I teach kids, not subjects

I listened to a podcast recently where a teacher made the claim that his job is to teach chemistry, not values, and I would argue that if this was really the case, he is failing at his job. If we think of values as being a set of cultural norms, then it is easy to argue that it is impossible to engage in the act of teaching without teaching values.

When we establish classroom rules, we are enforcing our own cultural norms over what is considered appropriate behaviour. For example, if you set the rule that only one person should talk at a time, you are enforcing your cultural norm about respect. If your students come to your classroom without this norm, and you are successful in your indoctrination, when they leave the classroom with the norm, you have taught them a value.

Even if you establish your classroom "rules" democratically, there is still an transfer of values that occurs. First, the value of democracy itself, that it is worthwhile to engage in conversation about things as important as rules, and the rules that are established will likely not reflect the values of an one individual, but rather a blend of the group.

School is filled with hidden values that we pass along to children, as John Taylor Gatto pointed out in his essay, "The Six Lesson School Teacher." Be on time, finish your work, respect each other’s personal space, don’t pick on people, be nice, and many more.

It is impossible to engage in the act of teaching, or even in any communication whatsoever, and not teach values. In every interaction between two or more people, there is an establishment of norms, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly through body language and sometimes through exclusion of people not following your norm.

So when someone says they teach x and not values, I would challenge them and push them to see that this is impossible. We should at least be explicit with each other as educators what our cultural purpose is; the indoctrination of children to our society’s belief system.

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8 Comments

  • Darcy Mullin wrote:

    Wow! I’m not sure I could have been so thoughtful and analytical in debunking the arguement on teaching curriculum over kids. It resonates with me on a personal level, as I’m sure it does with you. It is that mentality that stops schools from creating cultures and structures that support students and learning. Great post – thanks for sharing.

  • Joe Bower wrote:

    David, I agree whole heartedly. Teachers who shrug at the idea of teaching the “hidden curriculum” and resign themselves to simply teaching content are entirely missing the point of education.

    Teaching and learning are inherently humanistic – to somehow attempt to remove humanity from learning is by definition dehumanizing.

    This is a conversation we don’t have nearly often enough.

    Joe

  • Jaime Tong wrote:

    So true! I work with special needs students and this hidden curriculum is a big part of each day. I guess some may just push it aside and only focus on functional academic skills, but doing that ignores all the other learning that happens from being in a group and interacting with others.

  • Not that I am disagreeing with you BUT the notion of a “cultural Norm” is becoming a thing of the past.

    With such a diverse range of cultures sitting in front of us, it is next to impossible to have a Standard set of Morals and Values that can be applied to all.

    I do a Values workshop with the Rotary Club every year. We do it in Planning 10 and it is really quite interesting how it is received by the kids and in turn the parents.

    With the movement toward “teaching” social responsibility within the curriculum, this is going to become a hot topic in the next few years.

  • David Wees wrote:

    You are right, I probably should have used the phrase "cultural bias," which more accurately describes the problem.

  • Good post. I would ask, the very fact this teacher was given a position teaching chemistry sends a message, that we consider science important enough to use tax dollars to teach it in school. Not every student will become a chemist, but having that as one piece of a broad education is a good thing. It is sometimes hard to see how any job fits in the grand scheme, but there is no question that it can make you a better teacher if you can reflect on that.

  • David Wees wrote:

    You might teach kids chemistry, but note that the teaching of kids takes precidence over teaching chemistry.

  • David Wees wrote:

    I see your point on a recent reread of your comment. Yes, the fact we even teach Chemistry in schools speaks to a common set of values, and teachers of Chemistry should reflect on the importance of what they do.

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