More Curated Excerpts from Earl C. Kelley

Posted on April 6, 2014


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This time of year, as we’ve got much more behind us than ahead of us, my mind begins to straddle the adjacent school years. And this is typically when I try to reconnect with ideas that are foundational to my development as a teacher. I begin to ask, What am I doing? So it seems appropriate to turn again to perhaps my favorite book on teaching, Education for What Is Real, by Earl C. Kelley. (First published in 1947, but now long out of print and fashion.) This time around, I turned to his treatment of the question, What is the teacher for? So here you go:

No responsible educator ever advocated, for example, that children be permitted to do exactly what they please. Yet many people believe this to be the case. Some ill-advised enthusiast may have said this to a class at one time, although I doubt it. To the average citizen, this is too often what educational experimentation means (94).

To assume that when the teacher is no longer the authoritarian each is free to do whatever enters his mind is to assume that we have only to choose between autocracy and anarchy. There is another choice, which we sometimes call democracy. This implies giving up individual goods for group goods. When a person does this, he has less freedom than he had under autocracy, for when he was under the autocrat, the autocrat took all of the responsibility, and the student was in conscience free to do whatever he could get away with(95).

[The teacher] needs great skill in being a group member, otherwise he will find himself the leader of the group, and his purposes will be inflicted on the group. He must be able to advise, when asked, and to guide, when asked, without causing the group to arrive at his predetermined goal. To steer between being useless and authoritarian, so that he can help the group attain its ends, is the great art of teaching(96).

The teacher who pretends to help a group attain its goal while jockeying his own ends is of course dishonest(96).

Not all can have the same experience, not all can profit from the same experience, but the schoolroom can provide types of doing which will reach all. The more timid and faithless will worry that the students will perversely indulge in miseducative experiences; and so they may, to a degree and for a time. But students are curious about the world in which they live…(97).

[The teacher] is the one who marshals resources so that problems worth solving and reasonably able to be solved can be encountered. He is a source of information and technique, using his experience and knowledge to keep the problem solving going forward. He is the child’s tie to the adult world, made strong by rapport and understanding. Such teaching is not easy. It calls for infinite resourcefulness. The idea that the teacher who gets students to work on their own purposes abrogates his responsibility is far from true(98).

A stimulating experience for any teacher is to stop and ask himself why he teaches his subject. What is it for? How does it contribute to the growth of the learner? Many teachers confronted with this problem will they that they teach it because it is good. This leads to the query, “Good for what? for whom? when? and why?”(100).

Subject matter is the medium through which the adult mind of the teacher and the immature mind of the learner find communion. It is the vehicle for growth. Knowledge is not power in itself, but knowledge which enables the individual to function more effectively adds to his power. The particulars of subject matter must be those for which the learner can find functional use of his own concrete world(101).