Teaching Opinion

Learning That Lasts

By David B. Cohen — January 26, 2015 6 min read
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It’s a Monday. I’m observing a ninth-grade Human Geography class, part of an International Baccalaureate program at a high school in Fresno, CA. The class focuses learning about the intersections of geography, culture, history, and human behavior. Working in groups, students are focusing on varied topics relating to immigration, refugees, and human trafficking. Now half-way through the school year, these students have some instruction and practice in research, collaboration, and presentation. Their teacher is pushing them to frame current issues and problems in specific terms that take into account important details unique to the situation they’ll study. He wants specific proposals from each group, and informs them that their suggestions to mitigate these global problems will be posted online and tweeted out to the International Organization for Migration.

Is it worthwhile for students to delve deeply into current events without relevant knowledge of prior events and history? For example, can you really understand the modern Middle East without some understanding of the Ottoman Empire, its demise at the end of World War I, and the resulting artifical borders drawn by the British and French?

Wednesday brings me to Bakersfield, CA. The teacher in an A.P. Government class shares with a class of seniors some details from his recent trip to Washington, D.C. He has pictures to show and stories to recount, and sprinkles in references to the class curriculum with a clear expectation that students know who and what he’s talking about. From the few external clues I can pick up in this brief informal interaction, I think his assumptions are correct: students answer his questions, or nod with recognition at mentions of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, or John Marshall. It’s just conversation to start a class, not the core lesson and certainly not an assessment.

I started thinking about much I know and remember from high school. I took AP United States History and did well on the AP test. I used to know all the presidents, in order, with at least some bit of trivia or key events attached to even the most obscure early presidents. By almost any common measure, I had an outstanding high school education. Is it a personal flaw, a flaw in our thinking about education, or an immaterial matter that despite a high score on the AP exam, I can no longer explain the Burr-Hamilton duel, recall what the Whig Party stood for, or summarize the Teapot Dome scandal?

Do we worry too much about knowledge?

The first scenario took place in Adam Ebrahim’s class at Fresno High School, and the second was in Jeremy Adams’ class at Bakersfield High School. I spent entire days with each of them, and did not offer these small slices of observations to delve into any analysis of their teaching. But since returning home, I’ve found myself reflecting quite a bit on the concept of knowledge, the ways we acquire and use it.

When high school freshmen look at the situation in Syria, when they read about the civil war and the refugee crisis, I wonder how much they’re missing by not knowing about the Assad regimes (father and son), or Syria’s prior relationships with Turkey and Lebanon. My own knowledge in these areas is not that much deeper. How did I come by any of this knowledge anyway, and why have I retained it? Why do I feel unhampered by my relative ignorance surrounding Aaron Burr or Warren G. Harding?

I wish this post were heading to some grand insight derived from penetrating observations aligned perfectly with research and theory. Instead, I find myself wrestling with an idea that’s mildly unsettling for my practice: maybe we teachers worry too much about knowledge.

Please note the “too much” - it’s a matter of degree. How much concern is appropriate? We can do everything right to help students at a certain grade level demonstrate their mastery of certain facts and call ourselves effective teachers. But some of that knowledge is going to fade quickly, either because there was no prior schema to which they could attach this new learning, or because no subsequent experiences outside the classroom are going to help them retain that learning.

Effective teachers know this, and try to exploit a student’s existing schemata or create a new one in order to help learning occur. I know that with my high school English classes over the years I’ve relied on students having prior knowledge of American slavery, the Great Depression, or the Vietnam War. By reading literature relevant to these topics, students increase their knowledge and the likelihood of retaining and using it later.

I’m starting to think we can be overly concerned about creating and predicting the use of schemata. Sometimes, knowledge builds up in the wrong order. I learned about the Holocaust before I learned much about World War II, or anything about World War I. Did that mean that I couldn’t really understand the Holocaust? Probably. But I wasn’t even eight years old when I visited Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, and later, Dachau - and no amount of prior knowledge is really going to help a child grasp the Holocaust anyway. However, knowing a little bit about the Holocaust did help me gradually learn more, and retain knowledge about World War II more broadly; that knowledge in turn must have helped me attach meaning to history lessons about World War I. Still, my knowledge of World War I might have dissipated with whatever I once knew about the Teapot Dome, if not for the fact that I’ve seen photographs and movies, and read books and poems about World War I.

When you have expertise in a topic, and want students to develop the same expertise, it’s understandable that you’d lay out a plan and expect good teaching to move students along according to those plans. However, years from now, our goal isn’t for students to remember exactly what they learned in our classes. Sure, they might remember their first or most memorable exposure to a topic came in our classes, but if it’s knowledge worth having, it will be impossible to separate out where the learning really began or ended.

And I’m not just talking about humanities and social sciences. An elementary school teacher can introduce arithmetic or the scientific process, but even those first lessons build on prior schemata children develop by dealing with objects in the natural world. For the older student or the adult, the mastery of these concepts wasn’t the result of instruction by one teacher, but rather dependent on repeated exposure to and use of that learning, in school and beyond.

Finding a balance

I’m not suggesting that “anything goes” or that sequences are irrelevant in planning for learning. Indeed, smart organization and sequencing are essential to good curriculum design, and a coherent multi-year plan for curriculum would certainly enhance student learning. But at the same time, let’s not get so caught up in our own practice and expertise that we lose sight of the messy and non-linear ways in which students live and learn. Much of what we teach will be forgotten, and there are certainly many viable routes to developing knowledge that lasts and has meaning in people’s lives.

So, do Ebrahim’s students really need to know 150 years of Middle Eastern history to derive any valuable learning from researching the refugee crisis in the Syrian civil war? As Adams’ students prepare for the AP Government exam, could we predict how much of the learning will stick with students into adulthood - and is it a problem if we assume some of it won’t? I would answer “no” to all of those questions.

As teachers, we face an interesting challenge in creating balance: how do we plan learning for students, and still embrace the unique interests and experiences arriving with students, along with a variety of approaches and outcomes produced by students?

Photos: Adam Ebrahim, Jeremy Adams; by David B. Cohen

The opinions expressed in Road Trips in Education are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.