Teaching Opinion

Getting Off the Train in Italy

By Contributing Blogger — April 07, 2014 3 min read
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This post is by Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer, Expeditionary Learning

How can we possibly go deep when we have so much stuff to cover? This is a question I have heard from fellow teachers for almost 40 years, and it is a good one. When our curriculum and our standards compel us to “cover” great volume of content--and this is true across all subjects--how can we take the time to grapple with, and understand, important concepts deeply? When I get that question, I respond with this personal story.

My father worked in the same chemical plant for 46 years, something that hardly seems possible in today’s world of career switches. He finally retired at age 68, planning to travel the world with my mother. He died at 69. During that one year, my parents did travel, and it was a beautiful year for them. I visited their home that year to hear stories of their trip to Europe. They had gone on a packaged tour: 14 countries in 12 days.

My parents had to eat in the kitchen because their dining room table was entirely covered with photographs of cathedrals, castles, cities, and mountains. We poured through those photos, and they competed to share their excited stories. They argued constantly when explaining photos: “This was in Switzerland!” “No, that was Germany... no, I think Austria.” Because many of the photos were slightly blurry, framed by the train window, they really could have been almost anywhere.

I loved their joy in the adventure together. I also felt a little sad at what they missed due to the pace of the trip. I thought: what if they had seen a lot of countries to get an overview of Europe, but had also stopped for a good chunk of time in one place, say three or four days in Italy. Imagine getting off the train in Florence, with its incredible museums, restaurants, and people. They would have returned from their trip with a sense of Europe but also unforgettable memories of a new culture--"Wow! Italy! What an incredible place! Things are so different there....” They would not need to argue about their photos. They would have rich stories and fresh perspective.

Driving home in my truck from that visit, I had a realization. Their trip was like my entire public school education. With no disrespect to my teachers, many of whom tried very hard, I feel that I was on that train--14 countries in 12 days--for most of my years in school. I did well in school. I was good at memorizing the things whizzing by the train window--state capitals, the quadratic formula--even if I forgot them sometime soon after the test, and have not really used them since. What I did not often understand well was the deep stuff: what is the quadratic formula? How was it derived? Why does it matter? How do we use it in life? That would have required stopping the train and getting off in Italy--or in this case the land of mathematical thinking--for some real time.

In contrast, schools and classrooms that embrace Deeper Learning take seriously the idea that for learning to stick, students must have opportunities to engage intently in content and concepts. They must eat a real Italian meal in an extended evening in a sidewalk café, discussing life with local people, instead of grabbing a slice of pizza and a soda on the run. The textbooks I used in my schools were like fast food to me--easy to get through but never memorable.

Clearly, there is still a lot of broad content that students need in order to build cultural literacy. Classrooms need to be in “survey mode” at times, using overview texts, timelines, and charts to give students the terrain of the discipline. Students need to understand important dates and periods of scientific progress and history. They need to know world geography, and understand different nations and cultures. But they also need to switch out of survey mode at times to go deep.

If students can investigate one nation or culture with intensity--understanding the elements of what defines a nation or culture--they will encounter all other nations and cultures with sharper and more thoughtful eyes; they will remember similarities and differences. They will have a conceptual framework into which they can fit new content learning. It’s not that they should never be riding on the train, but rather that they also need to stop sometimes, long enough to understand a different way of thinking.

Illustrations accompanying this blog are by Jozeph Zaremba.

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