In Quest of the Most Important Thing

Cindy Gay

What is the most important thing that we can teach our students? Could the Unity and Diversity Writing Project have picked a more challenging prompt? Grappling with a clear, concise answer to this question has filled most of my contemplation and procrastination time this fall. I’ve come to realize that this question has been at the heart of my 34-year journey to become a better educator, and that my answer to this question has evolved over the years - and that I’m still struggling to find a singular Most Important Thing.

As a first-year teacher, the ink on my undergraduate diploma still damp, the Most Important Thing would have assuredly been content-based. As a beginning teacher, I’m certain I felt that all content was equally important, but as this became too overwhelming to manage, I honed my focus to specific disciplines of biology: evolution, molecular genetics, and most frequently, ecology. Variations on the notion of content as the Most Important Thing emerged over the first decades of my career, shifting from specific disciplines to overarching themes such as interrelationships and structure-function.

In the middle decades of my career, skills supplanted content as the Most Important Thing. I learned that students who lacked the skills to access, interpret, analyze, and apply content were little better off than those who had never been exposed to the content at all. It was during this time that Grant WigginsSome text with a footnote.1’ concept of Enduring Understanding was gaining traction in education practice. Understanding meant something much greater than having knowledge, even expert content knowledge. Focusing on skills, particularly the skills of scholarship became the Most Important Thing. The phrase “being a scholar” became part of the lexicon of my classroom. Letters and notes from former students confirm this shift, often asking if I’m still turning my current students into scholars.

I can still make a strong case for the importance of content and skills. I now believe, however, the Most Important Thing I can teach my students is caring. I want them to care about each other, care about our planet, care about their education and to care about something, anything, deeply and with passion. I know this may sound corny. Some of you may stop reading now because “caring” sounds fluffy and lacking in rigor. Some of you will say I’m cheating because I’m talking about caring at different levels and thus it’s not really THE Most Important Thing.

I want my students to care about the humanity that exists in each of us. Creating a caring, respectful community in my classroom has created the space for students to struggle, to fail, to succeed, and to grow as scholars. It has provided my at-risk students hope. Caring for each other as learners creates a safe and supportive space to take academic risks, to consider alternatives, to be creative and innovative. Caring about each other allows me to nurture an ethic of excellence and allows each of us to be learners and teachers. Caring about those who share our classroom opens the possibility to caring about those who share our school, our community, our planet.

I want my students to care about our planet as the source of life itself. Caring about our planet, both its living and nonliving components, enables us to be filled with a sense of wonder and see the elegance and beauty that exists at all scales, from the microscopic to the geomorphologic. If we care about the planet, we will be instilled with the responsibility to be its steward. On a planet of diminishing resources ever taxed by a burgeoning human population, we must care about the planet that sustains us to begin to tackle the growing global issues facing our future.

I want my students to care about their education and to understand the privileges that education provides. I want them to develop a global perspective, realizing that in many parts of the world, education is inaccessible because of economic circumstances, religious restrictions or political climate. I want my students to care about their education, not only as a gift, a privilege, but also as critical consumers. I don’t want them to blindly accept the gift of education, to merely care about having one, but to care about the quality of education they are receiving. To expect, and - when necessary - demand, opportunities to challenge their current worldview; opportunities to identify and confront underlying assumptions; opportunities to apply their education in the solution of authentic and important problems. Students who care about their education will become adults able to see beyond popular media, beyond cultural misconceptions, and to make thoughtful, informed decisions.

I want my students to care deeply about something. Anything. A subject, a discipline, a cause. Caring about something leads to passion. Passion evokes courage, discipline, persistence, and action. I endeavor to share my passion for biology daily with my students. I care that they understand why I’m passionate about the discipline. This caring underlies the late nights and early mornings, the bad biology jokes and songs. In a framed student letter on my desk, Kayla wrote, “I hope that someday I will be as passionate about something as you are about teaching us biology.” That is my hope, not only for Kayla, but for each of my students. That they will care deeply about something - their education, each other, the planet. This, I believe, is the Most Important Thing.

As I write this essay, I realize that the Most Important Thing has become broader and more elusive. Content knowledge, while continuously growing in quantity, can be more clearly defined, taught, and assessed. Defining, teaching and assessing skills has proven more difficult than content but is still manageable. I continually find myself struggling with the teaching and assessing of caring as the Most Important Thing. Can caring be taught, let alone assessed in the span of a single course? The challenge is great, and I will seek the help and support of many, knowing full well that the Most Important Thing will continue to evolve in the future.

1. Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Cindy Gay has been teaching science to high school and college students for the past 34 years. She currently teaches general biology, AP Biology, and human anatomy & physiology at Steamboat Springs High School in Steamboat Springs, CO. Cindy is grateful for many learning opportunities as a member of the BSCS/NABT AP Biology Leadership Academy, an HHMI Ambassador, and the advisory board for the Center for Biomolecular Modeling. In her spare time, Cindy enjoys hiking, mountain biking, gardening, and spending time with her husband and two children. Her daughter, Jamie Gay, is a first-year biology teacher who also contributed to this project.