Change the Subject(s)

Warning: Can of worms ahead. Proceed with caution.

3438757479_73d0de635f_zWe in education give a lot of attention to the latest ideas and shiny reform efforts, but we are fundamentally slogging around in wet cement when it comes to some of the most basic concepts, concepts such as school hierarchies, grade levels, age-based grades,  or even subject areas. These sacred cows are virtually unchallenged. Why? Tough question. Certainly, it’s easier on us to do what has always been done. It’s also almost certainly influenced by educators’ increasingly diminished power to control what they teach and how it is taught. Pressure to pass tests plays a part, as it seems to sap the creative, innovative spirit from even the best of teachers. It begins, though, with a lack of questioning. We’re a very passive bunch, we teachers. We’re also too busy, too uninformed about alternative ideas, and too darned nice. So, we just train our eyes ahead and march as we’ve always done.

The antiquated idea of teaching students subject-area knowledge in isolation is groundless (unless one considers a couple of centuries of tradition to be “grounded”). While some would argue that it once applied well to preparation for a different economy and simpler society, I would argue that it never did, and that the only place we go to learn something in isolated, sequential chunks is school. The rest of learning in life is situated in dealing with real problems with real people in real settings, and there is abundant, sloppy overlap. Quickly and without using a search engine answer the following:

  • Who was the 21st president of the United States?
  • Why did the US and the United Kingdom fight the War of 1812?
  • What is an isomer?
  • What do mitochondria do?
  • What is the slope-intercept equation of a line?
  • What is the formula for converting degrees to radians?
  • What is the difference between a gothic arch and a Roman arch?

How’d you do? I must admit, I wrote the questions, and I can only answer 3 correctly (I think.). I know for certain, though, that I learned every one of these things once upon a time. Some teacher believe he or she was imparting something very valuable to me. They may have been correct, but I can’t really judge, since I can’t remember. Maybe the girl sitting in the next row was distracting me that day.

I have 2 children, one starting the 5th grade this week, the other in the 8th. Both are bright, enthusiastic, high-achieving kids who kick STAAR (Texas’s state assessment) butt. They are great at the school “game.” While this certainly does not displease me, it is not what I stress with my kids. I don’t ask them to balance chemical equations or identify the main character and setting in Where the Red Fern Grows when they get home from school, because I frankly don’t care. I also suspect that their future employers, employees, customers, spouses, families, friends, etc. won’t care. They won’t care because these things just don’t matter, unless you’re in a tiny, specialized segment of society (Anyone have a lot of historian friends? No offense to historians–I’m sure you are very nice.). I taught 6th grade science, and I’d like to confess something to my former students: Your brilliant mastery of biomes? Completely useless. My apologies.

I know the defenders of the faith will rise up against such blasphemy. To them, I say I’m sorry. However, I’m not sure I can stand one more justification phrased as “Knowing this makes a person more well-rounded,” “Those who don’t learn from the past…” or “You need to know this to be a good citizen.” My highest priority for my children is not to be a well-rounded voter. Those are dandy, mind you, but just not good enough. What I want for my children are the traits and skills that have led to the successes of the most important, impactful people and the perfectly happy ordinary Joes alike. Among them…

  • Great communication skills. Our kids have to know how to read, write, and listen, and speak (Requires less shhhh-ing on the part of the teacher.).
  • Functional math. This means the minimum math needed for whatever direction they choose. Don’t force algebra on everyone. It really isn’t helpful. No, it isn’t.
  • Critical thinking. Don’t take everything at face value–a lot of ideas are wrong (even on the Internet). Know how to tell the good from the bad.
  • Problem solving. Failure and challenges are everywhere. Be prepared to take an alternate route, and another, until you find the right one. Innovation and creativity are closely related ideas. So is being able to figure out why your car won’t start.
  • Physical well-being. I want our kids to make choices that make them healthy (diet, exercise, etc.). I have a certain lifestyle I expect my kids to support in my old age.
  • Relationship skills. Not talking dating here–talking about being able to work with the person next to you or the person on the other end of that email. 2 is greater than 1 (That’s functional math right there.).
  • Technology literacy. Doesn’t mean every kid is a Mark Zuckerberg. It means every kid can safely, responsibly, and effectively leverage what they need when they need it.

Image source: https://flic.kr/p/4avhK1

I’m sure there are  more (Educator/author/reformer Roger Schank has a very thorough list here.). The point is, these are universally useful abilities and traits that span the traditional subjects. Couldn’t the old, establishment knowledge and skills (that still have relevance) be addressed in the context of mastering these new ones?  Couldn’t all of these be addressed in the process of inquiry- or project-based learning? If you REALLY want to get crazy, you totally abandon the neat, orderly idea of subjects entirely and put these life skills into whatever meaningful context they most naturally fit–maybe even in finding answers to kids‘ own questions.

I know this is real pie-in-the-sky stuff, but I’m an optimist. I know it can seem like we’re hopelessly oppressed under test and governmental agency and regulations. These kinds of changes would likely take too long to get started for my kids to benefit in any way. It’s good to have a dream, though, and this is mine, based upon 23 years as an educator and almost 14 as a dad. It’s also important to never settle. We can do better, but we have to be willing to question even the most fundamental ideas first, and this may be the most fundamental of all.

3 Comments

  1. Your observations are very well put. Most of us remember learning a lot of facts and then forgetting them. I loved teaching using project-based learning with relevance and I loved blending that method with some traditional methods depending on the need.

    The traits/skills listed are absolutely important. I would add a twist to the problem solving skills. We do need the ability to transfer application into useful information AND transfer information into useful application. When we can retrieve trivial ‘information picked up out of context’ and apply it for a need – SHAZAAM! Perhaps there is a little room for blended traditions along side the progressive practices.

    I’ve often pondered why my home economics teacher didn’t use more Math and English terminology and explanation on our sewing projects! I could have made an A+ in high school math and senior English – project-based learning without subject boundaries! As an adult, however, I am required to transfer math and English ‘information’ when reading and following the directions on the pattern! SHAZAAM!

    As for why we as educators are slow to let go of what we know and are comfortable doing – descriptive of the majority of the human face. Someone much wiser than I will need to address this one!

    Keep on pondering Randy so you can make the rest of us think even if we are ‘retired’.

    • There is definitely a place for rote knowledge as a resource for solving problems–you bet! It just shouldn’t be the ultimate goal we’re aiming for. Something that has perplexed me forever, though, is how we determine what knowledge is supposed to be learned. There is a lot (a majority, in my opinion) of what is required learning that is based upon tradition rather than usefulness. I think basing a curriculum on mastering life skills makes better sense and would allow teachers to determine what factual information could be used to get students to the point of mastery. Make sense?

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