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bennett's picture

Bennett Smith

Brain, Education, and Inquiry -- Grobstein

Web Paper #1


What, and whom, is an education for? There are, of course, a litany of easy answers: "it's a stupid question, it's an unproductive question, it's obvious that an education is a good thing and that it enables better lives", etc. And there are, of course, some good reasons behind those answers. Education has traditionally improved the quality of people's lives: it enables us to make better decisions, it makes possible new ways of acting in the world and makes visible new possibilities more generally. I have no intention of simply disparaging the many amazing things that school can do for people, and have done for me. But in the midst of fever-pitched debates about education "reform" (as though "education," whatever we mean by that, were corrupt or unruly), it can be easy to lose a sense of the bigger picture: why it's important to educate, what should be taught at all. This paper will attempt to work carefully and critically through one particular aspect of the educational system, teaching, with an aim to articulating what it is that teachers do, and why thinking about the quality and character of teaching as a crucially important component of education both makes sense and has some very local applications. 

One critical issue, to begin, has dominated class discussion both in our meetings and online: how do we reconcile the need for an education system (which is regular and regulated, as well as capable of being widely administered/administrated) with the seemingly irreducible plurality of individual people? This gets right to the heart of many of central debates about the education system today: how do we systematically captivate classrooms of fidgety kids, each with different interests and daydreams? How do we design curricula, especially at lower grade levels, that simultaneously engage children who are potentially from widely different backgrounds and have widely different interests?

        One recent set of answers to these questions focuses on the role and capacities of teachers. There is something very intuitive about making this link: teachers are the human interface between a body of knowledge and students, at every age group. Teachers, at some level, do the essential work of translating facts into reality, for students. A New York Times Magazine article from March 2010 notes that testing requirements imposed by No Child Left Behind have generated a tremendous amount of data, and that “[w]hen researchers ran the numbers in dozens of different studies, every factor under a school’s control produced just a tiny impact, except for one: which teacher the student had been assigned to. Some teachers could regularly lift their students’ test scores above the average for children of the same race, class and ability level. Others’ students left with below-average results year after year.” (1) A similar article from The New York Times discusses research demonstrating that teachers are critical to the education of students in grades as low as kindergarten: “[Neither class size nor peers] came close to explaining the variation in class performance [between the two experimental groups]. So another cause seemed to be the explanation: teachers. Some are highly effective. Some are not. And the differences can affect students for years to come.” (2) It seems reasonable, with such strong conclusions, to suggest that further research will probably strengthen these connections.

        From this data we can at least provisionally draw a wonky and unscientific but hopefully compelling connection: a critical aspect of education is training individuals to function interpersonally. Teachers are so important because they enact education: the world of knowledge is fundamentally about exchange and plurality, and what teachers do is, on some level, to embody the outside: for our purposes, society and knowledge. Teachers, aside from simply imparting knowledge, train students to be in the world by the simply virtue of being highly visible exemplars for children (even as those children grow into adulthood). Teachers show students, from the very beginning of their educations, how to interact with other people, understand them, and be generous and receptive to difference. Teachers model ways of being in the world, which includes but is not limited to ways of thinking. 

        This is not only abstract, nor does it only happen in The New York Times. As I’ve already mentioned, simply participating in this class involves probing the possibilities of what teaching can do for education and how teaching differently can help people learn differently (and perhaps better). In high school, the teacher who single-handedly pushed me to learn the most that I could possibly learn (and in so doing, learn how I learn and think in the world) was named Ms. Tookey; there’s simply no way that I would be the person that I am today, occupying the place and role that I do, without having been led through school by her. And I think that what she did most essentially was not impart knowledge to me but show me how to be taught. She taught me how to read (which means being patient, allowing oneself to be taken by/with a text, in some sense); how to be critical of discursive frameworks and bias (because discourses are the stuff of people in the world); how, generally, to responsibly engage with the world and what people in it think about it. 

        What we can take away from this way of thinking, I hope, is to consistently emphasize, for at least some of the right reasons, why the quality and capability of teachers is so important. Education is increasingly moving away from the model of direct human interaction between teacher and pupil -- for example, Internet colleges promise (and may or may not deliver; it’s probably too soon to say) to impart an education on par with many brick and mortar institutions. I think that it is absolutely worth holding the teacher-student relationship in esteem, which would entail thinking about it as an indispensable feature of the education system which deserves study and attention. 

As a brief means of connecting these potentially abstract concerns with our class, I’ll sketch out two main ways that thinking about teaching in this particular way is deeply relevant to our class. The first way is through the basic dynamic between teacher and student: as people have repeatedly mentioned in class, Professor Grobstein acts generally as a facilitator and knowledge reference, so that we are left to do a substantial chunk of the “teaching” and learning ourselves. This is experimental in some important sense: we have the opportunity to compare our experience in this class with other courses that we’re taking now, and with courses we’ve taken in the past. This gives us some qualitative data, which is just as important as quantitative data, if not as widely usable: how we feel about this class is likely to have a substantial impact on how we think about the fundamental dynamic between student and teacher, and to make us think deeply and critically about what it is actually like to be taught. In that way, we are both writing about and engaging directly with some of the critical issues of modern discourses of education.

        The second is that a verifiable link between the quality or methodology of a teacher and the success of that teacher’s pupils opens the possibility, and indeed even suggests the existence, of a link between pedagogy and physically rooted processes in the brain. There is likely some robust relationship between individual areas of the brain and the stimuli they habitually receive in educational contexts (of which the teacher is a critical part). If it is true that there is some link between the two, then we can try to learn more about how the interpersonal exchange of teaching acts on the brain, and try to tailor our system to the requirements of our physiology. I am, I think, getting ahead of myself here (I’ll save exploring a neurological connection for the next paper), but I also think that it’s worth pointing out how features of the educational system which are identified as critical at this juncture have the possibility of being very important, even more important, later in the semester. 

        It’d be absurd to try to understand what education “is for” in the course of three to five pages. But I hope that this can stand as one small contribution to the way that we think about our education system and what it aims to achieve, and can help orient the way that we think about aspects of the education system which are worth emphasizing and/or improving. If we think carefully and critically about education, as we’ve been doing, we can start to see things in ways that aren’t completely obvious and are actually pretty interesting and possibly important. If we start at the very beginning, thinking about what it is that we think it’s important to get out of education and why, we might be able to imagine a system that better serves those needs. 


(1) Green, Elizabeth. “Building a Better Teacher.” The New York Times Magazine, March 2 2010. Retrieved online at

(2) Leonhardt, David. “Economic Scene: The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers.” The New York Times, July 27, 2010. Retrieved online at





Paul Grobstein's picture

what teachers do, should do?

"Teachers show students, from the very beginning of their educations, how to interact with other people, understand them, and be generous and receptive to difference. Teachers model ways of being in the world ..."

I like this a lot, though I might modify it slightly to read "... how to interact with other people, other organisms, and the non-living world in which they are all embedded ..."  Or, perhaps even better " ... a possible way to interact with ...".  The upshot, in any case, seems to me a bit different from teachers as "human interface between a body of knowledge and students ..." What's important isn't the existing body of knowledge but rather the means of construction of personal knowledge, new knowledge?