Once at a school conference, I asked the teacher is my son was empathetic. “If he sees a classmate in difficulty, does he try to help?” “Does he express concern if a classmate is hurt?” “If another child needs help with his classwork, does he offer assistance?” She said she did not know because the children in her class were required to stay in their seats and were not permitted to talk. She emphasized the words “her class” and never referred to it as “our class”.
Why do we continue to put children in a classroom together? The reason should be that children learn as much from each other as they do from the teacher–maybe more. They are intellectually stimulated by each other. They learn from the different ways of thinking of their classmates. They recognize and accept different learning styles.
Often, when a child makes a mistake, the teacher says “That’s wrong.” and asks another child for the “correct” answer. She can be much more helpful to the whole group if she says, “That’s interesting.” “How did you arrive at that answer?” The child’s explanation usually will reveal some correctable misconception, but sometimes it may indicate that he is a divergent, creative thinker who sees things differently from the rest of the group. Understanding how such a student thinks would be interesting and helpful to everyone in the class. It also helps students to understand that there is more than one way to solve a problem.
Teachers who insist that their students remain silent and immobile, tend to teach mainly by the lecture method. They stand in front of the class and do most of the talking. Usually, when they do interact, it is with one child at a time. Social interaction and cooperative learning are discouraged. In classes run like this, little would be lost if the school system broke up the class and isolated each student in front of a TV monitor.
In such a system, the teacher gives lectures from a TV studio or Skype. The children interact with her, one at a time by pushing buttons and turning on query lights. The teacher then selects one of the lights and opens a channel for the question. The students do not interact with each other. This eliminates students taking and moving around which some teachers find threatening to their authority. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds, it is already being done where necessary to serve widely separated rural communities which have few children.
Teachers who keep tight control of their class and who do not permit, encourage and plan for interactions among students not only waste valuable learning experiences, they retard the children’s progress toward their full intellectual potential. It reminds me of a cartoon where the teacher says to the class: “This class will stimulate your ideas and thoughts…remember, no talking.” We all perceive how ridiculous this sounds and know instinctively that there will be little learning or creative thinking in that class.
A class is comprised of a group of people who work together for a common goal and are concerned about each other. The whole class, which includes the teacher, is involved and responsible not only for the successes of the group but for its failures. They all succeed and fail together. The students not only develop intellectually by learning together, they also grow morally by developing a concern for their peers. Children learn concern for others by observing and modeling adult behavior and by helping and working with each other.
Jean Piaget, the noted Swiss psychologist, stated that the aim of education is moral and intellectual autonomy. They go together. Everything we do in the name of education should have the potential for developing these two attributes in our children Anything we do in the name of education which thwarts the development of these attributes should be re-evaluated and changed.