Unwilling to grasp the instructional implications of kids’ differences and complexity

I have strong feelings about what kids should learn, which is why I’d put them in charge of their own educations. Experience assures me they’ll get where they need to go, and do so more efficiently than will otherwise be possible. Experience also tells me that won’t happen as long as they’re fenced in by a random mix of courses required because they’ve always been required, by courses based on elitist conceits, by courses shaped by unexamined assumptions. The core’s boundaries are far too narrow to accommodate the collective genius of adolescents.

Kids bring to the curriculum vast differences – differences in gender, maturity, personality, interests, hopes, dreams, abilities, life experiences, situation, family, peers, language, ethnicity, social class, culture, probable and possible futures, and certain indefinable qualities, all combined in dynamic, continuously evolving ways so complex they lie beyond ordinary understanding.

Today’s reformers seem unable or unwilling to grasp the instructional implications of those differences and that complexity. They treat kids as a given, undifferentiated except by grade level, with the core curriculum the lone operative variable. Just standardize and fine-tune the core, they insist, and all will be well.

That’s magical thinking, and it’s dumping genius on the street.

Don’t tell me I’m naïve, that high school kids can’t be trusted with that much responsibility, or that they’re too dumb to know what to do with it. Would it take them awhile to get used to unaccustomed autonomy? Sure. Would they suspect that the respect being shown them was faked and test it out? Of course. Would they at first opt for what they thought was Easy Street? You can count on it.

Eventually, however, their natural curiosity and the desire to make better sense of experience would get the better of them, and they’d discover that Easy Street connected directly to all other streets, and that following it was taking them places they had no intention of going, or even knew existed.

Marion Brady via http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/01/22/why-all-high-school-courses-should-be-elective

8 Responses to “Unwilling to grasp the instructional implications of kids’ differences and complexity”

  1. The biggest problem with this is that the students simply do not have much experience. How are they going to know that they are interested in something that they’ve never seen or heard of? Over 60% of college students have 3 or more majors. Why? Because they often have no idea about areas of study until they are required to take a course or meet other people who are studying in that area. I discuss careers that use topics in science and mathematics when I teach them and constantly get “I didn’t know you could study that” or “there are careers doing ___?” We have huge numbers of students who want to study Forensics because they have seen it on TV, but how many subjects get popular culture exposure?

  2. I think this is an excellent point, Bill. I wonder how schools like Big Picture and/or New Tech Network handle this? I’m guessing some combination of student free exploration combined with educator guidance/structure to make that investigation process optimally useful?

    In other words, I don’t think they just hand over the keys to kids and say, “Go to it.” I think it’s a bit more structured than that.

    • Well, one (partial) solution is student-generated project based learning. The district where I teach requires students in Honors sciences to do Junior Academy of Science projects, which almost always leads them to learning new technologies, mathematics (statistics) and other topics which they had not realized were required for their project. The downside is that it’s very time-intensive for the students and teachers involved, and relatively easy to run out of “experts” to guide or review the students’ work. I could imagine that being an even greater problem at small schools. I know it’s a problem at smaller colleges where changing majors often leads to transferring to a school that offers it.

  3. They key is to expose students to many things and then not to interrupt their investigation and exploration with schedules, bells or other silly things. Facilitators are great in the learning process. It is when they become “teachers” that innovation drowns and creativity suffers.

    • In an ideal world children would be exposed to a rich environment at home and at school. Unfortunately that is often not the case. Not requiring certain areas of study leaves our students ignorant (and ignorant of the areas of which they are ignorant!)
      Discovery learning can be a great tool, but there are limits. Most discoveries in Science and Mathematics are not something that you would make! Facilitate all you like, but civilization had existed for thousands of years before people made basic discoveries in Astronomy, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics. Guided instruction, investigation and questioning are required, and require quite a lot of planning, content knowledge, and background of students’ prior ideas and misconceptions to be effective. Excellent instruction in those areas is not by chance or lucky, but requires careful planning for the students to make the discoveries.

      • Bill, I do have to agree with you that there are reasons we have these core subjects. We teach history because it repeats itself and to know it is to anticipate and prepare for the future. We teach reading and writing because it enables communication and as we can see in today’s society, lack of communication can be disastrous. We teach science because it is the study of life itself (seems important yes?) and math helps to understand all of it even better. I agree there is a place for the core subjects. Besides, without exposure to these subjects, how would a student know what they are missing out on? I am sure glad I was exposed to science when I was young or I would never have gone in directions I have to learn more about it.

        • There is a reason that MIT, Caltech, Harvard, West Point, and all of the other top institutions have Required Core that all students must take regardless of major. Not just that there are certain things that people “Need to know” but that there are things that all people should be exposed to.

  4. Hey, This is an incredible little piece of writing. I say this mostly because I think anyone is brilliant when they have the same view point as I do. It is hard to find others who think that far out of the box. I am creating a charter school and writing the documents as we speak. This bit of writing you have done, sums up what I am looking to do in this charter. I am tired of taking students’ genius away from them and processing them through the factory model. Kids know who they are, what they are good at, what they like. We need to stop robbing them of their innate genius and let them explore. So many of our systems in education are teaching students how to hate learning. We try to teach instead of letting them learn. We spoon feed them the meal we have prepared for them ensuring that they will never be able to learn and get cooking on their own. Thanks again. Any other info you have that is relevant to my cause of self-motivated, independent learners, who retain their desire for learning because they love it………..let me know. 🙂

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