Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dreaming About What We Teach

This is the post I wrote last year for Brett Clark's 12 Days of Dreaming Series. I came across it today, and thought it was worth a second share. I'm still challenged by the final paragraph, and I wonder what progress I've made in the past year. You can view the original post at Brett's Education Dreamer Blog

As long as we're dreaming, I'd like to spend some time dreaming about a new focus for learning. As it stands now, students spend the vast majority of their time "learning" (read memorizing) content that has been divided into discrete subject-based boxes of time and being herded from place to place to add a physical separation to the temporal one. Our students chose these classes from a McMenu of choices that vary little from town to town across the nation, and that is further homogenized by corporate content engines that have a stranglehold on a curriculum that hasn't significantly changed in decades. The message to students is four-fold: 1. The subjects we offer are the ones that matter, 2. These subjects can adequately be learned in isolation from one another, 3. A person's worth as a learner is dependent on that person's ability to master a particular menu of subjects regardless of that person's particular talents, interests, or resources, and 4. The purpose of an education is to stockpile knowledge for later use.

This isn't the dream of learning that I hold for my own children, yet I drop them off everyday at the doors of schools that are set up the same way as I've described above. These schools are perfectly adequate, the teachers are more than capable and caring, and my children are happy enough to attend, but I feel I'm failing them because I can imagine something better.

My dream begins with the realization that the purpose of an education isn't to amass content-knowledge. Short of some very basic math, writing and reading content, there isn't any one piece of information that I could say is essential for every child to know in order to live a happy, rich and meaningful life. Note: I am not saying a child could be limited to the basics of math, reading and writing, and expect to live a happy, rich and meaningful life. I am instead suggesting that beyond those basics, any course of self-selected study could foot the bill, and given the on-demand access that today's students have to information, pre-packaging that information does nothing more than make our learning environments seem artificial. Rather than running students through a wide gauntlet of coursework that is of little relevance to the learner, why not encourage learners to engage with the content that speaks to them personally?

In my dream, the purpose of an education is to develop the habits of mind and skill-sets that bring the learner success and satisfaction and that will serve the learner well in the future. Every second that my children spend memorizing information that they could easily look up on their own, and that they did not select for themselves based on an intrinsic desire to learn, seems wasteful and wrong-headed. Every class that my children take to satisfy graduation requirements, instead of satisfying their own curiosity or desire to create, strikes me as a missed opportunity. Every time my children complete an assignment that they don't need in order to understand the material because it counts toward their grade, I cringe and secretly hope they will push back a little.

So, let's design schools that don't limit students to courses that are beholden to traditional subject-area designations. We could begin by offering cross-curricular courses that help students make connections among subjects. Moreover, let's offer more courses that fall outside of individual departments, such as philosophy or social networking or philanthropy courses. Let's create paths for students to design and complete courses that meet their needs as real people who are living in this world, as people who have aspirations beyond graduation. Let's refuse to let the needs of the system outweigh the needs of learners, or let the needs of the 19th and 20th centuries continue to define learning in the 21st.

 Let's design courses whose purposes are to build skills and enhance life.

I've said before that I wish my children could take Creativity as a class. I wish that their class schedule included 1st Period Collaboration and 2nd Period Advanced Leadership. I mean this. We don't have to get rid of other topics like English, History, Math and Science, but we can certainly offer them alongside Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking. Ideally, we would teach the content inside the framework of teaching skills instead of the other way around.

I also dream that at least 20% of my children's days would be devoted to Independent Research and Development. I dream that my children could choose to attend a school in which they would collaborate on teams to develop feature-length films, or solve community problems through design solutions, or answer questions posed by scientists.

And I dream that my children would be measured as learners not by the number of credits they check off of a pre-determined list or by the score they get on a single test over content from an isolated topic, or by the arbitrary measurement of how well they "play school." I dream that my children will one day be measured as learners by their satisfaction and success in their chosen field, by their contributions to their work and their colleagues, and by the passion and ideas they generate when pursuing their dreams.

All of this makes me wonder how I would be measured against this standard. I see this vision for learning so clearly, yet I relegate it to the land of dreams, an educational Camelot or Shangri La. Is it enough to write blog posts while my children play school? Is it enough to give a Like or a Retweet to others who suggest similar improvements? Is it enough to do my best inside a broken system, and blame my failures on forces beyond my control? Is it enough to continue to dream, or is it time to wake up? I think we know the answer.

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