How we teach matters


I attended an educational conference session recently which really resonated with me. Dr. David Smith from Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan gave me language to explain the ‘why’ behind what I do what I do.   I found his session both informative and motivating and will attempt to synthesize my ‘take aways’ in this reflection.


The actual process of teaching has a lot to do with formation of students. What we emphasize, what motivates us and the ethics that drive our planning and choice of resources all influence how our teaching is received and integrated into the ‘social imaginaries’ of participants.


Foundational to an understanding of the importance of the process of teaching is philosopher Charles Taylor’s (2004) concept of social imaginaries – understood as a common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy. (If you’ve read the series of my posts on peace leadership you’ll recognize my admiration for Taylor.  I am quite literally thrilled when I am able to ‘connect the dots’ among thinkers I admire and bridge their work to practical applications.) A few examples will clarify the idea of social imaginaries.  If you ask someone to go out for a coffee, you’re looking forward to a chat and to get to know one another a bit better – it’s not just that you need something to drink because you’re thirsty!  This simple example demonstrates a shared understanding that is a part of our social imaginary. Smith provided a more educational example suggesting that if we as educators choose to teach math using real-world situations like tsunamis and this enables discussions about social responsibilities, early warning systems and how to get supplies to people in need expeditiously, then the way we teach math is part of the formation of our students. We are teaching more than functional mathematics (wave height and distance between waves etc), we’re using mathematics as a tool for the common good.  Another example relates to nurturing gender equity in the classroom.  Being cognizant of group formation and who is leading student teams makes a statement about who can be a leader.   Through these ways of teaching we are informing the social imaginaries of students.


When I relate this to my context of teacher education and consider the way I teach my special education class, I recognize a parallel example. If in the class I focus only on characteristics of certain disabilities and how to adapt and accommodate in the classroom, I am teaching a functional curriculum that will equip future teachers. But am I teaching them to develop empathy and value people with disabilities? Because I want students to develop a philosophy of inclusion where people with disabilities are valued and cared for as well as equipped and empowered, I teach my pre-service teachers about special education with intentionality to these outcomes.  I bring into the philosophy of inclusion the work of L’Arche and Jean Vanier.  I use case studies with complex ambiguity that develop empathy as well as skill.   I teach students how to relate to parents of students with disabilities and I use video and real pictures, not cartoons to keep the content grounded in the person and being human together.


We teach what we value whether we are explicit about it or not. It is rooted in social imaginaries. We are always teaching and transmitting into a way of imagining the world and how to interact.  It must also be said that the way we teach can inform social imaginaries in, what I would consider, less helpful ways considering the common good. For example, if we choose as educators not to comment on a student’s derogatory and hurtful post on a comment board because we are not wanting to infringe on their free speech, we are teaching that student and others that’s it’s okay to rant even at the expense of another’s dignity. Or if we use textbook examples to teach about social issues but don’t include local examples that put a ‘face’ to the issue, we are in effect choosing to theorize and perhaps ‘sanitize’ curriculum because we don’t want to engage the complexity of the realities lived out and disrupt our comfortable lives.  These examples demonstrate how the way we teach impacts our students’ social imaginaries and make a case for why we can’t only focus on academic excellence – even though it’s very important. We need to ask different questions- what are we trying to be excellent at? Why does it matter to be excellent at that?


Planning a lesson is so much more than following curriculum theory with a view towards competency-based instruction. While it is essential to plan well, we must also keep in mind the enduring understandings we want students to remember and ensure we are including the voices of people possibly not represented in the curriculum resources but who substantively contribute to a social imaginary that contributes to the common good. (Chomsky (2013) defines ‘common good’ as that which benefits society as a whole, in contrast to the private good of individuals and sections of society.)


These deliberate and thoughtful decisions that contribute to lesson planning have the potential to help students discover meaning and purpose. If reflective practice is built into the learning such that the learner interprets, relates, and incorporates new information with existing knowledge and applies the new information to solve novel problems, a person can even reconstruct their self-concept (Cortright, Collins & DiCarlo, 2005). Importantly, understanding how our curriculum planning decisions relate to how we teach can infuse purpose and meaning into our teaching.  Teachers have an immense responsibility as contributors to the social imaginaries of our students.



Chomsky, N. (2013). The Dewey Lectures 2013: What kind of creatures are we?  Lecture III: What is the Common Good. The Journal of Philosophy 110(12), 685- 700.

Cortright, R. N., Collins, H. L., & DiCarlo, S. E. (2005). Peer instruction enhanced  meaningful earning: ability to solve novel problems. Advances in physiology            education, 29(2),107-111.

Smith David I. (2018). On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Taylor, C. (2004). Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press.