The cut

TED has a new thing called TED Ed, which allows teachers to create lessons based on videos from the site.  I read this story about it in the Atlantic from Megan Garber.  There are several mentions in the piece of student interest, and how this kind of tool will means that teachers can individualize lessons according to student need.

When I was a college student preparing for my first year of teaching, one of my favorite readings was about something called generative curriculum.  We learned how to take a topic from a curriculum and make room in it for kids to study something they’re interested in.  The first time I tried it was with whales.  The whales thing was part of the fifth grade curriculum. Instead of just telling my students a bunch of things they were supposed to learn about whales, I had them choose something they wanted to learn more about (in the whales department) and then I oversaw individual projects about whatever each student chose.

It was better.  I had less trouble keeping them focused on their work than I otherwise would have (which I took to mean that they were interested) and when we were done with whales, they remembered more than they likely would have if we’d done it the old way.

Such are our attempts to “keep students engaged” and “motivate them to learn.”  These attempts tend to do a better job, but they still ignore the fact that for many students, there’s not a lot to be gained by learning a bunch of things about, for example, whales.

For some students, there’s everything to be gained.  They’re endlessly fascinated by animals or marine life or biology or all three, and they’ll likely become scientists or contributors to organizations that work to protect wildlife or use what they learn for any manner of other related things. But there are also the many for whom the whale facts are yet another reminder that the things they’re endlessly fascinated by and driven to master (how buildings are built, how to generate a vibrato, games, gadgets, fertilizer) don’t make the curriculum cut, and therefore there’s either something wrong with them for being interested in the things they are, or that they’re just plain incompatible with their surroundings and should expect to struggle to fit in. From Garber’s story:

“Classes move, together, through a prescribed — and proscribed — curriculum.  That’s been a necessary system: In a world where students are abundant and teachers are relatively scarce, grouping students into units has been a matter of industrial efficiency. It would be not only impractical, but also pretty much impossible, to create a learning model that, rather than being standardized, revolved around the individualized needs of individual students. So we’ve done our best with what we’ve had.”

I don’t think it’s true.  I don’t think we’ve done our best with what we’ve had.  I think we’ve maybe done our best within the limits of what we were willing to call education, what we were willing to explore in the way of preparing young people for life in our culture.  I don’t think teachers are relatively scarce.  I think the desire to stand in a classroom and do the incredibly difficult work of moving a large group of children through a series of prescribed lessons may be relatively scarce.  But people who are willing to and interested in sharing what they know and love with other people are not scarce at all.

We direct a tremendous amount of resource toward trying to get kids to learn things we’ve decided we should teach them even if they forget them a few moments or days later, even as many of them actively resist.  If we directed that same massive quantity of time and money toward matching young people with the materials and experiences and experts that can offer them what they’re already looking for in the way of information, skill, training, we’d find that what we’ve done so far is nowhere even in the vicinity of the best we can do with what we have.

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One Response

  1. Well said, Meredith. Thumbs up.

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