My ideas about teaching greatly changed…I [came] to realize teaching is not a random choice of many activities without purpose. Teaching is like a journey which has its beginning point and its destination
(a Chinese graduate student’s reflections on her teaching methodology course).
Everything we do in teaching—every textbook exercise we adapt, every task we design, every pedagogical choice—has a reason. Everything heads toward outcomes that are built on learners’ needs. In other words, teaching has purpose. I’m not talking about Purpose with a capital “P” but little “p” purpose. Let me explain.
Recently, some people I grew up with in Sunday School were reflecting on the legacy our teachers passed on to us without seemingly having a plan. Regardless of whether or not they had a specific plan to lead us into a life of faith (and I know some of them did), they were following a curriculum designed by a publishing company with beginning points and destinations in mind.
Most of us are in the same situation as those teachers. Whether we’ve contemplated it or not, our district, program, school, or textbook series has a plan that takes learners toward a destination, a major stopping point on their lifelong learning journey. Our course takes them partway toward the destination. Each task moves them one step further down the path, reaching benchmarks set by the curriculum.
Unless we have an administrative position (and a relatively high one at that), our job is not to critique the program we work in or the curriculum we’re assigned. Rather, our job is to figure out where and how our course fits in. The following questions might help:
- What’s the big picture that my course fits into? What are the goals or standards that the program is working toward and why? How are learners’ needs being met?
- How or where could I find this information, and who could help me understand it (especially if it’s in a language you don’t read or speak)?
- Where and how does my course fit in? Where should learners come out by the end of it? What learner needs should it meet?
- With every task in every lesson how can I help learners take steps toward the destination? What benchmarks should I be helping them work toward?
Purposeless teaching takes a meandering path that may never reach a destination. Choices are made based on filling time, having fun, or last minute planning. We may cover some interesting ground and even find pleasure along the way, but at the end of the journey travelers will feel unfulfilled, and we their tour guides will have an undefined sense of something missing.
Purposeful teaching, on the other hand, knows the end from the beginning and all the points of interest along the way. The teacher always has destinations in mind and spells them out for self and usually also for students at the beginning of the course and with each activity. Sometimes purposeful teaching takes the scenic route, but fun is the sidelight not the highlight. By the end of the journey, travelers and tour guides have a strong sense of accomplishment and can clearly see how far they’ve come and where they still need to go.
And then little “p” purpose opens the door to the “P.” Not a philosophy or a platform or even a Purpose, but the Person we follow on the journey of our course and the one called life.