We Must Do More Than Fill Students’ Vessels

I was especially dissatisfied with my own teaching when I started.

Early in my teaching career, I was presented with a paradox that continues to shape my interests in education. When I was teaching high school computer application courses, my students would learn to use a word processor (in the day when stuents were likely to only have access to computers at school). I was very thorough and made sure they learned how to use nearly every feature (although word processors then had many fewer features than they do today!). We spent a lot of time on it, and together we worked hard so that nearly everyone would be successful on the challenging word processing test.

What surprised me, however, was that a few weeks later, students would return to me, announce that they had a paper to write, and ask me to show them how to use “that word processor thing” again!

I couldn't understand why these students didn't remember how to use the program. These were bright students who had had no problems during class, and who had done well on the test. Very little time had gone by since we had last used the word processor. There was no reason that they should not know how to use it.

There was obviously something I didn't understand about learning. It was the first time I started to question how learning took place, and prompted my inquiry into how people learn.

I fear that during my first few years of my teaching, all I had really taught most of my students was that I was knowledgeable within my field. I tried to convey my knowledge to my students but I was simply trying to “fill their vessels.”

The way I organized the curriculum wasn't even oriented toward learning; it was organized for teaching. I was mostly concerned with questions like when were the standardized tests and what would be on them, when would other teachers be teaching related ideas, what would kids need to know for the next course? All my content was organized the way an expert might look at it. It was neatly categorized and sequenced like it might be done by someone who was already familiar with the information.

I never asked myself how people might learn the same information. I never asked how experts had acquired their vast knowledge; was it through a logical sequence or some other order?

Some of my kids seemed to do okay, but not enough of my students to make me feel like I had done a satisfactory job. I knew I was teaching the way all my teachers had taught me, so I knew I was teaching correctly. But somehow contradictions, like with the word processor, kept happening, and I started to doubt if it really were the right way to teach…

Those contradictions and doubts led me to question my assumptions about teaching and learning. Eventually, I found tidbits that helped shape my work, such as the quote from the classical Greek philosopher, Plutarch, “A mind is a fire to kindled, not a vessel to be filled.

My job wasn't to give students information but to inspire and nurture them. And like Ian Jukes says, “Teachers don't need to be fire kindlers, they need to become arsonists!”