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The Puzzles of Teaching

Teaching is not just socially productive — it's intellectually challenging and constantly changing

October 28, 2015
Puzzle pieces

I’ve been baffled for decades about why teaching is viewed as a socially productive profession, but not as a deeply intellectual one. It is socially productive, of course —  I’m not denying that. But what I find both most fascinating and most overwhelming about teaching is how intellectually challenging it is.

In part, this is because of the number of domains of knowledge that teachers need to master. Knowledge about one’s subject. General pedagogical knowledge, from “teacher moves” to how to create a positive classroom culture. Pedagogical content knowledge: knowledge about what specific techniques are best for conveying one’s particular content; knowledge of likely mistakes and misunderstandings that students will have, and how best to diagnose and address them. Developmental psychology. Social psychology. Politics —  both micro politics, in the classroom and school, and meso and macro politics, as one navigates the school’s roles and position in various larger communities. Organizational design. Formative-assessment development and evaluation. And so forth.

All that knowledge is hard to acquire. But even more importantly, it’s hard to deploy, in the right ways, at the right times, in the right mix. Teachers have to solve puzzles constantly  —  ones that require judgment, not just knowledge and skill. Every minute presents a new intellectual challenge. How can I design a good homework assignment that helps students work through novel ideas? How can I adjust my lesson plan in the three minutes between classes, now that I’ve seen that the primary source text I was planning to use is less accessible to my English language learners than I realized? As I write marginal comments on a student’s paper, how do I provide the right mix of feedback to show that I’m taking her ideas seriously, give clear suggestions about potential improvement, but not overwhelm her with commentary? When a student breaks down in my office about his insecurities at Harvard, or about whether he is truly committed to educational research, how can I respond in a way that is sensitive to his short-term needs as well as his long-term identity development? In setting my learning goals for tomorrow’s Ph.D. prosem class, should I focus our attention on the substantive claims about social capital and inequality, on the methods that different researchers use, or on the interplay between theory construction and empirical research? How do I balance my opposition to grades as empty signifiers that promote ethically dubious conceptions of merit, with my ethical commitments to my students, who need and use grades as currency for access to future opportunities?

These are incredibly hard questions — but they really do make up the daily warp and woof of life as a teacher, and I invite you to join me in this inquiry into the impossible, but also essential, challenges of teaching. There are few definitive answers, but that’s what makes it one of the most intellectually exciting careers in the world.

About the Author

Meira Levinson
Meira Levinson is a political philosopher and professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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K-12 Learning and Teaching School Leadership