Empower Teachers To Lead, Encourage Students To Be Curious

Our guest author today is Ashim Shanker, a former English Language Arts teacher in public schools in Tokyo, Japan. Ashim has a Master’s Degree in International Education Policy from Harvard University and is the author of three books, including Don’t Forget to Breathe. Follow him on Twitter at @ashimshanker.

In the 11 years that I was a public school teacher in Japan, I came to view education as a holistic enterprise. Schools in Japan not only imbued students with relevant skills, but also nurtured within them the wherewithal to experience a sense of connection with the larger world, and the exploratory capacity to discover their place within it.

In my language arts classes, I encouraged students to read about current events and human rights issues around the world. I asked them to make lists of the electronics they used, the garments they wore, and the food products they consumed on a daily basis. I then had them research where these products were made and under what labor conditions.

The students gave presentations on child laborers and about modern-day slavery. They debated about government secrecy laws in Japan and cover-ups in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. They read an essay on self-reliance by Emerson and excerpts on civil disobedience by Thoreau, and I asked them how these two activists might have felt about the actions of groups like Anonymous, or about whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. We discussed the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison experiment, exploring how obedience and situational role conformity might tip even those with the best of intentions toward acts of cruelty. We talked about bullying, and shared anecdotes of instances in which we might unintentionally have hurt others. There were opportunities for self-reflection, engagement, and character building—attributes that I would like to think foster the empathic foundations for better civic engagement and global citizenship.

Yet, according to a 2007 report by the Carnegie-Knight Task Force, about 75 percent of U.S. teachers reported dedicating less time to current events topics in the classroom than in the past. The same study found that 90 percent of teachers agreed that current events helped engage students with lesson material. However, only nine percent of educators polled thought that teaching about current events increased student performance on standardized tests.

Fortunately for me, I did not have to face the pressures of high-stakes testing and evaluation. The administration of my school in Japan afforded me the autonomy to lead, and provided the support necessary to inculcate a sense of curiosity and self-guidance in my students. I would like to think that my efforts encouraged students to remain critical of authority (even if that meant questioning their own teachers, leaders and institutions).

When I returned to the United States after 11 years, I was disappointed by the rhetoric about what constituted effective teaching. Instead of empowering teachers to lead and encouraging children to be curious, there was an almost exclusive focus on students’ testing competencies. This ran counter to my belief that it was less important for students to be able to respond correctly to prompts, and more important for them to be able to ask good questions and challenge conventional answers. How else would our youth lead the way in entrepreneurship, science and innovation?

Nevertheless, there are those who maintain that “good” teachers are those whose students show greater improvement in standardized tests. Stanford’s Eric Hanushek, for example, proposes that the key to raising teacher quality is to measure it through value-added models (VAMs) and make personnel decisions based on these VAMs. Proponents of test-based accountability contend that higher testing performance is an indicator that students are acquiring the skills necessary for gainful employment in the global economy. This is, of course, correct but there are other relevant skills, equally necessary for labor force participation that might get undermined by an overemphasis on test-based skills.

According to a recent OECD report, innovation in the global workforce might be enlivened through greater emphasis on competencies such as collaboration, creativity, problem solving and interpersonal communication skills. Naturally, these skills are not only valuable in the workforce, but also in developing students’ capacities as individuals and global citizens. Japan’s Ministry of Education (MEXT) has stated that the objectives of education in Japan included the “fostering [of] an attitude…valuing justice and responsibility, mutual respect and cooperation, autonomy and independence, as well as a sense of morality and a civic spirit respecting life and nature and contributing to the development of the international community.” By focusing too much on test achievement, we might not only undermine the broader goals of education but also lose opportunities to teach diverse skills and deeper social values, which are so critical to a student’s sense of personal and civic responsibility.

This doesn’t mean that we should ignore testing altogether. However, before we make causal inferences about teacher impacts based on tests, we must first equip educators with the autonomy and the structural and organizational support that they need to be effective. Johnson, Kraft and Papay (2012) found that positive working conditions, school culture, good relationships with colleagues and effective school leadership were strongly associated with higher teacher satisfaction and student achievement. In order to attend to students’ academic and life needs more effectively, teachers need better supports from both their communities and from their schools.


“Honor teachers as leading members of the community rather than servants like firemen or policemen.” So said novelist Kurt Vonnegut in this 1991 interview. I’m inclined to agree.

Teachers must be leaders of ideas, our guides to intellectual and philosophical inquiry. They shouldn't push the solutions, but compel unique questions. Not only should they encourage students to question long-held and time-honored assumptions, but they should also inspire them to question the constraints that bind them, and particularly the authority that oppresses them. Our teachers must aim to guide students to think critically, to ask questions, and to stop obsessing over the right answer. Policymakers, parents and teachers should be willing to ask themselves whether expecting students to always perform well on tests leaves them sufficient mental capacity to ask questions, and to be curious about the larger dynamics of the world surrounding them. If a child is to have any agency, any hope at all for future happiness, curiosity is the key.

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