She approached me with a four inch stack of index cards, asking if I would help her study for her upcoming Earth Science midterm. My middle daughter had created what had to be over two hundred flashcards to help prepare herself for her exam and over the course of the last week had repeatedly reviewed them. It was both astonishing and impressive to see her mow through these cards with such precision and accuracy. I quickly flipped one over after another, struggling to keep up with her, as she answered questions about the phases of the moon, how the earth is heated throughout the year, the Big Bang theory and various other topics related to the relationship between our planet, the moon, the sun and the universe.

At the same time, I thought back to a different assignment my older daughter had with the same class. As I wrote about here, she had “to go outside and observe the phases of the moon. Once she’s found it in the night sky, she is to draw what she’s seen. Over time, she is expected to see the various waxing and waning phases and presumably draw some conclusions.” I was invited to join her on many occasions and as we both stared at the sky, however briefly, we marveled at the idea that man had walked on the moon and how stunningly it glowed on many nights. To this day, years later, I still think our times observing the moon together as I take our dog out at the end of the night and look above. I suspect she still remembers those times together as well.

The course was a requirement at the same school, separated by two years, and taught by two different teachers.

This is not a judgment on these teachers. Both have to meet the requirements set by the state. Both have tests and no doubt my older daughter also came to me with stacks of flash cards. Yet at the same time, it made me question what exactly is the role of teaching – particularly at that formative time between elementary school and college.

One comment I hear often is that teachers have no alternative than to teach to the test; as they are often evaluated on student performance, which can also be tied to school funding.

If that is the case, then perhaps those tests complicate matters unnecessarily. A simpler test might be to just ask a few questions like: “What was the most fascinating thing you’ve learned this semester?”  or “What did you learn that changes the way you see or understand the world?” Don’t these types of questions more accurately gauge why we teach science?

In the early years of education, it’s imperative that children are taught the fundamentals, like reading, writing and arithmetic. While doing so, their teachers are most often able to carry through the joy, curiosity and wonder inherent in learning.

As they progress through their education, these qualities can sometimes seem to abate –  taking a back seat to cramming as much material in the minds of students that then show up on flashcards and tests.

This approach can often carry over into college. In a course I’m about to teach this semester, I was introduced to a forty page syllabus. It was accompanied by a rigorous fifteen week module, each week chock full of exercises and assignments. This was for a class designed as self-directed learning that culminates with students preparing an individual or group capstone project.

I was fortunate that having taught this course for several years, I was given the latitude to teach it in the way I thought best for my students. To craft my own syllabus and lesson plans. To do what I thought was necessary to create an environment where they could thrive, pursuing their projects with passion and offering guidance that challenged them to make the best project possible. Ultimately we will be judged both by the quality of their final projects and how they felt about the process for getting there.

This is a luxury not afforded to all teachers.

The world is full of wonder, our ability to navigate it, appreciate it, overcome its many challenges, preserve it and learn from it are all predicated on how we see it. The world is not a collection of facts to be memorized but an infinite source of marvel, questions and opportunity.

I have the utmost respect for anyone who steps into a classroom or who teaches in any capacity (for there is so much to learn outside of it.”  Teachers are typically under appreciated, under compensated and under supported. For their sake, I wish we could realign incentives away from scores on tests to the looks of joy or wonder on their student’s faces. After all, what does it mean to ace a test, if we have failed to instill an appreciation, or even love, for what they have learned?

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