Last weekend I found myself sorting through some saved papers, books, and magazines and I ran across a paper I had written for a History of Philosophy of Education course that I took as a requirement for my Master’s in Education. Sitting on the floor in our upstairs office I read through the paper and thought, “Wow, I still believe in everything that I wrote even though it was 1989 when I submitted that paper.” Of course, it helps that I wasn’t “young” when I wrote it but was 39 years of age with some classroom experience and my own sons were 10 and 12 years old and so I had had plenty of time to form and also confirm my own personal philosophy. In fact, the title of the paper was “Personal Philosophy Paper.”

Here’s how it started…

“I was a seed. My father thought of me as a lump of clay. The educational system that I work in was formed on the thought that the students are lumps of clay. I work within that system knowing that the students were seeds that have sprouted into a variety of plants. The seed analogy assumes that a unique individual is born into the world to be helped in life in order to grow, learn, and flourish as an individual. The clay analogy assumes that all people are born to be taught and molded into educated adults. I have recognized these two distinct views for a long time but the two analogies are perfect to describe them.”

I thought back to when I had written that paper. I was teaching mathematics at a junior high school in southern California. I remembered thinking that many of my colleagues approached teaching with the thought that a student in their class “didn’t learn” something until they had “taught them.” In contrast, I often wondered if my students had some understanding of a topic before I launched into any section of a unit. What had they already learned about fractions? What conceptual understanding did they have? What misconceptions did they have? What should be the best starting point?

Twenty-two years later … I often find myself working with teachers in their classrooms. Sometimes they don’t start a unit by finding out what their students already know. Is it because they believe that students are “lumps of clay” or is it because they’ve just not developed ideas of how to nurture the seeds of student thinking?