Differentiated Instruction/Learning and the Student-Centered Approach; or: What Makes Good and Bad Teachers

After the long-windedness of my last post, let me just jump straight into this one by defining to me what a good and what a bad teacher is, based on my personal experience both being a student who has been subject to varying levels of teaching (including some of the best of the world, thanks to my privilege and wonderful professors at the University of Chicago and now here in Budapest, as well as a few select individuals at my middle school and perhaps even high school who strived to actually care about their students and realized the intrinsic importance and huge responsibility of being a teacher in that they do, in fact, have the opportunity to impart life-lasting values and habits of mind into their students – I, too, of course, have had some bad ones who have been overly authoritarian, bad at explaining things, and ultimately cared more about things such as their research or individual time to actually take up the mantle of teaching youth) as well as a teacher for my life’s work so far, and prospective teacher for my far less important ‘career’ which, yes, I guess helps to pay my upcoming bills.

So, without further ado, here’s what a good teacher is, plain and simple: one who sacrifices. To be a good teacher, one must sacrifice. Teaching is not, never has been, and never will be about the teacher. Teaching is about the students. Let me repeat that a million times louder: You are not important; your students are. Good teaching is not curriculum-focused, enrichment-focused, defined by the use of aids or any particular strategies or methods, but rather good teaching is defined by the focus on the student. The goal of teaching is student learning and growth. What is the only thing that matters in teaching? The students. Please, please, please, please please take this as your Marshall Fields “The customer is always right” mantra, because in education, I think, this is the only area in which that is actually true. Student growth and learning (,which as my earlier post suggested can be thought of as people becoming more independent, pushing for their own freedom, having greater ability to stand up for themselves, do what is right, follow through on their values, and ultimately turn this knowledge and growth back into one’s community to help others do the same and live happily together,) is what definitionally matters and is what the teacher is supposed to be promoting. The teacher does not necessarily know best – sure, perhaps, about the content knowledge (although we all know sometimes even that is not true), but – at least about life and the student’s lives. What is education supposed to be about if not enrichment of the lives of the students who undertake it? How can one focus so much on assessments and standardized tests which teachers themselves believe are not useful, caring so much about the curriculum which one is made to teach but does not necessarily have the ability to teach in the way it’s supposed to be taught and even more often the time, resources, and funding to do so, when teachers could be instead helping their students live the lives which they want to and coming to be independent and self-reliant and motivated human beings who have actually learned the important skills and mindsets for experiencing joy, contributing to something greater than themselves, giving back to one’s community and society, and enacting the change which they wish to see in their and other’s lives….i.e. promoting happiness? This is what a good teacher does. A good teacher resists the administrative and societal restrictions/expectations/necessities which are negative and harmful to the best of their ability, refuses to let that crap get in the way of their students actually growing as human beings and hopefully learning some thinking skills and productive habits along the way, and ultimately forms connections with their students, lets them know that they are valuable, and that life is not found in following or giving in to such arbitrary rules and tasks imposed on one by others, nor is it supposed to be.

This, I think is wonderfully embodied by something that the headmaster (I believe, but may be incorrect?) at Zöld Kakas Líceum here in Budapest explained to us about her students recently, something along the lines of “They don’t have problems. Their problems are/were the absolute stupidity they had to deal with at the previous schools, which made them do ridiculous things.” As a school that seemed very effective at ‘turning students around’, allowing for and teaching to the diversity of its student population, letting students’ intrinsic motivations and desires ultimately determine what they do and do not learn, respecting its students, building good relationships between its students and teachers, and focusing on the important things like having mentorship and counseling/therapy resources available for its students, such that they can work together on the things that ultimately determine individuals’ life happiness such as the ability to build and keep relationships, deal with struggles when they arise, find connection with other people and display empathy, and discover the way of life that one wishes to live in and aspects of oneself that one thinks are important and wishes to develop/display to the world. This is the student-centered approach, and I dare say with full knowledge that one person should not be able to decide this, that it is, in fact, the only correct approach to actual teaching. To be a teacher, I think, often requires (as hinted at above) this sort of mindset of independence and nonviolent resistance to the negative and freedom-limiting aspects of our societies, as oftentimes they are not, in fact, actually geared towards meeting the needs and respecting (all of) the members that make them up. In some sense, what I am saying is that Gandhi is a teacher, Martin Luther King is a teacher, your mother was probably a teacher, social workers are teachers, GOOD politicians can be teachers – someone who taught you what somebody else did once (because they thought it was cool or were motivated by prestige and intellectual curiosity or money and industrial pressure to try and solve this problem to expand the productivity of the labor force or something like that, some of which can be important, but not as much as connecting with human beings and meeting their needs) and a definition they came up with or how to solve a particular very restricted set of problems that are likely to be too formal to be useful to actually meeting your human needs is not really a teacher. Not to the extent that you need, deserve, or should want to become (I say this, myself having taught mathematics in various capacities – obviously to an exponentially greater extent in the past, say, 2 years and presumably even more so over the next 3+ – since I was probably about 13). We all can do better.

Now to ‘teaching’ as it is more so thought of in its limited capacity today:

Good teachers, even those who do not focus as much on their students as they should, differentiate their instruction. Here are a couple examples of pretty good teaching that I have experienced these few months in Budapest: in a class of mine, homeworks are always “pick x of these y>x problems that you want to do/most interest you.” These often include problems that spark the interest of the student by having such qualities as being told with a story, being related to a historical event or development of something within the Hungarian mathematical community and are always focused not necessarily on the content material that we are being presented with, but rather with ‘creativity’, ‘insight’, or ‘the ability to think deeply and apply a clever argument that a 2nd grade could understand.’ This class is wonderful and I feel like I am learning from it, because I am engaged with the material, it seems like I am developing skills which I can apply to whatever I so desire and life path that I choose to go down later, and there is a strong community aspect in the class of us all working together to solve fun, interesting, and challenging problems because that is one of the things that we believe math to be about. In another class of mine, I completed a homework assignment early, because I try to be responsible about it and I have loved the class, so I am always eager to get to work on it.  – However, upon submitting it, I was met with a message from my instructor saying that while my solution was correct, he actually meant to update the problem and wondered WHAT WE TOGETHER SHOULD DO about this dilemma – to accept this solution, have me do the new problem, or find some alternative. Before I even read this e-mail, my interest had been sparked by the problem and wanting to generalize the idea which we had to apply to solve it (i.e. showing that the Fibonacci sequence mod any number n always repeated), and had thought about while on a run. I suggested that instead of re-doing a very similar problem, that for that week, I would work on this instead as it was more interesting to me, seemed like a problem more on my level, and it was clear that I could easily already do the other problem. THIS was an example of true teaching. Rather than forcing me to complete a task which I was not interested in, would not have benefited from doing, and ultimately would have discouraged my learning via having me focus on grades and assigned tasks instead of actual understanding of material, growth, and development – instead of this, I was trusted by my teacher, talked to openly and honestly about the dilemma, and allowed to take control of my own learning and display my initiative. This is a mathematical moment. This is what teaching and learning is about. Students are not supposed to be beholden to teacher whims and demands, teachers are supposed to be teaching and caring about their students learning, and ultimately as Pólya György suggests, the point of teaching even a subject is not about content material, but about teaching students to THINK. The teacher is supposed to build, although really in my opinion the correct verb is emphasize, the student’s “desirable habits of mind” – independence, curiosity, ability to put into action the plans that one has made, belief in oneself and autonomy. Now, actually I disagree with Pólya a lot in one of his views on teachers, i.e. that he thinks of them as “salesmen”….that a teacher should be ‘selling’ the material and trying to get students interested in it. I think that this is in many ways wrong. Salesmen care about sales. Teachers should not care about sales – teachers care about people, about values, about meeting the needs of those who they have entered into this most important relationship with. What if the student does not want to ‘buy’ your ‘product’? What if their needs are not being met, and this is not helping that to be accomplished? What if their interests lie in something else, or they do not believe this will actually make them as happy or is as necessary for their lives as you claim/think it is (hopefully which you yourself believe because you have found it to be helpful and necessary in your life and you want to share that joy with others and contribute to your community of such similarly-interested people), who knows more about the student’s happiness and their lives? (Hint: the students, and if you disagree with this, think about where the root of that disagreement stems from, and whether or not it is because your teachers believed contrarily) How much do salesmen care about clients over their sales? I would beg to offer that whatever that amount is, teachers should certainly far surpass it and frankly be insulted by the comparison. A teacher should not act – a teacher should not lie (the ‘noble lie’, I will remind you, is one told by the pre-determined elite, not out of care or belief in those to whom it is told, but rather to promote order and foolish belief in consistency and the status quo – Emerson’s “hobgoblin of little minds.”), a teacher takes the opportunity that they have of open ears and young minds and plastic hearts and helps to let them mold themselves into the human beings living lives with each other in the way that they want to, yet are told a million times not to, because to do so would require trust and change and a belief in the equality and simple natural inner worth of people, which is certainly not the way that life is set up for us now. One of the best teachers I ever had started their course by meeting us the first week individually for maybe a twenty-minute to half-hour conversation about our lives and where we came from and where we wanted to go – and, in particular, what we wanted out of college and his class. This displays empathy. This displays care. This shows a student that perhaps, just maybe, a class may actually have some worth and be useful to them outside of the intellectual realm and limited amount of life that analytical discussion – rather than the often far-more important action, feeling, and meeting needs – can help us with. And, less importantly, but still amazingly, given the sad frequency to which I have seen the contrary be done, the class (wait for it….) actually became somewhat tailored to what we had said in those conversations! What a marvelous and absolutely no-brainer idea! Yes, these students will be a significant portion of time with their teacher for the next few months, and yes there will be involvement by all of them in what the class is, maybe perhaps this should be something that is focused on and used to the teacher’s advantage and actually treated like it matters instead of swept under the rug and forgot about for next semester, or school, or career, or life….(Another story, one of the best teachers that I have had academically, was not even close to that important to me life-wise until I discovered much later that she had been a documentary filmmaker, traveling the world doing location pieces but decided to become a Professor because she felt that her work was not actually serving the communities in which she was shooting and decided that doing so and working for companies which profited off of this was against her values. So, then, it appears she believed that going back to school to study political science and hopefully how to enact change through the education of other’s about their political systems and/or putting that into practice – which sadly did not happen – via some activism, was how to do that better.)

Bad teachers, contrarily, do not do this. The worst thing that a teacher can do, by far, is to not care about their students. I should have much more to say about this, and perhaps sometime I will when it is not almost 2 in the morning, but suffice it to say, bad teachers do not actively promote their students’ creativity, independence, interests, and make good uses of their time, as mutually agreed upon what that actually is – instead, bad teachers put themselves and what they believe that to be in front of their students and often do not listen or find it worthwhile enough to change their ways when a student comes to them with their feelings, needs, desires, and ideas about their own education and how it could be improved, and what they want to do with their life, because ultimately the bad teacher does not see that as their job, but rather allows themselves to be too caught up in their belief that they are an expert in what their content material is and that their job is simply to make their students learn it to the extent and in the way that the teacher desires. That seems like a pretty concise summary to me.

But, remember, if one as a student falls subject to such a bad teacher that fails to see one’s worth, that does not actually lessen one’s value, much as it would be convenient for them if that were the case. Rather, simply it is to be taken as more impetus to take charge of one’s education and life and learn outside the classroom, where most learning is done anyways. Society learned (at least a smidgen) from Martin Luther King preaching in the streets to mass crowds of people, Einstein worked in a patent office, Erdős Pál notably did not go to school for a portion of his childhood and developed his talents through independent work and urged the “epsilons” he found to do the same – did Pósa Lajos need any secondary school training or big formal mathematics education to prove Dirac’s Theorem by the time he was 15? No…in fact, it is possibly suggested that the reason there are so many mathematicians in Hungary is not at all because of the formal education system, but rather because of things like KöMaL, students being given the opportunity to work together outside of school, and following real interests rather than the tasks that one is assigned because (as most of us have probably experienced in our own lives) education and living the life that one wants to, including following one’s interests is not something that one necessarily is or needs to be taught, but can be one of the hardest, if not the most important lesson to take the time and actually learn on one’s own, then apply to one’s life. So remember this is important, remember this is probably what will make you happy, because pretty much everyone I’ve ever talked to is more excited and experiences more joy when following what they themselves actually want to do rather than focusing on the work life that they have been told they need to take as seriously as possible and remember that bad teachers weed this out of you. Formal education is not what determines your success nor happiness in life, in fact the numberous studies about anxiety and depression in college might suggest the exact opposite, but you have that power. You can make that time and listen to yourself and not give in. My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. Maya Angelou’s mother taught her that “Some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors”, and she turned out pretty alright. I am sharing this because I believe my autonomy and freedom to be the things that make me happiest and want to share those joys with others so that I can contribute to something greater than myself, if I get to define good teachers and what they say, this is their lesson, stolen from Marshall Rosenberg: “Freedom is a request and need that only you can meet. No one else can meet it for you.” Nor can they teach it to you. It is up to you to be free, and don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise or lessen your freedom in any other way. You deserve to be free.

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2 Responses to Differentiated Instruction/Learning and the Student-Centered Approach; or: What Makes Good and Bad Teachers

  1. Réka says:

    I completely agree that being student centered is a necessary condition of being a good teacher, but unfortunately it’s not sufficient (I think). And let me share something I’ve discovered recently (although it must be obvious to others): being a good or a bad teacher is not an absolute quality, every teacher will be the best teacher for some, and the worst for others (and there is also the question of a good teacher being someone the student thinks is a good teacher, or someone who has favorable effects on him…). For me all this ambiguity reinforces the freedom you are talking about 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • thelessfamousnolan says:

      That’s definitely a good and fair point – obviously the same teachers have different effects on different students and the same students have different effects on different teachers and that is an important thing to remember. I think that is exactly the point, though – teachers and students can achieve, I think, the greatest amount of learning and teaching each other from open and honest dialogue with each other. In particular, teachers and students probably would both benefit more from assuming that the other party is, in fact, considering each other’s best interests and want to aid the learning and teaching processes. This is probably more often a problem with students than teachers, too :), although obviously it varies.

      Also, in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, I agree with you that at some extreme being too student-centered can be bad if it does result in unfavorable treatment of a student or the learning and teaching processes actually being harmed by the closeness of the relationship and/or a student or teacher taking advantage of that. However, just as importantly, we must not forget that while the fact that there are two extremes, each of which is bad, does not necessarily mean that the exact middle is the best spot to be in. In particular, I think the extreme of letting students take charge of their own education and trusting them when they do, in fact, seem motivated to learn the general thing being covered (e.g. critical thinking and problem skills in a math course, becoming a better teacher in an education course, etc…) is a much better extreme to err towards and a far-more significant portion of when problems arise or teaching/learning is not done the best, in fact occurs because people are too close to the other extreme. Thus I would say that being student-centered and differentiating are 1000% necessary conditions, and probably like 75% sufficient. Basically, while it is impossible to be a good teacher without caring for and trusting one’s students, even just doing that makes a better teacher than almost anything else and of the traits in teachers that I have had that I consider good, that one stands out the most.


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