When will I ever use this? Good teachers have ready responses to this perennial question. You’ll use algebra at the hardware store. You’ll need proper punctuation in job applications. You’ll learn from history’s mistakes.
But kids are savvy. They know they will never be sitting on a northbound train calculating when the southbound train will pass by. They know Spiro Agnew appears in Trivial Pursuit but nowhere else. They know that grasping allusions to classical literature was important at 18th-century dinner parties but not in today’s workplace. And they know that if they wonder how photosynthesis works, they can always look it up online.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t teach our children. Only that we get so caught up in measuring what children have learned that we forget to evaluate the usefulness of what we teach.
Think about your own education. A few things you learned in school help you on a daily basis, but as the saying goes, you probably learned most of them on the playground. It’s difficult to remember what you actually studied in the classroom. If schools were honest about what they really are good for—that is, if they aligned their methods and objectives more closely with their utility—they would be much more effective.
For years, educational theorists have been trying to move us away from rote learning toward something more interactive and compelling. We have come to realize that truly educating a child is not like pouring liquid into an empty vessel, but more like giving the child a box of stuff and seeing if he or she can make anything out of it. Real learning is not memorization; it is discovery and construction.
Why, then, do we still organize our schools around bodies of relatively inert disciplinary knowledge? As adults, do our lives divide into categories like English, math, science, and social studies? Hardly.
We get so caught up in measuring what children have learned that we forget to evaluate the usefulness of what we teach.
Perhaps the school day ought to be divided into subjects more relevant to our lives: communication, problem-solving, and professional skills, for example. Or maybe it ought to be divided into subjects that mirror what the 21st century desperately needs: social entrepreneurship, invention, ethics, and cultural dialogue.
Better yet, what if school weren’t built around subjects at all? What if it were instead built around real-world problems and solutions? What if disciplinary content were so integrated that assessment could be based on genuine achievement, not on short-term retention of disparate facts and algorithms?
Imagine a high school without a bell-driven transition every 50 minutes. Groups of students could instead be attached to teams of teachers. Every quarter, each group would be assigned a single problem to solve together in an original way. Engaging that problem would take the bulk of the school day for the entire quarter.
Perhaps the students would be assigned to create a bilingual nature guide to a local park, or a comprehensive plan to reduce school energy costs. Maybe they would be asked how to revitalize the city’s downtown, or how to reduce the state’s incidence of West Nile virus. Or maybe they would be directed to create an arts festival about the adolescent experience, or a documentary of teenage life to share with a sister school overseas.
In this model, teachers would still need to share content knowledge with students, but they would do it differently. Teachers would collaborate to provide an interdisciplinary background to each problem. Then they would offer a basic structure for the solution process and ongoing support and coaching as students dug for relevant information, developed pertinent skills, created an authentic product, and shared it with an audience.
By creating real solutions to real problems for real audiences, students would have an incentive more compelling than letter grades, and a learning environment more relevant to their future. Soft skills, disciplinary knowledge, civic responsibility, and career know-how would all come together in a format far less arbitrary and arcane than the format students learn in today.
Clearly such a shift would involve a major curriculum-mapping effort. Care would need to be taken to ensure that group projects were orchestrated to spiral efficiently through all the knowledge and skill bases we deem important. Students also would need the skills and knowledge that colleges consider prerequisite.
As with many other major educational innovations, this shift might most easily be attempted in independent and charter schools. In fact, at some level, that is already happening. At Academy Hill, the independent school where I work, project-based learning has long been central. We see that students of all types, when given latitude, scaffolding, and open-ended long-term projects, are capable of learning and application far beyond what many educators had hoped.
I think, for example, of a student who opted to turn an English assignment on individuality into an original short film. It was later honored at a film festival. I also think of two students who, as part of a local robotics team, created an energy audit that helped their town library reduce costs. Our community-service program, originally run by parent volunteers but now run by students, also comes to mind. The list goes on.
Although the public education system has incredible inertia, there is no reason public schools could not eventually upset their traditional curriculum model, too. Educators everywhere are beginning to understand the true diversity of backgrounds and learning styles represented in the general student population, and they are floundering in attempts to adjust their pedagogy accordingly. It seems clear now that state-mandated high-stakes testing is not the answer. Shifting the focus of public education more squarely to authentic life skills seems to me a much better starting point.
Students learn more and do more when they are treated like agents. They need the support due a child, but the opportunity due professionals and citizens. Children intuit the interdisciplinary nature of human knowledge and enterprise, and they see keenly the frequent mismatch between pedagogy and application.
They don’t want to wait around to see if they will ever use what they are learning. They are ready to use it now.
A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as Curriculum-Mapping Our Way to Relevance