Monday, April 18, 2011

Knowledge worth knowing

I suppose my first "real" post shouldn't be so controversial, but I figure that things that aren't worth debating aren't terribly interesting in the first place.

It seems that everywhere I look there is this idea that we need to decide "what's worth teaching".  Many other bloggers have written articles about changing the way we teach to allow students to enjoy what they see, or only do things that they like, or teach like your class is an elective.  Twitter is alive with people commenting that education needs to allow more freedom, more choice and more "exciting" and "interesting" learning.  I recently had a conversation with a teacher that suggested that all mathematical theory should be immediately relevant to students.  There have been arguments that various authors are not "in touch" with students, and why should we bother reading them.  Entire sections of science have been deemed "irrelevant to middle school students" during conversations.

I disagree.  Not with many of the ideas, but with the idea that it has to be this way all the time.

The phrase "knowledge is power" wasn't created by accident.  Knowing things makes us better able to interact with each other, better able to understand our world and, I believe, better people.  Being able to use things I've learned in school has been nice for me.  I can have a conversation, knowledgeably, about most topics.  I learned how to think, and to learn, even when it wasn't fun.  I learned that sometimes, what I'm being told wont be useful for a few years, but man am I thankful when I get to where I needed it.

Content in school doesn't have to be relevant all the time because sometimes it builds upon itself.  Sometimes what you're learning in Grade 6 is later used in a real application in Grade 9.  Content also doesn't have to be immediately relevant because we can't know where our students are going to end up.  We don't know if the Grade 9 student is going to go into mathematics, or English, or art, or any of the hundreds of other professions, and I bet they don't either!  Therefore, learning how to calculate the value of x in a quadratic equation or learning how to write a five paragraph essay is important regardless of how little you actually use the skills.

It doesn't always have to be fun.  Sometimes, in school, as well as in life, we have to do things that aren't fun but it's still the best way to learn.  Some concepts just require notes, or a teacher talking.  Some assessments are best completed with a pen and paper test.  School should be entertaining, most of the time. I would say that 90% of my classes are "fun" or at least engaging to students and beyond the traditional talk->memorize->test formula.  That other 10%?  That's the stuff that can't be taught effectively or efficiently through the use of "fun" activities.

Furthermore, there's a skill (and it is a skill that is important) learned to be able to take something "not fun", complete it acceptably without complaining and do a good job at it.  We all have to do it, in every job.

It's not all about student choice.  Perhaps other educators have these amazing super motivated students, but I haven't seen an entire class of them yet.  Sure, some kids I can say "What do you want to learn today in Science" and they'll actually come up with reasonable topics, and good project ideas.  But another entire group of them will simply, and consistently, say "nothing...can we go outside and play?" or "Nothing, I don't care about science".

I expect some will say that therefore they shouldn't be learning about things they don't care about...but really?  That's your argument?  Where do we draw the line - how old does a kid need to be to "choose" what they want to learn?  It's a real question - we, as a society have decided that expect for English and Math, students get choice when they hit Grade 11.  Where should it be, if not there?

I'm not against most of what others have said.  I believe that school should,  most of the time, encourage thinking, be "fun", allow student choice as much as possible, and generally move in the direction that many want to take it.  I  just don't think it should be all the time, in every circumstance.

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