I recently saw a quote from Will Richardson. It’s kind of long, but I think it’s worth sharing the full quote for context:
More than, what, 90% of what we currently teach and talk about … is quickly forgotten once the next topic in the pacing guide comes up. Climate change, literacy, fake news, #metoo, what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, racism, income gaps, privacy, future jobs, AI, cryptocurrency… We can make a list of things that really matter today (or probably will in the future) a mile long.
And after we do, we have to own up to the fact that, by and large, even though we know that’s the stuff of modern life, we in schools say to kids “Good luck with all of that. Hope you figure it all out. We can’t really deal with that stuff because we have to teach you Geometry, which, btw, we know most of you will NEVER use, but hey, it’s in the curriculum and we’ve been teaching it forever.”
This is one of the many existential questions we need to be grappling with: Why are we teaching the stuff we’re teaching?
Now… before you get all up in arms at me, remember that this is not my quote, but the sentiment behind it got me fired up. I know that when I was in the classroom as a teacher, I spent a lot of time concerned with whether or not my students met the standard, whether or not we covered what needed to be covered. I also know that every year I had at least a handful of students who visibly and very apparently checked out. They didn’t do work (classwork or homework). I got frustrated. I called their parents. Nothing changed. As I reflect now, I wonder how many other students in my class were simply too compliant – too good at playing the game of school – to take that path of not doing anything, and in actuality were completely bored by whatever we were doing because they didn’t care. I wonder what kind of disservice I did for those students. They were trying to tell me something, but I was too caught up in what I “had to do” to be able to hear what they were saying.
Now, I’m not saying there’s no place for traditional learning in our schools. I use geometry from time to time (I love woodworking, and often use those skills when creating a new design), and I know many of the topics our kids complain about do have real world value, they just don’t see it.
Here’s a quick quiz of some things that we all probably learned while we were in school (I have to admit, I saw this on the Modern Learners blog in a different post by Will Richardson). See how many of these things you can get correct – and NO CHEATING!
- What’s the circumference of a circle with a radius of 4?
- What Scottish scientist discovered penicillin in 1928?
- What geologic era are we in right now?
- In the sentence “The swimming pool is closed today,” is the word swimming the gerund or the participle?
- What’s the most abundant element in the universe?
I’m going to be honest… I thought I had three, then I checked. I only had 2. Way back in the day, I’m sure that I passed the test with these questions. I was a compliant kid who did just enough to keep the teachers off my back. But did I truly learn? No way!
A term that I’ve heard before that gets at what Richardson is talking about above is the idea of the relevancy gap. We have this list of standards that our students are expected to learn. We have our preferred methods of teaching those standards. We go through the motions of covering the material, hoping the students do well enough on the test, and then we go on to the next topic.
Think about what you are getting prepared to teach next. We spend a lot of time thinking about “Did our students achieve X?” or “How do we make sure they learned X?” What the relevancy gap asks us to think about “Is X going to matter in the lives our learners are likely to live?”
That question is much more challenging to think about, because it messes up that list of standards, those preferred methods for teaching those standards, the curriculum maps, the pacing guide, and those worksheets and packets that we’ve lovingly created, not to mention the general model of school as we know it. And here’s the issue with the relevancy gap – if the students don’t see the relevance, you’ll continue to have students who are checked out, and there will continue to be students who are compliantly doing the work while they are bored out of their minds.
So how do we add relevancy to the things that we are teaching our students? I’ve had this conversation with several people recently, and my best suggestion is that we need to help our students see how the thing that they are learning about in class actually applies to their life. Recently in my school, many of the science classes have been learning about outer space. Can we tie last week’s amazing launch of Falcon Heavy into their studies of our solar system? What research could be done on the potential and kinetic energy of a rocket launch? Or what about the fact that there is research on the angle of release of a basketball shot being related to it’s likelihood of going in the hoop? Or maybe there are amazing connections that our students can make to our content that we would never even think of – we just have to get out of the way and let them share!
Whenever I write about these grand ideas, I always try to leave you with some strategies to move forward. Here are 4 ways that come to mind as ways we can add relevancy for our students:
- Discuss how learning can be applied in practice – what is a real world use for your students?
- Make a link to local cases – how does this knowledge tie in to something happening in your students’ community?
- Relating the subject matter to everyday applications – where might students see this in use in their lives?
- Discussing or finding applications in current newsworthy issues and events – what’s happening in our world or in pop culture that can be tied into your content?
What are some of the ways that you add relevancy for your students? Share some of your best ideas in the comments below. We can all appreciate a great idea!
And… because we all want to be able to assess our own work, the answers to the quiz above are: 1. ≈ 25.13; 2. Sir Alexander Fleming; 3. Cenozoic; 4. Participle; 5. Hydrogen. How did you do?
2 thoughts on “Why are we teaching the stuff we’re teaching?”
“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!” –Mary Poppins
We did our persuasive writing unit in connection with animals up for adoption at the Humane Society, which I might just do again. The Home for the Holidays promotion gave us lots of non-emotional arguments, such as getting a bunch of free items for your animal and having no adoption fee.