Now read on.
I recently had a conversation with my adviser about "good teachers." He begins his introduction to teaching course asking his students to reflect on these questions. This conversation came back as I read a post by Ken Allen on "Is the world dumbing down?".
In the post, he has a clip of Branford Marsailis who speaks about what he has learned from his students. Basically, he says he has not learned anything, as his students just want to be told they are good, and don't want to work hard to learn. My adviser also mentioned how one of his students felt that much of teaching education focuses on the "touchy-feely stuff" and not on the learning outcomes.
This got me to thinking about which teachers had influenced me the most. There were four teachers who had the greatest impact on my learning. One thing that they had in common was they challenged me, but always let me know that they had confidence that I would meet any challenge.
Miss Relation was my reading and 3rd grade teacher. I can still remember when she was so impressed with how well I did with multiple digit multiplication and complex math concepts (such as sets). As I learned to read, she would always re-enforce it with, "I knew you could do it. See?" But she would never take, "I can't" as an excuse. She was in it with me, guiding me, having confidence that I could do it.
Miss McDonough was one of the toughest teachers I had (5th grade), but when I accomplished something, she would let me know how proud she was that I stuck with it and was able to master it. At no time would she give up on any student. You would achieve her high standards or she (and possibly you) would die trying. Her utter confidence in every student (I never heard her say a negative thing about a student...they weren't smart, they were lazy, what were they thinking?) made you want to show her you could do it.
My middle school math teacher was the first to let me know that I was really good in math...during a time when women were not expected to be good in math. Everything that we did, he would point out the good job I did. This confidence in me, made me confident in myself and I excelled in math as a result.
Finally, one of my professors in graduate school, allowed us to co-create our own curriculum. I loved this class as the students found the readings, presented the content, but were guided by very insightful questions from the professor. He treated us (master and Ph.d students) as knowledgeable students that he could learn from. Some of his questions would make you stop and think (and sweat if you weren't prepared). He was very low key and respectful of the students, which made you want to do the best you could. I still remember many of the discussions we had in the class, and the project I worked on (tariffs and counter-tariffs for the Steel Industry).
Another trait that all of these teachers had was that they knew ME and what I needed to learn. They did not use a cookie cutter approach to teaching and took time out to know what I knew and how I thought. They then used this to help me learn better.
What I learned from poor teachers
Likewise, the teachers that I look on with humiliation and anger, even to this day, taught me what a good teacher does not do.
As I mentioned in my comment to Ken:
"Dumbing down" is in the eyes of the beholder though. What is important is that in the US at any rate, we have begun to classified "smart" or "knowledgeable" as being able to take standardized tests about basic facts (i.e. math formulas, defining terms, and writing in a standard format regardless of audience or purpose). We have also relegated anything outside of math, science, and technology as "fluff" and not real knowledge.
The teachers that impeded by learning only looked at the standards and never bothered to look at what I actually knew. They also had a very narrow view of what "learning" and "knwoledge" was, then labeled those outside of those norms as "not quite smart". I can remember being moved from the "smart" reading group to the "slow" reading group in 1st grade. The major problem was that the teacher taught reading in one way only, and those that did not learn that way were then labeled "slow". It was humiliating for me and I lost all confidence in my studies. She always made it know who the "good" students were and who the "bad" students were.
These teachers also tended to have only the curriculum and book learning, with no abstract or creative activities in the classroom. Students did what the teacher wanted them to do ONLY or else you were a poor student. I remember a home economics teacher telling me how disappointed she was in my cooking class because I didn't follow the recipe exactly. My classmates all liked my changes (for the most part, sometimes they ended in disaster though), but I did not "follow directions."
Finally, the most difficult teachers that really turned me off to learning were those that seemed to exert their power over me as a student. They always had a way of making sure I knew they were in control and knew more than I did, so I should not ask questions of them or interrupt their class flow. In fact, years later, I realized that they did not like me to ask questions because they probably did not know how to answer them.
Dumbing down the World? Or a new way to assess learning?
In some ways, I do think that we are "dumbing down" in the world. But not in the traditional sense. I don't think that a grade these days is complex enough to assess a student's learning. I don't think that many of the teachers from which I learned the most (I still can remember many of the lessons 30-45 years later) would be able to keep up with the "testing". In fact, some of my daughter's teachers that had the qualities I look for in a good teacher were considered "poor" by some parents because their students enjoyed school and the kids did not have enough homework at night! (Even though their students tested high on standardized tests).
The new educational reforms in the US still focus on these simplistic quantitative tests and pitting teachers against students and parents. I have just read about community schools, however, which I hope with create a new educational environment that is based less on numbers and more on learning.