Most educators I know who bemoan the current wave of ed reform and its focus on so-called “college and career readiness” believe that an enormous part of their job is to help their students catch the lifelong learning bug— that intrinsic sense of curiosity, of wonder, and of wanting to know, seek, explore not just within the four walls of their classrooms/schools, but beyond. After all, most teachers loved (at least part of) their school experience. Or if they didn’t, they consider it their mission to provide a better school experience for their own students.
And yet, I often find myself wondering: are most educators lifelong learners themselves? Do most educators continually seek knowledge, ask questions, and/or cultivate their own curiosity? If you’re reading this or other similar (much more articulate) blogs, the answer is likely yes. If you’re active on Twitter–even if you spend most of your time there lurking–the answer is likely yes. If your library bag or Amazon cart is regularly filled with books, the answer is likely yes.
But in the grand scheme of things, how many educators truly practice what they preach with regard to lifelong learning?
I ask this because I can’t tell you how many educators I’ve known over the years who stare at me with horror when I talk about the courses I take, or sheepishly admit to me that they rarely read at home, or who think their job takes place squarely between the hours of 8:30 am and 3:30 pm.
Don’t get me wrong: I understand the importance of balance. I’m the first to admit how unhealthy it can be to be so immersed in one’s career that your relationships, your sanity, and your overall wellness suffer. I also understand that there are multiple ways to be a lifelong learner, and not all of them need be directly connected to our profession. (I’m thinking of my colleague Becky who spent thirteen summers hiking along sections of the Appalachian Trail, only to complete her incredible journey this past summer. Imagine how much she learned while doing that!) However, there is a difference, I think, between consciously attending to one’s need to decompress/let loose and simply lacking the drive to learn more, to explore possibilities, to feed our personal sense of wonder.
I don’t fault the educators themselves; as we all know, people of all ages are powerfully influenced by the culture that surrounds them. Most of us, having gone through many years of schooling, were powerfully influenced by a decidedly facts-based culture. Most of us were taught via topic-triven, unit-sized chunks: The Life Cycle. Ancient Egypt. The Grapes of Wrath. Those of us who have cultivated an intrinsic desire to learn have done so in spite of, not because of, the education to which we were subjected as children.
And now that we are full-grown adults–professional educators, no less–how many of us are surrounded by a culture of lifelong learning? How many of us are provided professional learning opportunities that feed our sense of wonder, that are built upon our desire to know? The more likely scenario is that most of us continue to be immersed in a facts (read: data)-based culture within our schools. Most of us are not taught, per say, but instead are professionally “developed.” Most of us are subjected to “training” that is based upon the whims of administrative or state-sanctioned initiatives rather than on our own questions about teaching and learning.
Fortunately, I am an anomaly. I am lucky enough to work in a school that bases almost all of its professional learning opportunities on outcomes my colleagues and I have said–to varying degrees– that we desire, on questions that we have about education. Such learning, in turn, feeds our desire for more learning. However, conversations with other educators I am acquainted with have demonstrated that this isn’t the case in most schools–that in fact, it rarely is. My own professional history supports this notion. As a result, teacher “learning” becomes little more than a task to be completed; it becomes, in many cases, drudgery. So I have to ask: what are the implications of this–for both ourselves and for our students?
The implications, I am afraid, aren’t great, because again– we are powerfully influenced by the culture that surrounds us. If the culture of a school includes learning that is heavily reliant on choice and inquiry, which feeds the desire to learn, then that culture will trickle down into individual classrooms, as has been the case in my own school. If the culture of a school includes learning that is based upon top-down sanctions (e.g., This year our PD will focus on formative assessment, everyone!), then that will trickle down into classrooms, too. And the lifelong learning bug? In all likelihood, it’ll skitter away with nary a trace that it ever existed in the first place.