Students Will Forget What You Teach, But So What?

Jun 3, 2016

I lately read an article by Will Richardson which lamented the fact that, “most of our students will forget most of the content that they “learn” in school.” Richardson suggests our students forget the content of what they are taught “primarily because the curriculum and classroom work they experience has little or no relevance to students’ real lives.”

The fact that my Medieval literature students will, probably by next year, no longer be able to explain the connection between metaphysics and morality as Boethius explains it— this kind of thing has never much worried me. If education is like the information in a car owner’s manual, then we ought to be worried our students cannot recall the content. However, if we think of education as a thing which both shapes and sustains, like diet and exercise, recollection over the long haul becomes of little importance.

I cannot recall what I ate for lunch the first week of March in 2008, but I am alive today because I did eat. I cannot recall where I went jogging the second week of April 2012, but I am healthy today I because I did jog. I cannot recall the sermon I heard in church on the third week of February in 2004, but I believe in God today because I did hear. All these things, the running and exercise and sermons, kept me alive in body and soul as they happened, and whether I can recall the content of a meal or an exposition of Scripture has little to do with my life today. The shape of my body and the shape of my soul reveal the impress of what I have consumed and considered in the past, not what I can recall today.

If a man eats without moderation for his whole life, it will not matter what he remembers eating by the age of 40, he will be fat. If a man eats with prudence for his whole life, it will not matter what he remembers eating by the age of 40, he will be fit. If a man heeds the word of the Lord his whole life, it will not matter what sermon series he remembers at the age of 40, he will be righteous. And if a student who opens his spirit to the teachings of Boethius and Augustine and Solomon at the age of 16, it will not matter that he can’t pass a test on The Consolation of Philosophy at the age of 40. He will have internalized Boethius, internalized Augustine, become Augustine. The fact that a man cannot recite or recall his marriage vows does not mean he is an adulterer. He might very well have become the vows.   

When the student forgets the content, what will remain? A good teacher expects a loss of memory, but not a loss of form. If your students forget the content, you are not a bad teacher. If your students are not being formed and shaped, however, that forgetting is pure tragedy. 

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs.