If, as Confucius claimed, “every truth has four corners”, then “it is the job of the teacher to give students one corner, and it is the job of the student to find the other three”.
There is a lot to unpack in this pithy Chinese proverb. What does it tell us about the most important priorities in our end game of preparing students for the independence and challenges of high school? As we anticipate our annual Founder’s Day reception next week, it is an opportunity for us to consider the not-too-distant transition of our own Middle Schoolers to high school – and their ability to succeed in a setting that expects them to take full responsibility for their learning.
What does full responsibility look like for students? Well, hopefully it has begun long before Middle School. It begins in small ways: learning to manage items of clothing and school materials, making your own bed, and carrying your own backpack (…not to mention walking into school yourself!). It begins by understanding that remembering gym clothes, instruments, and homework is their job (…not mom’s, dad’s, or the teacher’s).
How is taking responsibility for one’s own learning strengthened and how is it compromised? It is strengthened through practice and by accepting the consequences for failing to take responsibility in the first place. A student who forgets her gym uniform should not be participating in gym. A student who disrespects a teacher should experience the consequences of that interaction without the intervention of an apologist. A capable student who chooses not to make his best effort should experience the academic consequence of “skiving off”.
The stress that accompanies these basic responsibilities (along with their rewards and consequences) should not be assumed by the parent or teacher, but by the student himself. Learning to accept responsibility will always be compromised by doing for children what they should be doing for themselves.
This does not mean that teachers or parents abandon children to their struggles and challenges without support, guidance, patience, or assistance. However, it does mean that students need to understand that organization, attitude, and action are ultimately their jobs (minor setbacks, non-catastrophic failure, and foreseeable consequences notwithstanding). To be effective, it also requires that parents and teachers allow students to accept this responsibility, including the healthy stress that goes along with it.
If truth does, indeed, have four corners, then we are doing children no favours if we do not encourage, inspire and expect them to make an effort to find the other three corners on their own. Once they’re in high school, managing their lockers, personal effects, due dates and assignments without a broker will be a forgone conclusion – and they will not understand this reality, if they always experience a soft landing!
Ric Anderson, Head of School