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Why? A very important question!

December 25, 2013

When children are young, they ask WHY with almost every new experience they encounter.  If you’re a parent, an early childhood educator or someone who works closely with young children you understand their world extremely well.  Most likely, you have lived through countless WHYs and have tried your best to provide answers to the plethora of questions that come your way.  Occasionally, maybe often, you have found yourself stumbling through some questions, finding it hard to construct answers.  No doubt you persevere, trying to not constrain the young child’s curious mind.

I believe the primary goal of effective teaching should be to provide a learning environment in which students need to figure something out.  Once students are put in situations where they need to figure something out, then our task as teachers is to facilitate an environment in which they’re motivated to pursue explanations.  Finally, in the midst of pursuing explanations, we then want our students to stretch, take risks and develop a curious mind driven to search for reasons.  If we can accomplish these three principles in our attempt to teach students, there is a good chance that they will emerge with curious minds.

So what happens in traditional schooling that dampens a student’s curious mind to such an extent that the student defaults to being concerned more about a grade than learning?  Has education or schooling lost its way or purpose?  In his “balance series,” Bo Adams suggests that there are a variety of questions we should address.  One question he suggests we ask ourselves is: Are we an ingredient school or a culinary school? If school is more about bits and pieces of content or ingredients and less about holistic thinking or the combination of the right ingredients that make up a good recipe, then it’s likely a curious mind will feel like a stranger in that school.

Another question Adams suggests we think about: Is school about discovery or coverage?  Many teachers I work with through the Center for Teaching are concerned about the coverage problem of schooling.  For most teachers their personal philosophy is more centered around learning; however, the way our school’s are administered forces them to worry more about coverage than learning.  They struggle taking risks with new ideas because the syllabus, tests and grades dictate the work.  Again, the curious mind is not at home in a place that is overly fixated on coverage because there is little space for discovery.  The curious mind thrives on discovery.

A third question Adams wants educators to think about is: What if school were more purposefully designed for the committed pursuit of our passions and curiosities?  The research tells us that when meaning or relevance is built into a lesson, students are more likely to engage in the learning.  Meaning can come from connecting the lesson to a student’s passions or curiosity.  When Dong Woo Jang explores his passion for bow-making, his creative talents come to life.  Would the creative talents of all students come to life if our schools were designed to tap into their passions, interests or curiosity to a greater extent?

A fourth question Adams suggests we explore is: How is your school organized for change, putting knowledge to work?   One other piece of research around motivating students focuses on the importance of application of the material we ask students to learn.  We have to create learning environments where the expectation is that knowledge will be put to useful work.  The emphasis is on useful.  Students want to learn material that they can put to work for the benefit of others and themselves.  See the current edition of Educational Leadership, Getting Students to Mastery.  Kathleen Cushman’s article entitled, Minds on Fire, is particularly relevant to the importance of putting knowledge to work.  She writes about “the learning tasks have to matter” for students to be motivated to learn.  One of her eight ingredients is that students have to use or apply what they learn.  Project-based or service-learning are two instructional models well suited to expecting students use what they learn.

A final question Adams asks is: What is a school’s balance with regard to teaching subjects versus engaging in purpose?  There seems to be a thread between the different questions Adams is asking in his balance series.  If we would seriously engage in conversation regarding the enduring purpose of educating students, then it’s possible we wouldn’t become overly fixated on subjects, coverage, tests, grades, and diplomas.  While these are important issues for schools, our fixation on them distracts us from the more important concern that students need to leave school understanding how to learn, as well as loving to learn.  I believe the love for learning is deeply rooted in the purpose of educating a child.

Recently, I have been reading Philip Yenawine’s book, Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines.  I think visual thinking strategies (VTS) is another instructional model that can help schools realize the balance that Bo Adams challenges us to look for.  Listen to Philip Yenawine talk about the value of using VTS as an instructional tool (a more extensive video can be found on the VTS website).  There is extensive research on using VTS as a way to help students learn how to think.  It has been applied in all areas of curriculum, not only the arts.

I believe Bo Adams asks us the right set of questions.  Along with his questions, I believe the answers will come if we define a “new way to teach.”  Teaching that relies on the teacher being a facilitator of learning rather than a distributor of knowledge.  We will need the courage and discipline to integrate instructional models that support this idea.  The tools are out there and they are well researched.  Do we have the leadership in our schools to take Bo Adams five questions, and new ways to teach, using them as a blueprint for defining the purpose of education?  I certainly hope so.

References:

Research Matters: Teach Mathematics Right the First Time, Educational Leadership, volume 62, number 1, September 2004.

Why They Don’t Apply What They Learned, Part 3, James W. Lang, The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 20, 2013

Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines, by Philip Yenawine, Harvard Education Press, 2013

Minds on Fire, Kathleen Cushman, Educational Leadership, volume 71, number 4, December 2103/January 2014.

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