The great transformation in which education is engaged in the first quarter of this 21st century is simply this: we are changing our focus from what we teach to how we learn. Forward leaning schools are shifting, in the words of Bo Adams, from teaching organizations to learning organizations. Perhaps most of all, we are remembering that learning is not the mere transaction of knowledge. While that transaction is important, truly great learning is the relationship between learner and teacher, learner and co-learners, learner and self, and learner and the experience of learning.
Last weekend I had lunch with one of my own teacher-heroes, my 7th grade Western Civilization teacher who I had not seen in 47 years. In 1969, Diane Heilman (now Diane Heilman Rolfe, but forever Miss Heilman to me) was a 26-year old veteran of just two years in the classroom. We, her students, found ourselves launched from six different elementary schools into our first stormy year in junior high school. The first day of school, just three class periods into a new life, I saw something different. The desks in Miss Heilman’s class were set up in a huge circle around the room, not in rows. Her perch was a high chair behind a podium at one front corner of the room.
Reflecting back, Miss Heilman told me that she still remembered the advice given her by an older veteran mentor as she started her teaching career. “Treat your students as scholars”, he told her. “Learning is about your relationship to your students, nothing more”. All that year she called us her “scholars”.
What is both wonderful to recall and tragic to realize, is that how Miss Heilman taught us nearly five decades ago, now is the stuff of books and blogs and conferences; many or most teachers have yet to transform their teaching to what we now call a “deeper learning” model. In that circle of desks, we discussed and discoursed. We held the great debate of Sparta vs Athens (I was an Athenian and we won the debate), and we carried out a mock trial between two Romans over a disputed parcel of land (which my side won as well!). Of course there were many times when Miss Heilman lectured to us; I remember the way she would wipe the chalk dust from her hands as she re-took her perch and provoked us to reflect, respond, and defend on what we had heard.
Those were turbulent years, as are these, and that turbulence found its way into the classroom. A poster of a smiling, dashing Moshe Dayan hung on the back wall as we brought the battles between Israel and the Arab world into our studies of the cradle of western civilization. We looked into the roles of faith and philosophy, not in their linear sequence in the march of history, but in their impact as thematic drivers of the human condition.
I have long forgotten many of the details that we learned in Miss Heilman’s class, but I sure have not forgotten how we learned, and how it launched the learner in me. She was one of the four or five best teachers I had, from kindergarten through Stanford graduate school, for a simple reason. She primarily was a farmer of scholars, not a teacher of knowledge, and by excelling at the former, she succeeded at the later.