I recently read a blog entitled “Back to School: A message to high school students who hate high school; Here is why you hate it.” The author of this post, Roger Schank, also penned an article entitled, “No, algebra isn’t necessary â€” and yes, STEM is overrated” for the Washington Post Answer Sheet.
No surprise that Schank has received a wide range of responses to his strong opinions. Personally, I’m grateful he has put them “out there” because it has forced me to really think about how I feel.
What we’re talking about here is content. With the huge changes the digital age has brought, I think it is more imperative than ever that we re-think content.
I’ve already made some small changes in my 4th grade classroom. For instance, when teaching states and regions in Social Studies, I no longer make my students memorize state capitals. I would rather my students know the location, landforms, climate, historical significance, and resources of the states in our country than spend their time memorizing capitals that they can look up any time they need them (do we ever need them?).
I’ve made the tough decision to stop requiring cursive, and instead have made time for keyboarding instruction/practice. We have 1:1 netbooks in my classroom, and the students do not have a computer resource class, so I spend time talking about Internet safety, digital citizenship, Internet research, validating sources, and copyright. These are all changes to content that I feel are appropriate and necessary for my students.
How do we discover our passions?
But Mr. Schank is talking about high school, so let’s think about that for a minute. In his post, Schank systematically explains why most of the subjects taught in high school are completely unnecessary. Does he suggest alternative content? Not so much. His advice? “Know what matters to you. Learn that. Nothing you learn in high school will matter in your future life.”
While he makes some valid points in his article, I have a few issues with his approach.
My first question is this – How “deep” into a subject such as Algebra, Biology, Chemistry, or Physics do we need to go for students to identify a passion for the subject? If we stopped teaching them all together, would we have as many doctors and engineers? At what point do we allow a student to say, “This is neither a strength nor a passion for me. I don’t care to pursue this subject further”?
Schank’s “throw it all out” position to me does more harm than good. I think we DO need to consider whether students should be required to take upper level Math and Science courses in high school, but I feel his post does not encourage conversation about curriculum reform and passion-based learning. It is extremist and calls what we do “ridiculous” and “beyond silly.” That confrontational language will not encourage the dialogue that is so desperately needed to bring about a truly student-centered, interest-driven education system.
What happens instead?
Second: If we change the content in our high schools – if we drop requirements for certain upper level courses or for foreign language – what will take the place of these courses? What could we be offering to meet the needs of students who find their passion in the arts? Music composition and theory? Audio engineering? Script writing? What about athletics? Sports training? Sports medicine? What if students are interested in pursuing a passion that involves technology? Graphic design? Computer programming? Web design?
Third: When we learn certain subjects, we are not only learning content, but we’re learning a certain process or way of thinking. Reading good literature helps us identify what makes good literature. What does the writer do that makes his writing engaging? How can we use this in our writing? The methodology used by scientists or mathematicians is more important than the specific “facts” we ask students to memorize. How can we reform our instruction in these subjects to focus on the things that are most important to take away?
What’s missing now?
Finally: What should we be offering? What is missing? I believe we need entire courses created around Internet research, verifying sources, copyright/licensing, digital citizenship/Internet etiquette, creating an online identity/presence, and branding ourselves so that when we are inevitably “Googled,” it is clear who we are and what we believe.
Our so-called “tech savvy” students (in 4th grade or in 12th grade) are typically NOT well informed in these areas, and we would be negligent if we continue to send them out into the world — to college or the workplace — without this knowledge and skill set.
Students don’t need the “ammunition” in Mr. Schank’s article. High school isn’t going away any time soon, and I don’t advocate that students simply get on the Internet and learn about what interests them in lieu of a formal education. Mr. Schank does, however, give us food for thought.
We do need to make changes to what we teach and how we teach it, both in public and independent schools. We need decision makers to consider important reforms to the content we teach that reach well beyond the traditional curriculum or “common core.”
Change is made by developing a consensus, and I’m hoping we’re moving closer toward that consensus every day.
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Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Patti. Our curriculum PK-12 needs to be examined and updated. I bet most schools continue to follow the same discreet subject structure that has been around for years. We add in a little technology and say it has been 21st centurized.
Where are we requiring memorization/recall at the expense of authentic learning and deep thinking? We constantly hear that there isn’t enough time to go deep, but is time the real issue?
You raise an important point. If we removed the time spent teaching the content that can be easily researched, how much time would that free to spend problem solving, and digging deep? I wonder how we might re-fashion Bloom’s Taxonomy if we eliminated the bottom “knowledge” level (now “remembering” in the new Bloom’s)… Thanks for jumping in to the conversation!
Excellent reasoning, Patti. And while I DO see why the gentleman feels as he does, I don’t think we should, in essence, throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are many things that I have changed over my 39 years of teaching. I spend more time teaching children where to find the answers and less time requiring them to know them all. Why? Because we are adding knowledge at amazing rates daily and no one can know it all…but we can ALL learn where to find it. Keep writing your wonderful blog, my friend!
Thanks… You are absolutely right. With the exponential growth of content out there, it’s ok for students to know that even we can’t know it all (what a relief)!
I definitely think that our job description has taken a significant turn, which is why “teacher” almost doesn’t quite cut it anymore! I would much rather be called a guide, coach, facilitator… We are still quite necessary to help students learn HOW to learn. How exciting it is to know this will foster a love of learning that will last a lifetime!
Way to go, and I’d love to go to the high school where they offered musical theory and composition. As a French Second Language teacher at the elementary level, I am constantly in discussion with high school teachers, because I do not drill and kill. My students learn their verb forms, and take notes on them, and know where to find those notes when they’re writing,but I do NOT make them memorize. We speak A LOT in the second language in our classroom, and they learn the verb forms in context as they use them – and it seems to work better. However, high school teachers are not always happy with me, because my students do not come to them “prepared” to regurgitate, as is still the standard right now.
It’s a transitional stage, and always an adventure along the way!
I never understood the purpose of memorizing all of those conjugations! The French that stuck with me the most was the French I took in college, in the individualized learning center. We were required to spend time in the “conversation pit” – and guess what?! That immersion increased my fluency tenfold… Good for you! Drill, kill, regurgitate… Makes me nauseous just thinking about it! 😉 Thanks for stopping by!
Seems to me Lisa and Patti are talking about involving students in a learning process that invokes “authentic struggles” with new knowledge/skills. It calls to mind the winning video in Ed Week’s #MTT2K contest, in which entries were expected to offer alternatives to the Khan Academy approach to “flipping.” The winner focused on math instruction but the key points he makes apply across the curriculum.
What we need to change is the thought that outcomes should be content established by those who have a vested monetary interest (i.e. text books, test creators who make a lot of money off the educational system) to skills regardless of topic. Students should learn how to problem solve in all the disciplines (it is different from discipline to discipline), how to find answers and resources across the disciplines, be creative (which leads to persistence and innovation), and communication skills. STEM should be integrated into other subjects such as social studies (I want my kids to be able to understand the housing contract/mortgage agreement they are signing, to understand the water purification reports my town sends out to residents, to be able to understand when a landscaper shows them a design to redo their yard so they don’t have water in their basement). However, the arts are just as important (which might be the point of the article) as it helps to develop the ability to abstract and envision what COULD be. There needs to be a balance.
I can’t argue with something that places priority on authentic learning and valuable life skills! I agree that there should be a balance, and a way for student to discover and explore their passions in more depth through these opportunities.
The course you are suggesting that we need to teach entire courses created around Internet research, verifying sources, copyright/licensing, digital citizenship/Internet etiquette, creating an online identity/presence, and branding ourselves so that when we are inevitably “Googled,” it is clear who we are and what we believe. This is exactly what school librarians teach and is the very position that is cut. Done right the learning that goes on in the school library is exactly what you are suggesting we do!
I agree that librarians could definitely help take some of this off the plates of the classroom teachers! I would love it! When we got our 1:1 netbooks, it was determined that we no longer needed a computer resource – No need to visit the lab if we had computers in the room – But then who covers those important topics? Your post begs this question: What is the new role of the librarian in the 21st century?
This posting and the author’s suggestions made my jaw drop in disbelief. Is this really a teacher talking? No wonder students come to university without being able to express themselves, take notes and listen at the same time, and do math.
This is an important issue, for sure. I teach at a small liberal arts College that is consistently ranks well in the Princeton Review and other such places, but my students come in egregiously unprepared and I would say it is because they know very little. By “know very little” I mean that they have little content in their head. More than that, they have only the most tenuous of grasps on important concepts. For example, what are the causes of the Civil War?–*crickets chirping* (and we’re located in the South, so I would expect them to have clue, even if biased toward a Southern view of history). What was the Enlightenment and why is it historically important? Again, crickets.
This is to say nothing of state capitals (I had to memorize them along with European capitals.) Heck, we had to label blank maps of the US and Europe until the cows came home (note we never filled out maps of South America, Africa, or the Middle East, though I wish we would have).
So what? Well, if you don’t have what I would consider this basic understanding of the whys and wherefores that have shaped history and make up the most cultures of our world (capitals, forms of government, official languages, and religions (especially religions in this day and age of extremism), then you can hardly function as a citizen. I mean you can *function*, but not very well meaningfully. In many ways you will be like the peasants of the Middle Ages–prone to relying on magical thinking and superstitions for explaining what is happening around them.
Content and basic historical events and concepts lay the groundwork for deeper engagement with the world. A curriculum built around helping students “find their passions” and being savvy users of the internet and social media is completely irresponsible, because it teaches students that there are no first principles. In this way, they might be good at Googling things, but they are actually poorly equipped to engage in higher level critical thinking because they have to lean on Google for even the most basic things.
I see this with my college students every day. They think that they are really cooking with gas if they use Google on their iPhone to look up a word they don’t know. What I’m looking for, and I tell them this, is to apply the knowledge that they have at their fingertips and create connections across subjects and across history.
For example, how many people Googling “voted ID laws” is going to make the connection between the proposed laws in Texas and Pennsylvania and the ways that African Americans were historically kept from voting in the South due to poll taxes and literacy requirements. This is my argument for teaching content: you need to have that historical knowledge already in place, a knowledge that every American educated in public schools should have at his/her fingertips, in order to think critically about these laws.
The scary thing is that I suspect some of my students would fail a literacy test if required to vote.
Thank you for such a thoughtful post. I’ll take a guess that you are a history teacher. 🙂 There are many things I agree with in your response. I do think that students need to see themselves as global citizens, and have a broader understanding of the world. The digital age makes the world an even smaller place, and students will likely be interacting and collaborating with others across the globe as part of their careers. For me, the cultural aspect of geography (the general regions, religions, languages, etc.) is the critical element here, as opposed to the memorization of capitals. Hence my statement,
“I would rather my students know the location, land forms, climate, historical significance, and resources of the states in our country than spend their time memorizing capitals.”
I will also point out that I at no time suggested building an entire curriculum around seeking passions or being savvy users of the Internet! I do think that it is an area that we are missing, though. Most classes require students to use the Internet, and coursework should be added beginning in the elementary grades to make sure we are helping them to use it safely and effectively.
The ability to apply concepts, make connections, and to problem solve are all critical, and should be achieved through authentic learning experiences. I would rather see us focus on this than on filling in maps. Basic facts can be “Googled” – By not requiring students to memorize facts that can be found in seconds, we free up time to focus on critical thinking and evaluative skills as well as skills to identify passions and help students succeed in the digital age.