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Is ‘filling the pail’ any way to train teachers?


“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” I keep this quote on my desk, says Carol Corbett Burris, principal of South Side High School in New York, for the Washington Post. No one knows who authored it — it is often misattributed to William Butler Yeats. Whoever created it was wise indeed for those whose vocation is educating students upon hearing it, recognize its truth. I reflect on that quote often these days. I worry that the pail fillers are determining the fate of our schools. The ‘filling of the pail’ is the philosophy of those who see students as vessels into which facts and knowledge are poured. The better the teacher, the more stuff in the pail. How do we measure what is in the pail? With a standardized test, of course. Not enough in the pail? No excuses. We must identify the teachers who best fill the pail, and dismiss the rest.  However, educational research as well as the wisdom that comes from instructional practice, tell us that learning happens in the mind of the learner. There is an engagement, a lighting of the fire, which must occur for deep learning to happen. As a young and somewhat naïve teacher, I once argued with Madeline Hunter that if my teaching were perfect, all students would perfectly learn. She smiled and told me that I was wrong…

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