Teaching, Learning and Responsibility


It’s a word used often and typically embraced without question. I mean, how can you argue against “responsibility?” For some reason, I often get a bit uncomfortable when I encounter the word “responsibility.” For example, The Washington Post recently ran a piece by Daniel Willingham entitled “Teacher accountability schemes let teens off the hook.”
The author suggests that we aren’t teaching students to be responsible. He may be right but the sentence that caught my attention was this: “But if you believe that students should become more responsible for their learning as they age, shouldn’t teachers become less responsible?” Now I don’t pretend to know exactly what Willingham meant when he wrote that sentence, but what I got from it was that “responsibility” is this quantifiable entity that can be divided into percentages. If I am 75% “responsible,” then you only need to be 25% “responsible.” Or we can each be 50% “responsible.” We just need to make sure our percentages add up to 100%. As students become “more responsible,” Winningham suggests teachers logically are “less responsible.” I don’t think so.

My contention is that teachers are responsible for teaching. It’s their job, all the time – 100%. Not less as students mature. Not more when children are younger. The responsibility for teaching starts and ends with the teacher. End of story.

Things are considerably more complex – at least to me – when we talk about students and responsibility. Even the best teachers in the world – those who are completely “responsible” – can’t make their students learn. Learning is done by the student. Clearly, the teacher plays a crucial role in student learning, but ultimately any learning that takes place comes from the student.

As an educator, I want students to learn. As a parent, I want my children to learn. But “responsibility” intimates that it is, well – their “responsibility.” Something they “should” do. While I want learning to happen, I’m uncomfortable saying that students “should” learn, that they have a “responsibility” to learn. Unlike teachers who choose to become educators, students aren’t voluntary participants in the educational process. They are required to go to school. I’m not saying it’s wrong for us to want them to learn. I simply wonder if it’s fair to talk about “responsibility” without giving equal attention to the other side of the coin: “freedom.” Can there be “responsibility” without “freedom”?