If It Doesn’t Lead to Learning, It’s not Worth Teaching

A couple of weekends ago I surprised my son with a box of Meccano and suggested we build something together. I don’t have a particularly glorious track record in the field of assembly (we won’t discuss the unfortunate table football incident), but I thought that if he and I constructed something together, it would not only be quality time together, but it would maybe demonstrate that it can be fun to try something new and push through frustration. I also liked the idea that he and I could start off as novices and grow together. Nico loves design and building things, but more in the virtual than the physical world. Truth be told, Nico was not excited at all initially and it took some coaxing to get started. We ended up building a pretty sophisticated airplane and we had a wonderful time as a pair, often fueled by laughing at how my hands don’t do what my brain tells them to do… and then things literally fall apart.

This got me thinking back to last summer, when we Eurailed with the kids for eight weeks from Edinburgh to Sofia, and all the experiences Charlotte and I introduced to Nico and Alexia, which, in spite of the clamorous protests that preceded almost each one, the kids ended up enjoying and appreciating. It reminded me that we all sometimes need someone to introduce us to something new in order for us to discover its joys and intricacies. Learning is a social experience. 

It also evoked the complexity of meaningful, student-centered learning. It also brought up the question of relevance.

We have to accept that in order for deeper learning to occur, often times someone has to introduce the “topic” first, a choice made outside of the students’ control. If learning is constructed through experience and prior knowledge, sometimes learning has to be catalyzed by someone else introducing new material (linked to other aspects of prior knowledge). Moreover, just like with Nico and the Meccano set (or new foods, or kids yoga, or literary genres, or just about anything), it is the adult’s role to expose children to new experiences in order to develop the schemata that is prior knowledge and that allows the child to springboard onto other topics to construct new learning and meaning*. Teachers and parents do this all this time, but how much is driven by what the adult believes the child needs to know and how much of then actually sticks if the child doesn’t see the point? 

The idea that students take charge of their own learning, pose and answer their own questions, produce original ideas, performances, and artifacts with which they are personally connected is a beautiful one and should be at the simultaneous process and outcome of every experience. At the same time, this doesn’t just happen. The problem always comes back to the question: How can students come up with their own compelling questions and create authentic products if they don’t know enough about a topic to ask or create something rich and meaningful?

Student empowerment comes when they know enough to be empowered. At some point, though, someone has to introduce the topic and for the material to be relevant, but has to resonate in the students’ lives. Students have to have the willingness and opportunities to apply their learning to other contexts. Whatever we introduce, for deep learning to happen, the material has to be relevant and transferrable.

For too long K-12 curriculum has been the result of someone, somewhere, at some point in time deciding that kids “need to know this.” Little has changed since 1892 , including the dogmatic conviction (almost teleological) that there is a canon of knowledge with which every human needs to be familiar if they are to be considered educated (by whom?). Whether there should be a definite list of Great Books of the Western World is debatable, and if there should be such a list, its heavy emphasis on the works of dead white men may not serve to provide a greater voice for those who have traditionally been marginalized.

After all these years of teaching more or less the same curriculum (how much has the History curriculum really changed?), students often can’t see how it applies to their lives and are still asking “why do I need to know this?” Or even worse, they aren’t asking this and just playing the game of school, doing as they’re told to get the grade. The system continues to introduce them to material that someone, somewhere thinks is important. The students may not find this material relevant at all, and if that is the case, it is very unlikely that they will generate meaningful, substantive questions of their own. It’s even less likely that they will be learning. Unless it’s learning how to play this game of school.

When designing learning experiences, we should create contexts where students aren’t asking why they need to know something, but rather “How can I apply this?” And they should haver an answer every time. Students should be able to take what the teacher introduces and have their thinking or behavior change as a result when engaged in another experience (this is transfer). In other words, before introducing something, the adults should ask is this material really transferrable within the students’ lives (or is this just self-indulgence)? If we cannot pinpoint how students will apply, now or in the near future, what we want to teach them (that is, have their thinking or behavior change in another context—transferability), then maybe the material is not worth teaching in the first place. This doesn’t take away the pleasures and rewards of discovery since discovery is in itself the simultaneous intake and application of learning through the experience.

We always need to introduce students to material, but there has to be a purpose. This purpose is real application and transferability. Only then will they generate meaningful questions because they begin to identify with the topic and make valuable connections to other domains.

Going back to Nico and the Meccano, I tried to create a context through which he would learn resilience, teamwork, leadership, initiative, and communication skills, on top of problem-solving and honing dexterity. I was the one who initially picked the activity, the one who introduced him to it, the one who had to position it as worthwhile. In this sense, his only choice was to build or not to build, and that’s okay. The introduction to a new experience opened doors, and learning happened subsequently. More to the point, the learning could be applied, transferred to other immediate and longer-term contexts (all this, I hope). It is our responsibility to expose children to new experiences and possibilities, but if we want them to take charge of their learning, these experiences have to be worthwhile and applicable in the students’ lives… really applicable, not because dogma says they have to know it.

* Of course children also develop their schemata on their own, through their own freedom and exploration, but I’m writing about instances within the teacher/parent/adult-child relationship.

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