place in the world. My role as a teacher is to create that atmosphere of respect and safety, develop a culture of discussion, and provide material that will lead to challenging and interesting discussion among the students. A classroom should be a place of laughter, occasional flashes of insight, and shared experience: a community of learners.
This approach does not absolve the teacher of the responsibility to provide meaningful content for the class. I believe that a discussion model mandates that the teacher constantly challenge her students with new and exciting ideas. I believe that the more I bring to a discussion or lecture, the more my students can learn and question. A classroom built on community is not one that lacks challenge or content; rather, it is one where the content has meaning, stimulating the desire of the students and teacher to learn and share more. Community, implemented as a core value, inspires both student and teacher to offer the best they can to the class.
Education must also challenge students. In my view, education is not about pushing students to their limits; it is about helping them realize that most of the limits they place on themselves are illusory. We humans have an almost infinite capacity to see what we can’t do; the role of a teacher must be to strip away those limits students impose upon themselves. I am deeply committed to rigor in the classroom, in writing, thinking, and discussing, because it is only when students accomplish things they never thought they could that they see truly what their possibilities are.
As a final note, I find this description from one of David Foster Wallace’s syllabi does an excellent job of describing what I’d like my class to be:
“This does not mean we have to sit around smiling sweetly at one another for three hours a week. … In class you are invited (more like urged) to disagree with one another and with me—and I get to disagree with you—provided we are all respectful of each other and not snide, savage or abusive. … In other words, English 102 is not just a Find-Out-What-The-Teacher-Thinks-And-Regurgitate-It-Back-at-Him course. It’s not like math or physics—there are no right or wrong answers (though there are interesting versus dull, fertile versus barren, plausible versus whacko answers).”