Monday, November 28, 2011

Suppose What I Teach Isn't What's Important

I just came across an exceptional TEDx talk from John Bennett:

What I like about this TED talk is that Mr. Bennett has the courage to answer the critical question, "When am I ever going to need this?" honestly. We should be willing to acknowledge that we've overloaded our curriculum with an expectation that every one of our students is going to need the same exposure to the same content in the same order, and that every person's education can be measured by mastery of the same arbitrary benchmarks.

The truth is that beyond certain clearly identifiable basics, not every child will need a deep content understanding of every subject we force upon them in order to live a productive, successful and happy life. In fact, students aren't learning this content unless they see its relevance personally, and they are losing their natural interest in learning as a result of our tendency to standardize learning, rather than personalize it.

I taught English/Language Arts in high school for 15 years, and while I love my subject, I cannot name a single piece of content that would be necessary for every one of my students to know. Not everyone needs to experience Shakespeare, correctly scan a line of poetry, cite using MLA, write a persuasive essay for publication, understand the difference between (or even spell) metonymy and synecdoche, be able to define Transcendentalism, or accurately diagram a sentence.

That is not to say that I didn't have worthwhile things to teach my students or nurture in them. Here is a short list of the things I'm proud I taught to kids:

  • Communication Skills
  • Collaboration
  • Cultural Appreciation
  • Research and Analysis
  • Creativity
  • Kindness and Empathy
  • Responsibility
  • Curiosity
  • Problem-solving
  • Critical Thinking
  • Professionalism
  • Self-Respect
  • Courage and Self-Confidence
  • Academic Fortitude
Any teacher could teach those things in any class. It doesn't matter if a student learns them via Biology, French, World Literature, or Physical Education. What matters is that our students learn these lessons, and they are most likely to do this if they find themselves in classes that are personally relevant.

I recently tweeted that I wish my kids would have class schedules that read: 1st Period- Creativity, 2nd Period- Leadership, 3rd Period- Collaboration, etc.

One response I got was that ideally students will gain these "Soft Skills" through all of their classes. I get that, but I'm not sure that students are, in truth,  gaining them because we have created a system that is so content-focused that we can't see beyond our individual content boxes. Sadly, many teachers use this as an excuse not to teach students essential skills because "there is just too much content to cover." 

I would also suggest that it is precisely the "Soft Skills" that are the point of education, and perhaps we should place them front and center instead of hiding them in the content like blended vegetables in the fruit smoothee.

I bet if we offered Problem-Solving Through Puzzles, Changing the World with Your Words, or Understanding History through Creative Expression as courses in school, we would reap greater academic growth, higher engagement, and more satisfied learners as a result. We just wouldn't be able to measure those gains via high-stakes, low-bar testing. And while the new PARCC assessment is a vast improvement over our current tests, I don't hold out a lot of hope that the way we use these assessments will translate into better pedagogy until we systematically divorce ourselves from the notion that learning has to be divided into subject-area content.

I want to be clear, though, that I am not saying we should get rid of Literature class (or Math, or Government, or any other class). I am saying that we should have the honesty to say that not every student needs every subject, that our purpose is to help kids develop as learners in areas that they care about, and that every teacher has a responsibility to develop student skills, and that the current subdivisions of content are not the only ways in which we can learn about the world.

Right now, we drag all students against their will through an exhaustive forest of content that could easily be mastered without us, instead of providing a largely self-directed playground in which students learn how to learn under the tutelage of passionate mentors and lead-learners. That is the mess that we have to own.

If you teach in a middle or high school content area, I encourage you to ask yourself some fundamental questions:
  1. Does every child need to know the same things?
  2. What parts of what I teach will truly make a difference in a child's future?
  3. How will I guarantee that all kids are learning in my class even if they didn't choose to be here?
  4. How can I advocate for and create a system in which all kids learn, rather than simply complying with a system in which all students meet a standard?
  5. How do I enrich my students personally, rather than educating them collectively?
  6. While my subject is clearly awesome beyond measure, isn't it okay if other people never seek to learn it to the depth that I have?
  7. Is my subject the only reason I am a teacher? If so, are there other things I can do with this passion?
I'd be interested to know what conclusions you come to.


  1. Agree - the competencies are what school should be about. It is only the inability to test them reliably and affordably at scale that is slowing the decline of our content obsessed education system. It matters that children develop skills while engaging with real and important content but it should be increasingly content that is important to them not what we think they may one day need so urgently that they can't Google it.

  2. Dan, Thanks for the comment. It's good to know that others see the problem we're facing in a similar light. I find that part of the problem we face is that we don't have many systemic alternatives that we can look to as models. I would love to create that model, but where does one begin?

  3. I have to question what level you are hoping to achieve this at? Should we not desire that all students master basic skills in all content areas to provide them a better appreciation and understanding of their world? I agree, as a secondary English teacher, that not all students need to know the same things as they go up the academic chain, but what is the cut-off? This could be a slippery slope. In reality I wonder if perhaps neither of these (your suggested model, or the current model) are the "ideal" model.

  4. Absolutely students should master basic skills in content areas, but the question becomes how do we define basic skills. In Literature, I would argue that the list of content all students need to know is fairly short. Meanwhile, the skills that we practice through the study of literature (analysis, metaphorical thinking, empathy, communication, etc.) could be gained through other courses just as easily. So, why make every child survive survey courses in American, European and World Literature, if they don't like them?

    Mind you, I'm not saying that we throw out literature courses as part of a menu of options for kids. I'm saying make them available as a choice for kids who love that subject of study (like me).

    I recognize that this isn't a fully realized model of learning (at least in the schools I'm familiar with). Mostly, I'm interested in pushing back on the current model as an exercise in discovering a system that would better serve kids. The current model is so standardized and content-driven that it crowds out the types of learning that are most authentic and powerful for the sake of the maintaining the system.

    Thanks for being part of the conversation.

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