On the importance of inspiration

I’ve recently found myself defending the role of teachers (and professors) as sources of inspiration. This is a little bizarre to me; it’s something that I really took for granted that everyone believed in and accepted.

The pushback is actually  coming from some of my colleagues in the educational research field. I think the reasoning goes like this: “If we have good methods, shown to reliably improve student learning, then teachers who properly implement those methods are good teachers.”

And let me tell you, we do have good methods, shown with exceptionally strong evidence to improve student learning. Anyone who tells you otherwise is welcome to debate me with counter-evidence. I will crush them in the debate. But I don’t think that that’s all that matters.

Excellent methods definitely help people do well once those people are committed – or even just vaguely interested. But they won’t get people hooked. Bill Nye got people of my generation hooked on science (I got hooked by 3-2-1 Contact). Carl Sagan got my dad hooked on science. The Life and Planet Earth miniseries will be inspirational for a whole generation of biologists, as will next year’s update to Cosmos. And while people can fall off the hook, we have no chance of reeling them in if they’re never hooked.

As researchers, we want to believe that our methods are both necessary and sufficient. In reality, they are necessary if we want to reach more people and teach better – but good methods are not sufficient on their own.

One of the things we hear about other countries’ education systems, once we get past the number-of-hours and amount-of-funding questions, is that education is more highly valued in the countries that are doing best or improving most. China, Korea, Norway, all of them have a serious culture of education among both teachers and parents. When parents genuinely care about how good the schools are, when they respect teachers and teaching as a profession, when they’re willing to put their money where their mouths are with their taxes and put in time working with their kids, that’s a big deal. Parents are absolutely part of the core of inspiration that kids need. Teachers (and professors, and coaches, and adult role models in general) are also a big part of that core.

When we show students how much we absolutely love our topics, when our enthusiasm shines through, students pick up on that. Even if they never go on to learn science in college, if they never pick up a single scientific book in their lives, we can still teach our students to care about science. Hook ’em with inspiration, teach ’em with methodology. One or the other alone is good, but it’s not great.

Of course, now the question comes up: how do teachers and professors learn to be inspirations? How can we encourage – and teach – teachers to be inspirational?


A few inspiration/engagement links:




About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on June 13, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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