As the end of the school year approaches and I begin reviewing for final exams, a realization hits me full force. The year spent teaching the intricate details of my subject has already been lost to the ether. Entering one ear of my students, briefly taking up a few neural connections just long enough to pass a unit test, and then slowly escaping like invisible wisps out the other.
What a futile existence, it seems, educators lead. But take heart, there is actually statistical evidence that even though it seems students quickly forget what they have been taught, education persists cognitively.
Research shows that learning loss ranges from only 15-30% in relatively short re-testing intervals (such as final exams over material learned at the beginning of the year). So, as much as students complain, they really haven’t forgotten as much as they protest that they have.
Reviewing material learned in previous years, and applying it, such as science courses, which are very repetitive from intermediate through 8th grade, substantially increases the retention. (This addresses a long-standing concern I had about re-teaching the same material my students have already been taught in previous courses. My personality is the type that I only need something explained once and I’m ready to move on, otherwise, I just feel like I’m wasting time.) It’s taken many years of teaching to appreciate that repetition is one of the best teaching strategies to ensure learning “sticks”.
Re-learning something forgotten actually takes much less time than originally spent, proving that the original time spent was worth it. Thus, a biology course taken as a freshman in high school still has merit later on if a biology course is taken in college.
Research even shows that IQ scores increase with years of schooling. Education makes you smarter! (For further information and links to the research visit this great article by Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive scientist.)
What is learned in school has value in various cognitive ways, even if specific details are forgotten. With that being said, in these final days post STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) testing, and preparing for required final exams (why that is required after taking a comprehensive 4 hour state exam… don’t get me started), when teachers are being judged by their students’ standardized test scores, and everyone is cranky and tired, I go back to the quote by Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Education has value, but people’s self-value should be placed even higher. A student that feels that they are a failure because of an end of the year grade or state exam score is a failure on my part. My job was not just to make sure they passed a course or test, it was to inspire them: to challenge them in their ways of thinking, to spark their interest in science so perhaps they will pursue a career in the sciences. My job was to equip them for what they need to graduate, to succeed in subsequent courses, make informed decisions, have choices about their future, contribute to society. My goal that I strive for, but admittedly often fall short of, is for my students to see the value of education, and feel valued themselves. They may forget the formula and definition for potential energy, but I hope they remember that they were always greeted with a smile, treated with respect, had their questions answered, felt their presence was valued. That their growth and mistakes were met with patience and the classroom was a safe place to be. This is one of the most difficult tasks a teacher faces. To teach in a way that inspires, engages, is effective, and at the same time connects in a way that each student feels special.
Not only in teaching, but in all areas of my life, this is a skill in which I am not naturally gifted. I want to have emotional equanimity; to greet and speak with each person as if they were the most important one in the room; to leave people with a feeling of being seen, heard, and valued. Too often I fall short, caught up in my own blinding swirl of thoughts, emotions, and tasks to be accomplished. A few are blessed with these abilities naturally, but for the rest of us, it is a skill that must be learned and practiced. As the end of the school year approaches I reflect on times I fell short. But the cycle continues, and when the next year begins, I’ll try again. “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” There is a deep truth hidden in Maya’s quote. It connects to the meaning of life and our purpose here on Earth- our connections- how we make those around us feel, and vice versa. That’s the life of a teacher. That’s life.