Home » Students Need to Lead The Classroom, Not Teachers: Katherine Cadwell (Transcript)

Students Need to Lead The Classroom, Not Teachers: Katherine Cadwell (Transcript)

Full text of educator Katherine Cadwell’s talk titled “Students need to lead the classroom, not teachers” at TEDxStowe conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Katherine Cadwell – Educator

I have the best job in the world. Why? Because I get paid to learn.

I’ve been teaching high school since 1981. And every day my students teach me something new about the subjects that I teach: ancient history and philosophy, and about who they are and how they learn.

I’ve always been excited to get up and go to work in the morning.

Until about five years ago, when I became extremely disillusioned with this profession that I loved, it seemed to me that my high school students were becoming less curious. They seemed to have a harder time with the hard tasks of learning, and a really difficult time when they had to wrestle with confusion.

The most frequent question that I was getting on the first day of school was “Mrs. Cadwell, can you tell me what I need to do to get an A?”

And when I heard that, my heart would sink. But then I realized that these students were doing what they were trained to do. They were trained to focus on answers rather than questions. And it dawned on me that I was being trained as well. I was a cog in a wheel in a system that put a premium on the product, rather than on the process of inquiry.

So I made a decision that I was going to radically change my teaching practice for the benefit of my students but also for the health of our democracy.

Our current educational system is still stuck in the Dark Ages. Despite recent efforts at school redesign, many high school students are in classrooms where they are being asked to absorb massive amounts of information and then regurgitate it back on a test. Many of them have to sit in rows and raise their hands to let their voices be heard.

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I know this because this is what my classroom looked like for years. But it dawned on me that I was promoting those students who knew how to play the game of school and they succeeded. But other students who were equally talented who did not know how to play the game of school or who refused to do so they suffered.

And then I realized that Benjamin Franklin was right when he said never let schooling get in the way of your education.

I also realized that I had to redesign my teaching practice, because the brains of the students that I have in my classes today may be developing in significantly different ways than the brains of students I had 30 years ago, before the invention of electronic devices.

Technology has had untold benefits for our profession of education. Yet teens’ addiction to their devices may be significantly altering the way their brains are wired, making them more distractible, less able to focus, and less likely to complete tasks.

Recent research on smartphone and screen use indicates that prolonged use of these devices by teenagers may promote antisocial behavior, increased political disengagement, depression, and loneliness.

Ask any high school teacher or any parent of a teenager, and they will tell you that the enemy of critical thinking, focused engagement and social interaction is the screen.

Education is from the Latin root “educare” which means to draw out or to be present at birth of. I began to think what if I said to my students: this is the most important device that you own and this is the one that you need to turn on all day every day.

What if I grounded my teaching practice in recent research on how the brain learns? What if I grounded my teaching in questions rather than answers? And what if I stepped back to allow my students to step up and engage in the messiness of learning?

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Socrates believed that education is the kindling of a flame rather than the filling of a vessel. I wanted to be present at the birth of my students ideas and I wanted them to find their own voice. So I decided to do something radical. I turned my classroom over to my students.

This is what my classroom looks like now. In my classroom, students sit around an oval table called the Harkness table. And in our Harkness discussions, the students drive the conversation. They read difficult primary source materials. They ask and answer essential questions. And they solve difficult challenges that I put before them.

They may not merely write down what I say, because I am NOT talking. I may be at the table and I may say something from time to time. But I do not direct the conversation, nor do I direct them towards an answer that I want them to find.

Instead, they need to work together to construct meaning and draw their own conclusions from the challenges that I put before them. This pedagogy is grounded in inclusion, all voices are valued and encouraged. I often say to my students none of us is as smart as all of us.

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