The Intellectual Hunger of Teachers

A few weeks ago I got a call from a longtime colleague who works as a researcher and writer for the Christensen Institute.

We talked for 45 minutes about the intersection of our work – we share an abiding interest in project-based learning and how it is implemented. She knew I had returned to the classroom for the first time in 15 years following long stints in management at the Buck Institute for Education (now PBLWorks) and at the Partnership for 21st Century Learning.

When I got off the phone, I sat for a moment in silence, a broad smile on my face. Why? I quickly realized that I had been suffering from intellectual starvation and my friend had shared a full meal.

In 1975 Dan Lortie published Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. It is the best analysis of teaching I have ever read. Lortie dispassionately describes the cellular nature of the teacher’s world. When the door closes we are on our own. It is an insular world that requires a single-minded focus on the academic and emotional needs of our students.

For those of you who have never been a K-12 teacher, it is useful to think of illness as an analogy. When you or a loved one is sick, your world shrinks to a house and then a room. That is what it is like to be a classroom teacher. Your room is your world.

Lortie wrote his book 44 years ago. I began my first tour of duty as a teacher 26 years ago and my second in August. It is still the same.

Researchers, administrators, policymakers, thought leaders and practitioners have looked for solutions to this isolation and intellectual starvation. 

One of the most important innovations has been the creation of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). This term was coined in the 1960s by academic researchers but didn’t become widely popular until Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker published  Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement in 1998.

The authors offered six characteristics of a school that functioned as a professional learning community, among them shared mission, vision, values, and goals. The ultimate goal though was the creation of a learning community focused on collectively improving student achievement.

And that’s what I see at my school. We meet Tuesday afternoons and Wednesday mornings to review student achievement data and then strategize on what we can do as a team and individuals to improve student outcomes. 

This is a laudable goal but it does not provide the intellectual sustenance I and so many other teachers crave. Perhaps that’s why hundreds of thousands of teachers attend education conferences each year. I couldn’t find a hard count for the number of conferences, but a review of multiple publications indicate there are more than 120 national conferences and hundreds, if not thousands, of regional and local conferences.

I’m fascinated by the structure of these conferences, which provide intellectual stimulation via keynote addresses and panels but focus mostly on the meat and potatoes of instructional strategies because that’s what teachers want most. The mantra is simple: Show me something that I can use on Monday.

I’m not casting stones from afar. I created and managed the PBL World conference for the Buck Institute (PBLWorks) and I did the same with the Patterns of Innovation conference while at P21. We followed the same format.

Technology has done is best to break down classroom walls and provide teachers with viable and stimulating interactions online. I and many others routinely participate in MOOCs, Twitter chats, and Google Hangouts. But these connections occur after the workday and must compete with commuting, shopping, dinner, errands, chores, exercise, relaxation, homework, sports, and parenting duties. I think you know who wins.

As mentioned in prior posts, I’ve spent the last 15 years traveling around the world engaging in workshops, conferences, meetings, panels, workgroups, presentations, and discussions. I never got tired of the work, but I did get tired of one trope that countless international educators directed at me and my U.S. colleagues: U.S. teachers are anti-research and anti-theory. The corollary is that they don’t seem to need intellectual stimulation.

Conversely, I never tired of hearing compliments of the U.S. teaching force. My colleagues in China, the Philippines, Russia, the U.K, Costa Rica, Peru, and the Middle East would wistfully watch U.S. teachers work and conclude with the following: “American teachers are so practical.” My International colleagues lamented the endless, circular debates that would derail professional development in their countries.

Can American teachers have it both ways? I think yes. We must honor and capitalize on our immense capacity for practicality but seek new and engaging ways to imbue that practicality with intellectual rigor and stimulation.

In the meantime, call me. I’m kinda hungry.

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David Ross

David Ross is a global education consultant and former CEO of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning.

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