By Troy Headrick
I want to make a bold claim: Good schools can save the world.
I bet a whole bunch of thoughts come to mind when you hear the word “school.” I mention this because I have some pretty unorthodox ideas about schools and what they really do—or should do. My point is, I’m going to talk about them in ways that might strike you as strange.
Schools claim to be places that offer learning. Okay, I’m fine with that. Here’s the problem. What is learning? What does it look like? What is its purpose?
Let’s start by thinking philosophically about what happens when a person “learns.” Learning may include the acquisition of new information and skills. But let’s drill down a bit into what that means. When a person is exposed to a bunch of new information or is taught to, say, write an essay, that person is changed—in a molecular sense—in the process. Education is about taking a person from one state of being to another. Learning is transformation; it’s growth. Neuroscientists tell us that our brains—I’m talking about the organs themselves—actually physically change during learning. We literally become different people during the act of being exposed to new ideas and information.
Joseph Campbell, famed scholar of comparative mythology and author of the seminal The Hero with a Thousand Faces, points out that hero myths are always “coming of age” stories. The would-be hero leaves home, encounters lots of difficulties (challenges that provide her with learning opportunities), and, if she overcomes them, is transformed in the process. In other words, myths always tell a story about an “ordinary Jane” who finds a way to become larger than life. During this “finding,” the protagonist dies to an old way of being and is reborn (through struggle) as a new and more self-actualized human being.
Unfortunately, we’ve trivialized learning. We don’t really think of it in the way I’ve described or Campbell understood. If you think learning is nothing more than a demonstration of one’s powers of memorization, it’s easy to see it as little more than information acquisition. Teachers then become the “movers” of said information. In such a view, they are akin to the person who brings a large truck to your house, loads up your furniture, drives down the road a bit, and unloads it at a new location.
In fact, teachers are more like wise guides who help the hero complete her journey.
The smallest part of learning is about transference of information. The largest part is about the transformation that comes when a person becomes bigger, broader, and deeper than she used to be.
Students are not empty vessels to be filled. All students already have much to share with others. Students don’t only need to be told what to believe or know; they need to be taught how to ask interesting questions—the sort likely to trigger curiosity and self-directed exploration. Students don’t only need to be told how smart they are. (This can easily breed arrogance.) Students need to be told that they know very little—this is not their fault or because they are dumb. They need to be helped to understand that the truly wise person knows there are always new intellectual roads to travel and that even an individual who has seen “a lot,” has, in fact, only seen a tip of the proverbial iceberg (sorry for the mixed metaphors, but you get my drift). Students don’t need to be told they’ve arrived. They need to be informed that they’ve just departed. Teachers need to help students boldly go where they haven’t yet been.
The role of the teacher is not to mollycoddle students. The role is to encourage them to go on a heroic quest that might involve encounters with “dangers.” The teacher is not there to make sure students never struggle or even suffer. The role of the teacher is to make sure they aren’t utterly destroyed while doing difficult things.
No pain, no gain! That may sound trite, but that doesn’t keep it from being true.
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.
If you’d like to see some of Troy’s art, have a look.
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