Sunday, January 17, 2010

Why Do We Go to School?

I have to be honest. I never really thought much about why kids go to school. I know why I’m still going to school. I’m at a point in my life where I want to expand my repertoire and skill set. I want to learn more and to gain proficiency in the art of administration so that I can take the next step in my career from teacher to principal, supervisor, or director. But why do my students or my nieces and nephews go to school? The bottom line is that we go to school to learn, to get an education, to earn a diploma, so that we can pursue further education or join the work force and live nobly as informed and dedicated citizens.

There’s information we need to know in order to survive in an intelligent and competitive society and to be successful in life. As far as what subjects should be taught, I still believe in the basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic, as a starting point. But curriculum in these or any subject has got to be much bigger than that. It includes not only “content,” but also “process.” It’s one thing to be able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. It’s quite another to be able to apply those skills to a variety of relevant problem situations. It’s one thing to rattle off a list of state capitals, square roots, prepositions or presidents, but quite another to take one’s knowledge and apply it to issues and debates in meaningful and persuasive ways. These processes must be taught so that our students can be equipped to handle themselves in a big, bold diverse world that thrives on communication. What I’m getting at here is the need to get away from the “what” of curriculum to the “how.” Teachers can deliver their students boatloads of information and check them off as they go, but out of context the information is almost useless. It is incumbent on them to provide their students with opportunities to create, collaborate, and think. A great place to start to see the connection between curriculum and these processes is the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

Coincidentally, with my new philosophy about the purpose of school and the subjects to be taught, I was asked to take on a teaching assignment at the start of the second quarter, so it was time to "put my money where my mouth is." I am currently teaching an algebra class to 8th graders. It’s been four years since I’ve been in the classroom, and I’ve learned a lot about technology integration and pedagogy since then in my role as a technology integration coach. I’m trying very hard to teach differently than I did before. I’m trying not to focus on algorithms, but to get behind the math. I no longer accept that they know the procedure, but insist that they explain the “why” of the steps we follow in solving a problem. Kids can say things like “cross multiply these two numbers and divide by the denominator,” but have no real understanding of how these numbers are related. I’m also trying to use real-life problems and contexts that kids can relate to rather than meaningless abstract problems that are not connected to their experience. For example, when we studied percents and proportions, I created problems like this: “If the Student Government made $300 in 4 days of ticket sales, how much can they expect to make in two weeks?” They were immediately interested in this because the dance had just been announced and they were very excited about it.

Another new strategy I’m using more now than before is to have students work in pairs and groups and to use technology to show what they know. They can’t just tell me an answer. They have to explain their thought process and determine whether or not the answer makes sense. This we do through blogging where they really have to think and put into words in a public forum what it is they’re doing to arrive at a solution and why. I have no doubt that I can get my students ready to pass the state test in June. But I want them to achieve much more than this. Not only will they have knowledge of algebra, but they will also know how to express their thinking, to rub shoulders and work through problems and projects with others, to sort through their disagreements, and to open their eyes to new solutions. These are skills that will serve them well as they enter the world on their own, no matter what direction their path takes them.


  1. Paul,

    Great post, as always! I like how you comment on the "process" of learning and not just the content. In perfect timing, I just received my L&L journal today and there is an article on "Do Students Need to Memorize Facts in the Digital Age," and while I have not read it yet, it sounds like the author is also questioning content v. process!

    Thanks for sharing your ideas!

  2. Paul - thank you for sharing your thoughts on the purpose of school and how and what students should learn. I’m sorry that my comments did not post originally - it was my error (I don’t think I verified my Google account properly). As far as why students go to school - I am fairly certain that many of our students are not sure why they are there. I spend much of my time in struggling high schools and I hear over and over again from kids that they don’t see the point in going to school or how it relates to their life. Sadly, this is as why try to council kids into not dropping out.

    I also like your thoughts on the importance of process over content. We can get very caught up in the “stuff” and forget about the bigger more global skills of thinking, problem solving, and communicating. One of the concepts of curriculum that we will discuss later in this course is enduring understandings - what is it 1 week, 1 month, 1 year and 20 years from now that we want students to remember about the content. What are the big picture concepts.

    It sounds like you have an exciting opportunity this semester - I wish you much luck and learning on this journey!