Wednesday, August 24, 2011

10 Ways to Re-Imagine the Classroom: 5. The Focus of Class

This post is part five in a series in which I offer some ways that we can work together to re-imagine our classrooms so that students are more engaged, our work is more relevant, and student learning is more enriching. This list of ten comes from a workshop I help facilitate on Transformational Teaching. 

#5- We Can transform the focus of classes from Content-Memorization to Skills-Development.

Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants. -John W. Gardner

I want to start by saying that I'm in no way suggesting that students don't need content. Whenever I find myself going too far out on that limb, I remind myself that I became a teacher because I love English/Language Arts content. I love the Romantic poets, the works of Shakespeare, the act of writing, and the role of rhetoric in how our society works. From my point of view, students need to experience great works of art. They need to learn to express themselves clearly through the written word. They need to learn how their words can affect others, and how others' words can affect them. 

In order to analyze literature or win a debate or write a compelling story, students need to be able to speak the professional language of my content area. It's hard to get a kid to improve his writing if he doesn't have the vocabulary of sentence structure and voice. It's hard to get a kid to break down the appeals of a political speech if she isn't familiar with the basics of rhetoric. It's hard to help a kid analyze a poem if he doesn't have an understanding of metaphor, diction or form. 

So let's begin with an agreement that the long traditions of content (in any subject area) are important to a deep understanding of the topic, as well as being important to the students' ability to contribute to the future expansion of that subject. I want my doctor to have an expansive and nuanced understanding of medicine. The same is true for my mechanic's knowledge of cars, my attorney's understanding of common law, the actors in my local theater's knowledge of stage craft, and my representatives in Congress' understanding of statesmanship. 

That said, I do not believe that content is all there is to learning, and frankly, the model of learning that has held sway over the past century has placed a premium on content accumulation over skills-development. It is often perversely more important to a child's grade that she know that a red flag flying over the Globe Theatre meant a history play was being performed than for her to be able to analyze the play for theme, characterization, or historical accuracy.

Before the advent of the World Wide Web and 24/7 media exposure, this was a little more defensible. People whose jobs required access to wide reserves of knowledge were at an advantage if they could learn a great deal of content and commit it to memory. Being erudite meant being able to command content knowledge from across the curriculum. As access to information has become as simple as a quick search on a smart phone, the need for a shared collection of cultural knowledge has diminished, partly because so much more information is available, and partly because the discussion of what is essential cultural knowledge is complicated by our pluralistic society. 

Meanwhile, in the academic world, the forces that create the canon of content in any given field tend to respond to the laws of inertia. It is maddeningly difficult to get new ideas into the canon without a grinding debate about what content will be sacrificed. Thus we end up with academic standards that bury teachers in too much discrete knowledge to cover and textbooks that weigh so much that students are showing up in pediatricians' offices with backpack-related injuries. We'd rather struggle under the weight of too much to teach than let go of content in favor of deeper learning.

Don't believe me? Suggest to a group of high school English teachers that we could forgo Romeo and Juliet in the freshman year, or that the research paper as it has traditionally been understood might be adequately replaced with a video project, and you will see a whole herd of sacred cows wandering through the conversation. Suggest to a literature professor that teaching Tolkien or J.K. Rowling can serve the same purposes as teaching Dickens or Hawthorne and watch his or her biases rear-up. I know because I am guilty of this as much as anyone. 

What I need to remember is that I want all of my students to find a passion for my subject and to develop the skills they need in order to have a rich and ongoing experience after they've left my classroom. It is less important that I cover any particular content, and more important that I help them develop the ability to engage with any and all content that they select on their own. If I can better engage my students by studying Sondheim instead of Shakespeare, or by creating websites instead of term papers, or by analyzing the symbolism in music videos instead of Frost, then I should embrace the opportunity. 

Most importantly, though, I should understand that my job is to help kids conduct reliable research, write compelling, clear and accurate prose, analyze any text and reach rational conclusions, persuade others in conversation, and find the personal wherewithal to confront tough problems, imagine and test solutions, and grow through self-reflection. Some call these abilities "soft skills" as opposed to the hard skills of measurable content (do I know how to identify genre, write a sonnet, define a "slippery slope" fallacy). Personally, I would prefer that my children be well-trained in the soft skills, so that they can apply them to whatever content they find enriching and useful to their lives.

I have to be willing to accept that not every student will (or needs to) become a great literary critic, writer or speaker. They don't need to love Whitman the way I do. They don't all need to write a novel, publish a poem, or maintain a blog. They don't all need to read Faulkner, Angelou, or Camus. They need to find their own path in life as happy and capable people. My best shot of contributing to that is to understand that I have a greater responsibility to the students in my class than to a particular author or piece of knowledge. If I focus on helping kids learn to use their brains, then they will do so in ways that are relevant to their lives. If I focus on teaching them a specific set of talking points, they are more likely to find my class irrelevant and are less likely to be capable of discovering its relevance later.

My best friend is an attorney. He's very good at what he does. He's one of the best thinkers that I know. He's also interesting. He is a talented musician. He reads poetry and sends me poems he thinks I will like. He contributes to the community through membership on a number of boards. He can install a ceiling fan. He is an amazing and creative cook. We also play trivia several times a year. Some nights he is on fire. He knows the most random stuff. Other nights, he doesn't contribute as much. Still, he is better at recalling information than most. He is a loving parent and a virtuous citizen.

How much of this description is directly tied to what he studied in school? How much comes from the calculus class, the German textbook, or the historical documentary? On the other hand, how much is the result of the influence of caring teachers, professional associations, friends and parents?  A reasonable person would have to conclude that all are important. But there is one significant difference between the content skills (cooking, fixing, trivia) and the soft skills (creativity, virtue, civic responsibility). His ability to learn to cook, read a poem or understand legal precedent as significant to his life is directly affected by his curiosity, his ethics, his ambition, and his problem-solving skills. Good teachers helped him develop those. If all he had been taught was how to cook, fix lights and master trivia, he might never have added anything else to his list.

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