Is what we are teaching “life worthy”?

future wise

I got unashamedly excited when I saw the above book pop up on Twitter the other day and thought this looks like the kind of provocative book I’d be interested in!

You probably know Perkins from his work at Harvard, with Project Zero. After hearing him speak at the International Conference on Thinking a little while ago, with his straight talking, common sense but clever approach, I was keen to read the book. I’m only up to Chapter 4, but I’ve got far enough to share a few points.

Perkins’ book explores the idea of life worthy learning, in other words, learning that is “likely to matter in the lives learners are likely to live.”

He leaps in with that pesky question kids ask – “Why are we learning this?” which I’ve been pondering myself. Being a very well behaved student who was more focused on grades than real world application, this has been a question I’ve thought about as a grown up, not really when I was sitting at a desk or on the mat.

Perkins then goes on to explore the quadratic equation. How many of you have used it (outside of teaching it, that is) in your lives outside of school? Very few? So that begs the question – is it really life worthy? He says that previous generations could count on their children’s world looking fairly similar to their own.  However, with the rapid changes in technology and globalization, we can no longer say this is true.

Which begs the question, what IS worth learning then? To this question, Perkins says some teachers have been exploring the 6 “Beyonds.”

  1. Beyond the basic skills – 21st century skills and dispositions
  2. Beyond the traditional disciplines – renewed, hybrid, and less familiar disciplines
  3. Beyond discrete disciplines – interdisciplinary topics and problems
  4. Beyond regional perspectives – global perspective, problems, and studies
  5. Beyond mastering content – learning to think about where content connects with life situations
  6. Beyond prescribed content – much more choice of what to learn

I must say, one look at that list and we can be chuffed that we are doing incredibly well in little old New Zealand! But there still remains the question of the quadratic equation and its friends that may be clogging up students’ time with non-life worthy stuff.

He also suggests children learn big understandings that are filtered through the following criteria, which I thought would (at least) be a great filter for potential inquiries in schools:

  1. Big in insight (helps reveal how our physical, social, artistic, or other worlds work)
  2. Big in action (empowers us to take effective action professionally, socially, politically, or in other ways)
  3. Big in ethics (urges us toward more ethical, humane, caring mindsets and conduct)
  4. Big in opportunity (likely to come up in significant ways in varied circumstances)

So, why haven’t we made many changes to the traditional structure of the curriculum and the delivery of this? Perkins suggests:

  • We don’t actually know what students will need for their uncertain futures – “The challenge of a curriculum rich in life worthy learning is more like a smart bet at the casino of life than it is a sure thing.”
  • Parental/community pressure – “I learned that. Why aren’t my children learning it?”
  • We pay more attention to the gap in achievement (from the middle to the lower achieving kids in the class) than what is life worthy, which means we tend to focus on teaching the same stuff better.
  • We are so caught up in teaching the curriculum and getting our kids to achieve that we forget that if you don’t use or apply the knowledge learned, you tend to forget it, and what’s the value in that?
  • If we suggest getting rid of certain bodies of knowledge from the general curriculum, we get the reaction that we are “sacrificing rigor” or we don’t want to deprive kids of the areas they are interested in and passionate about. So, clearly, there needs to be a balanced approach.
  • We want our kids to be well informed but, Perkins argues, how much information do we actually need to know off the top of our heads to live our lives? Perkins suggests we could become “expert amateurs”  and gives us the example of cholesterol – how much do we actually need to know to make informed decisions, live healthy lives and contribute to a basic dinner table conversation?
  • We are in a system where lots of things seem/are pretty locked in – university expectations, NCEA assessments etc.
  • There is a question around what we do with the “niche” or “technical” understandings that may not be life-worthy for the majority. It seems a bit rash to chuck them out.


So far, I’ve enjoyed all the examples Perkins gives and the way he rebuts the typical arguments one would expect to hear from some dedicated teachers. I am waiting for the really provocative bit though! Now… back to the book!

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3 thoughts on “Is what we are teaching “life worthy”?

  1. I don’t think it’s always necessary to teach students things that they will need to know throughout their lives – I think that learning to learn is just as important. So learning about quadratic equations might not have lasting relevance for you – but do you remember how it felt to master something difficult? To persevere, check your work, and calculate an answer successfully? Maybe to ask a friend for help, or explain to a teacher where you got stuck? All of these are valuable lessons.

    1. Hi Felicity,

      Thank you for your comment. I agree with your ideas around the dispositions to learn. The quadratic equation example came from David Perkins in the book I summarised in the post. I guess what I took from what he wrote is that you might get similar lessons from other, arguably more meaningful learning.

      Emma.

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