The Long-Term Project

David Knuffke

“It is worth a lot of bother to be able to think properly.” - The Scarecrow, “The Wizard of Oz”

I have a lot of fun doing my job. I think it’s a really great job, but I also think that’s largely a function of how much fun I have doing it. I understand that doing a job that you actually like doing is not the most common thing in the world. From a professional standpoint, it’s a fortunate place to be.

Fun is important. Like all of the teachers who are writing this year, I’ve got my favorite topics and my favorite lessons. Like all of the teachers who are writing this year, these topics and lessons span a variety of topics and time spans over the course of the year that I work with students. I’m sure I could pick any of those to talk about here and write a compelling narrative for why they are my favorites.

I’m not going to do that - because that’s not the topic. We are here to talk about the most important thing we teach our students. I’ve thought about the topic a lot, particularly over the past few months, and I don’t think there’s any way around this central thought: The most important thing I teach my students is not my favorite thing to teach my students.

Let’s zoom out a bit. U.S. public education is not without its flaws, but pound for pound, I think it holds its own against any other similarly long-term, free, public education system that has ever been attempted. The major virtue of the system is that, in its most idealized conception, it is offered to anyone who can show up to receive it, removed from any real consideration of its external value. It is offered as the only real, widely available avenue toward self improvement that our society has. These are fancy ways of saying that it is a gift in the truest sense of the term- given freely with no obligation of repayment.

That said, there is a ceaseless parallel conversation in America about what, exactly, the extrinsic purpose and value of the project is. This kind of thinking shows up in many parts of the public system, the majority of which I find disagreeable. Some of these are overtly hostile to the project: The driving logic behind corporate reform efforts for example, or the larger notion that schools should function as businesses. And others are much more benevolent: The recent push for ensuring “college and career readiness” in students, or the STEM/STEAM/STREAM fad.

But, having acknowledged that these types of conversations are extant for the sake of completeness, in what follows I’m going to do what I would like to do about them in reality. I’ll pretend they don’t exist.

If we take the premise that the purpose of U.S. education is to learn for the sake of learning, then I think it follows that the most important thing that I can teach my students is how to be a learner. Here I am not using “learner” in the diminutive that public school teachers typically employ, which is to say “child-aged students.” Instead I use the term to mean a mature and functional member of a society that has decided that the main project of the first 18-to-25 years of life should be learning for its own sake.

This is not a fixed target. The project does not end with a person receives their diploma. It is a process that must last for their entire lifetime. So, in the year I have with my own group of learners, the imperative is to develop those attitudes, skills, and behaviors in my students that are going to serve them in the longest term that they have.

That’s the most important thing I teach my students. My own particular subject specialization means that the lens by which I work to accomplish this is largely focused on the scientific enterprise, but that doesn’t really affect the larger project. In some sense it does, but only for the same reason that my colleagues who teach English, or art, or any of the other subjects that are offered in my school have similarly specific lessons to give our students: There are fundamental parts of knowledge in every subject that serve to ground thinking about what it means to learn about what it means to be a human.

Those of us who teach science have no monopoly on the teaching of insights, however much some of us might want to believe that we do. Besides, I don’t think that the science is the most important part of the most important thing that I teach. That designation is reserved for the ways of thinking that I work to foster in my students. There is a benefit here in teaching science, as the entire discipline is about learning how to learn. More than anything else, it seems to me that at its root, science is just a somewhat formalized process of learning. In that sense, I’m lucky in my choice of teaching topic.

Subject and coursework considerations aside, the most important lesson I teach is taught in many other ways in my class. It’s taught in how I interact with my students, how I approach the hard problems that we encounter, and how I respond to their difficulties. It’s taught through all of the micro-interactions that make up a teacher’s day. It’s taught when I tell them about myself, about my life, and about the things that I have learned and the things that I am learning about, and why those things are interesting and important to me.

It’s taught when I remind them that I am not the authority, only one specific “expert” with one specific thought process, and that my thought process is just as prone to error as any other, but that I am, perhaps, a bit more practiced at finding and dealing with those errors when they appear. It’s taught to them in who I am: one example of what an adult can look like in this place and time.

I am one version of a human being engaged in the lifelong project of learning what that means. This is the most important thing that I teach my students. And it is my hope that more than anything else, this is what I help them learn about when I am fortunate enough to be their teacher. If it all goes to plan, when our year together ends, I will have helped them in this enterprise.

David Knuffke teaches children science in Deer Park, NY, where he has had the good fortune to spend the entirety of a 12-year career. Outside of the immediate interests of his job, his major foci are his family, and the professional networks that he is a part of. He is the current moderator of the College Board’s AP Biology Teacher Community, a New York State Master Teacher, and the co-host of “Horizontal Transfer,” a weekly podcast about education.