Status Quo 101: It’s a Race to the End

I started this as a response to Clay Burell’s (Blog, Twitter) post, “Barbarians with Laptops: An Unreasonable Fear?” and half way through decided to move it to my blog due to its length. The spark for this train of thought was the statement by Nathan Lowell (Blog, Twitter):

Does the challenge become one of changing the politics so that learning is more important than coverage? If you can take away the opportunity cost of floundering and instead *use* that floundering as the lesson, then this is no longer an obstacle but an advantage.

And Clay’s response:

I’ll start with saying I’m still uncomfortable with the opportunity cost notion. As a history teacher — which to me means “preparation for informed citizenship” teacher — I’m not sure I want to sacrifice time that could be used learning and drawing conclusions from human history on the altar of failed web 2.0 experimentation.

I see the value of both, though. I’m thinking a separate course — a sort of “Intro to Web 2.0″ — might be more useful than teachers across the curriculum failing and flailing about with the tools when their primary job is teaching content.

And I’m still traditional in thinking content is more important. Without it, we risk churning out what I’ve recently been calling, in my internal monologues, “barbarians with laptops.”1

Teachers and philosophers across the centuries have taught successfully without the new tools (to whatever degree we can certainly debate, and could also debate whether the percentage of students who don’t learn well under traditional methods would learn any better via digital means).

And the new tools also enable “connections to knowledge via people” that can be unreliable, which opens a new can of worms.

The responses were also intriguing, but I kept coming back to a singular point, resparked by the above exchange, that I find fundamental to the discussion. I have worked with students in Grade 5 (US) through grad school, both online and in a physical classroom. Caveat: I have worked in self-contained classrooms, teaching almost all subject matter and settings were I worked only with specific disciplines.

I am going to disagree with a point the Clay made in his response, regarding content. We are all well aware that what passes as content increases exponentially at a rate that teachers and textbook publishers can’t keep up with. If they tried, the iteration cycle for new textbooks would be about three months (think of THAT cost). Andrew Marcinek (Blog, Twitter) concisely makes the content point in his post “My Decade“:

We can connect to copious amounts of information and communicate faster than ever before. We have even started condensing our language in order to express how we feel in 140 characters . . .

We can not possibly cover all of the available content in a school year, much less a series of 12 school years. Content as an engine of learning design must end. It is cumbersome and ultimately keeps schooling mired in the morass of data point driven learning. Content driven curriculum and learning design ends up looking like this example from Dr. Scott McLeod’s (Blog, Twitter) post, “4 Tales Out of School

Four questions from a study packet for a middle school World Civilizations class:

A. Nubia developed trade routes over land because:

  1. there was not enough wood to build boats
  2. the Egyptians controlled the Nile
  3. the cataracts prevented river travel in Nubia
  4. Nubians only traded with West Africans

B. According to legend, who united Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt?

  1. Hatshepsut
  2. Menes
  3. Amon-Re
  4. Thutmose III

C. Thutmose III was all of the following except:

  1. a conqueror
  2. an educated man
  3. unmerciful to the defeated
  4. a great Pharaoh

D. What was the kingdom of Kerma known for?

  1. great poverty
  2. skilled archers
  3. delicate pottery
  4. ironworking

These are just a sample; most of the items in the packet are similar. Students have to ‘learn’ these because they’ll be quizzed on them.

It’s very hard for me to see this kind of schoolwork and not think that vast amounts of student time are just being wasted. And I’m the first to admit that I did this when I taught 8th grade. I didn’t know any better, but that didn’t make it right.

We pay a lot of lip service to “teaching students to be life long learners.” Where we fail is in not making a shift from content driven curriculum and learning, to process driven curriculum and learning. I contend that “how” to learn is more important than “what” is learned (Yes, I know that is a dangerous statement to make and I should expound upon it, but not right now. Suffice it to say I do think there are elemental content bits that do need to be learned). Either we really mean that we want to teach students how to learn and be life long learners or we don’t, and the current general approaches to schooling do not evidence this stated purpose. A content driven approach to school ends up being a “race to the end,” the end of the book that is. The reason this occurs is the mistaken assumption that everything printed in a textbook or curriculum guide or standards list has been thoughtfully placed there. Do teachers pause and ask, “Why am I teaching this?” What about administrators? The thinking behind content driven curriculum is that it is all “necessary” for a complete education. Who made the determination of what would be printed in the afore mentioned documents? Did they ask, “Why should this be included?” or is far to much of it there due to tradition? How often has a student expressed disappointment because a historical event, science concept, or piece of literature is skimmed over (or worse, ignored), only to receive the answer, “I am sorry, but we have to finish the book, we have a lot to cover.”

Hugh MacLeod (Blog, Twitter) in his post, “Don’t Worry if You Don’t Know ‘Absolutely Everything’ Before Starting Out” describes the end result of a content based approach and how it negatively effects our students:

They want to have ALL the ans­wers, before ever ris­king get­ting their feet wet. Hell, before even get­ting their little toe wet…

Ending his post, Clay asked:

Am I wrong to think some disciplines deserve more emphasis on coverage than others? Maths, for example, and science? Isn’t time lost on digital experimentation in these classes a costly thing, since it may cost students a deeper focus on, say, evolution, or advanced calculus, or whatever?

And if the answer is “yes” — notice the “if” and be nice, readers — then doesn’t it follow that web experimentation in some classrooms should be treated with extreme caution?

Clay is right, if educators do answer his question “yes,’ then much caution should be used in experimenting in the classroom – whether with Web 2.0 applications or other technological tools. However, I think this is the wrong focus. Let me provide two examples of what process driven learning might look like, one mine, the other from Silvia Tolisano (Blog, Twitter).

During my MA work in Pepperdine’s OMAET program (c. 2001) I was required to do an Action Research Project. I always loved literature and I tried to introduce my students to great books. I was teaching a primarily self-contained 8th grade classroom in an urban school at the time. I went to my administrator and told him I wanted to have my 8th literature students read Charles Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities. He wasn’t too keen on the idea, but I explained that I wasn’t looking for a high school or college level evaluation of the text. Instead, I reminded him that I had a room full of early teens who were in the early stages of learning about relationship building and I felt the book offered insight into human relationship dynamics that they would be intrigued by. I explained that my goal was teaching my students the process of critically evaluating what they read – the content wasn’t the driver. He agreed to allow me the latitude to design a month long project and incorporate technology into the process. The catch was that I had to raise funds to bring in the technology. I raised $6,000.00 in about three weeks and within a month had new computers, wireless hubs, and software in place.

The students were organized in groups and we read corporately and individually, had complete class discussion and smaller group discussions. My students already spent tremendous amounts of time at night in AOL Instant Messenger, so I appropriated the technology. Once a week each group engaged in an AIM conversation (outside of the classroom) which revolved around three seed questions that I would provide. The group them emailed the transcript of the dialog to me. Additionally, once a week I held an optional AIM group chat that I led, to dig further into the relationships in the story. To complete the project each group collaboratively developed a graphic representation of the relationships using Inspiration. Each student also prepared an introspective essay on A. How they understood relationships, B. How they understood the formation of relationships, and C. Revelations derived from their reading and interacting in collaboration. I thrilled at the results. The technologies allowed the quiet back row students to shine and gain “expert” status and it pushed the front-row hand raising student who always had the “right” content answer to be pushed to explore new avenues of discovery. The point? It didn’t matter what book I used, the content was value neutral to the process. I could just as easily have designed a similar project in Math, Science, or Social Studies. It was about the process and not the content.

I was following my Twitter stream one day and noticed an “urgent” request from Silvia Tolisano for help in identifying a skeleton that her students had discovered on the school campus. I posit this as another example of how learning is about process and not content and technology easily fits in a process driven learning environment. Silvia chronicles the process brilliantly in her post, “CSI Twitter – Crime Scene Investigation.” I have to admit being thoroughly enthralled watching the process unfold. Yes, there was content involved, but it could have just as easily been used in Math (Scale), Language (Communication), Technology (Web 2.0 tools), as it could in the obvious Science discipline. Process, though, was king. Silvia points out:

I am amazed, again, at the power of the network. As the investigation spread across our school campus, so it did across the network. Having a support team, a flood of resources and experts at your fingertips (literally), it is truly an example how learning, research, has changed through the collaboration, connecting and communication tools of the social network era.

Learning, Research, Collaboration, Connecting, Communication are processes (filled with various skills, but content neutral) that are essential in our world. School needs to revolve around process. Content needs to become fluid allowing teachers to use various, seemingly disparate, content pieces to facilitate the learning of processes. I always said that the process I wanted my two children to learn in their first three years of school was, reading. If they learned that process well, they could learn anything they wanted to, as deeply as they wanted to. Let’s make process the engine upon which schools run and let the students play with content.

I hope that made some sense, it is an important soap box.

Photo Credits:

Books: Valentinian at Flicker

Poster: Tale of Two Cities at allposters.com

Skeleton: Silvia Tolisano at “CSI Twitter – Crime Scene Investigation.

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One thought on “Status Quo 101: It’s a Race to the End

Add yours

  1. Hi Greg,

    Great food for thought here, so let me copy/paste my Diigo highlights and annotations (and pardon any tone/snark that may creep in, as I was grumpy inside Diigo’s too small annotation input fields).

    But before I do that, let me note that I read in your “About” page that you’re into “Big Picture” learning. I’m into “Big Picture” teaching in my history classes, and consciously enforce that notion in my class wikis: “Europe: The Big Picture” and “China: The Big Picture.”

    I say that because as a high school history teacher, I do want my students to have that big picture that I never got until well into my 20s. Its lack made much literature and philosophy far less comprehensible and worse, far less rich, for lack of the historical context.

    Now to the granulars:

    You write:

    A content driven approach to school ends up being a “race to the end,” the end of the book that is. The reason this occurs is the mistaken assumption that everything printed in a textbook or curriculum guide or standards list has been thoughtfully placed there. Do teachers pause and ask, “Why am I teaching this?” What about administrators? The thinking behind content driven curriculum is that it is all “necessary” for a complete education.

    My reply:

    I ask myself that question every time I start a unit. And I go far beyond the textbook in designing that unit.
    It’s not so much a “race to the end” as a designed pace to, yes, cover the passage of time — as a _survey_, which any good teacher explains is a simplified _overview_ meant not as an _end_, but as a _beginning_ to lifelong explorations of the terrain surveyed — so that students leave the course with a _coherent_ understanding of that terrain.
    I know that’s traditional, but it’s efficient and effective, done well. It’s harder to get “the Big Picture” without a single, coherent guide in human form mentoring you throughout a year of planned study. I would need serious persuading that a student with a laptop would do better in gaining that Big Picture more efficiently.
    The examples from textbooks and Scott’s quiz stuff are good examples of bad teaching. Good teachers know that, yes?

    You write:

    My students already spent tremendous amounts of time at night in AOL Instant Messenger, so I appropriated the technology. Once a week each group engaged in an AIM conversation (outside of the classroom) which revolved around three seed questions I provided. The group them emailed the transcript of the dialog to me.

    My reply:

    I’m unclear. How is this not a content-driven race to the end of the book? Why not just let the students read it if interested? I know this sounds snarky, but you organized and assigned the learning materials and outcomes. What am I missing?

    You write:

    The point? It didn’t matter what book I used, the content was value neutral to the process. I could just as easily have designed a similar project in Math, Science, or Social Studies. It was about the process and not the content.

    My reply:

    It sounds fine, but how is it a superior learning experience to the content of Math, Science, or SS? And are the two mutually exclusive?

    You write:

    Content needs to become fluid allowing teachers to use various, seemingly disparate, content pieces to facilitate the learning of processes. I always said that the process I wanted my two children to learn in their first three years of school was, reading. If they learned that process well, they could learn anything they wanted to, as deeply as they wanted to. Let’s make process the engine upon which schools run and let the students play with content.

    My reply:

    I think Neal Stephenson’s input in the original thread about what he called “liberating constraints” and (what he roughly called) “content expert guides” are important concepts to add here. (See his full post at his own blog)

    I agree about the necessity of reading as the doorway to learning “anything they want,” but a good teacher supplies that want in ways self-direction can’t: through the enthusiastic and transformative Art of Teaching. And granted, many teachers don’t excel at this art.

    I didn’t want to learn a lot of stuff until a teacher had me as a captive audience, and persuaded me that the stuff was something I did want to learn — because s/he made it interesting.

    Your serve 😉

    And happy new year.

    (And I hope your comment box takes html!

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