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The First Principle of Teaching

By Dave Stuart Jr.

When you approach a problem by first stripping it down to its most elemental parts, that's a “first principles” approach to problem-solving.

The authors of the Declaration of Independence demonstrate this approach. The relationship between Great Britain and the thirteen colonies was fraught with debate and complexity in 1776, and to explain their solution to that knotty mess, the founders laid out their first principles:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,

  • “That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
  • “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
  • “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

From here, the authors move on to justify their declaration of independence. Hindsight gives us a painfully clear picture of how inadequately they applied these principles in constructing their own government (consider the degree to which those “inalienable rights” would remain alien to enslaved peoples, women, and Amerindian groups in this newly independent nation, for example), but their first principle thinking inarguably put them at the front end of a revolutionary trend — within decades, revolutions would spring up throughout most of the Atlantic world.

Here's the point: First principles make it possible for us to see opportunities where others see an impasse. They let us think clearly in the face of interminable complexity.

So: What is the first principle of education? Here's my take:

In light of the perpetual onslaught of initiatives and fads and research and “research” and tasks and minutiae we face daily, we must be clear on the first principle of education. Schools exist to promote the long-term flourishing of students. This is the core of our work, beneath the philosophical debates and stylistic differences and policy wars and standards and so on. Long-term flourishing (or LTF, as my colleagues and I sometimes refer to it) — that's what we do. May it be emblazoned on our hearts as a charm against the overwhelm.

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