You have probably seen this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson before. It is often linked to images of paths or footprints and carries with it notions of individuality and the desire to follow an inner compass.
I like the idea that it suggests a search for new knowledge and with this the implications it has for teachers. In a previous post to this site I discussed the ‘questions we should ask’ and in this considered how we encourage our students to ask questions that will lead them to new ideas. In Emerson’s quote I see similar thinking.
In so many classrooms and curriculums ‘content’ is King. There are old beliefs about pieces of knowledge that we imagine students need to be taught. Lists of facts and figures essential for them to know and recall. Maybe it is a list of dates in history, landforms in geography or properties of the elements in science. We also find these essential chunks of content in games of trivia and maybe that is a hint at their value.
Not that all content should be removed from our teaching so long as we understand that our lessons should be about big ideas that are more important than having our students memorise a list of facts. More important for our students are their skills, strategies and dispositions towards developing an understanding. Our goal needs to be to produce learners who can travel new paths and in doing so discover new knowledge and ways.
I teach a unit to Year Six about Climate Change and at the beginning of the year I speak to the parents of my class about this unit. It is a somewhat topical if not outright controversial topic. Past experience has shown that some parents have very strong views on the subject and worry about the message I will communicate to their child. For my purposes ‘climate change’ is just a vessel for the deep thinking I want my students to engage in. Evaluating sources, looking for bias, understanding points of view, applying a scientific methodology, asking questions and then sharing ideas with an audience and possibly trying to persuade an audience are seen as essential skills for now and the future. The content of a ‘climate change’ study has value to me because it engages my students with the learning processes that they need practice with. When explained this way the parents relax, I am not planning to brainwash their children but instead up-skill them so that they can evaluate information for themselves and then act appropriately.
It is worth considering how you imagine the curriculum you teach will benefit your students in their future life. Will your teaching be broadly applicable to the majority of your students despite the many diverse career paths they may choose? Will your teaching be applicable to new scenarios that are yet to be imagined? Or will your teaching be of use to a few who choose to follow one path that requires the lesson you have taught? Does your teaching allow your students to ‘go instead where there is no path and leave a trail?
by Nigel Coutts
Art by Nigel Coutts
Quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson