BECOME A MEMBER! Sign up for TIE services now and start your international school career


On ”Lifeworthy” Learning

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “What’s Worth Learning in School?” by Lory Hough in Ed. Magazine, Winter 2015 (pp. 36-41);
In this Ed. Magazine article, editor Lory Hough reports on the recent thinking of David Perkins (Harvard Graduate School of Education) on what is worth learning in school. Mr. Perkins says there is often a skeptical student at the back of the class who asks, “Why do we need to know this?”
Lots of teachers, including Mr. Perkins, find this an uncomfortable moment: “When that ballistic missile comes from the back of the room, it is a good reminder that the question does not just belong to state school boards, authors of textbooks, writers of curriculum standards, and other elites. It is on the minds of our students.”
The fact is that we teach a lot that is not going to matter in students’ lives, says Mr. Perkins—and we do not teach a lot of stuff that really will matter. Why? Because of three rival learning agendas:
• Information—Students are asked to master a vast body of stuff, even though much of it will not matter, in any meaningful way, to their lives. “It is nice to know things,” says Mr. Perkins. “I like to know things. You like to know things. But there are issues of balance, particularly in the digital age… [T]he world we are educating learners for is something of a moving target.”
The problem is that the conventional curriculum is “chained to the bicycle rack,” he says—parents demand it, textbooks convey it, teachers are required to teach it, and we do not feel comfortable throwing it out.
But knowledge without utility has a short half-life. “The hard fact is that our minds hold on only to knowledge we have occasion to use in some corner of our lives,” he says. “Overwhelmingly, knowledge unused is forgotten. It’s gone.”
• Achievement—The pressure to do well on high-stakes summative tests is a life-support system for the conventional curriculum, but this type of testing “makes for shallow learning and understanding,” says Mr. Perkins. “You cram and do well on the test but may not have the understanding. It unravels.”
Besides, is it important to know state capitals and major rivers? Mr. Perkins argues that what matters is how the location of rivers and harbors and other features of the land have been shaped by and continue to shape the course of history. Better than learning facts about the French Revolution, understand how those events relate to world conflict, poverty, and the struggle between church and state.
“All that talk about achievement leaves little room for discussion about what is being achieved,” says Mr. Perkins. Besides, less-formal, more frequent formative assessment produces better learning.
• Expertise—The Holy Grail of education is becoming an expert—for example, in mathematics, moving through algebra, geometry, and reaching the pinnacle, calculus, “an entire subject that hardly anybody ever uses,” says Mr. Perkins. But any time there is push-back on the conventional curriculum, supporters claim, “We are sacrificing rigor!” Mr. Perkins would rather that schools prepare students to be “expert amateurs” in, for example, statistics, appreciating art, understanding insurance rates, filing taxes, raising children—areas with immediate relevance to daily life.
In short, Mr. Perkins believes we need to rethink curriculum content in a radical way. Historically, we have focused K-12 schooling on educating for the known, “the tried and true, the established canon,” he says.
“This made very good sense in the many periods and places where most children’s lives were likely to be more or less like their parents’ lives. However, wagering that tomorrow will be pretty much like yesterday does not seem to be a very good bet today. Perhaps we need a different vision of education, a vision that foregrounds educating for the unknown as much as for the known.”
Mr. Perkins likes to tell the story of Mahatma Gandhi losing one of his sandals as he boarded a moving train in India. There was not time to retrieve the sandal on the ground, and without hesitation, Gandhi took off his other sandal and threw it toward the first. Asked by a colleague what he was thinking, Gandhi said one sandal wouldn’t do him any good, but two would certainly help someone else.
Gandhi “showed wisdom about what to keep and what to let go of,” says Mr. Perkins. “Those are both central questions for education as we choose for today’s learners the sandals they need for tomorrow’s journey.”
Summary reprinted from Marshall Memo 571, 26 January 2015.

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


08/16/2015 - Ms.J
I never have a problem with this question from my students. Why study maths or other subjects they may never use in their adult life? Because it helps them to learn how to to think!

How can it be that we have lost the fact that thinking is essential and teaching how our primary task as educators? Our students need to learn how to think and every subject we offer contributes to that ability.

I tell my students I want them to learn how to think better than my and previous generations - which created our current (sad) state of affairs. I tell them we need them to think better, more clearly than their elders did to help solve the problems we created with our thinking (or lack of).