How much of what you learned in school or agonized over in a final exam is something you actually use in your daily life? Is there something that all students spent weeks learning all for ultimately 2% of them to ultimately use in their careers?
In my math class, we focus on fluency; the “why” behind the mathematical “voodoo” that we learn in school. In response, many parents are eager to tell me that they’ve finally understood a basic concept. While fulfilling, this also leads me to wonder: what lifelong "dots" are we leaving unconnected on the table, while being so insistent that our students master niche concepts only for exams?
Imagine a populace that truly understood credit card debt; how the Electoral College works (and why some argue for a change); or how to write an email with clear objectives. Yet—here we are—maintaining the tradition of the Periodic Table, Pythagorean Theorem, and five-paragraph essay. There are so many other things I wish I had learned instead, such as how loans work, what a strong resume entails, how to type, the science behind make healthy food choices, and the ever-mysterious arrangement of taxes!
Why are we teaching all of our students career-specific knowledge that may only be applicable to their particular field of study, while leaving whole-person knowledge untaught? We need a real-world-relevant "why" approach to form the foundation for the "what" of learning.
Realistic Tethers of Learning
Now, please don’t mistake my argument. Do I teach the Pythagorean Theorem? Of course I do! What I’m asking myself is: when I sit down to evaluate what the future-adults in my classroom need to know, if I’m choosing the Pythagorean Theorem over a nuanced understanding of the notion of “percentages,” I’m making a mistake. And of course, many of us are beholden to certain types of curriculum because of testing. I’m not denying this reality, being accountable for it myself! But tests are changing. In fact, the K-12 Framework that laid the ground for the NGSS standards calls for abandoning the “mile wide, inch deep” content, instead calling for an approach that elevates the “wonder” of science.
Teach This, Not That
Until the tests change, let’s make changes where we can. How can we teach this, not that? For example, what if—instead of teaching the patterns of electron orbitals—we taught how chemicals are broken down in the body, and therefore which ones our bodies desperately need. What if instead of teaching higher-level math for students who simply aren’t interested, we offered applied personal finance (and perhaps even made it mandatory!). Instead of hammering the five-paragraph essay, what if we honed speaking and listening skills in terms of conflict resolution?
Extending from "Optional": How Do We Do It?
It’s one thing to say how nice an idea this is; it’s quite another to implement yet another curriculum into our school day. Even if we can subvert antiquated tests, how can we meet these needs without sacrificing instructional time? On a sweeping scale, we could learn from the rise of Career and Technical Education (CTE), and how even our most tenacious student scholars see the value in on-the-job training.
We certainly do not need additional curriculum to incorporate on top of what already exists, and I am by no means advocating that we strike the Periodic Table from our curriculum in every instance (though we can—and should—abandon “calendar time”). I am, however, offering a radical perspective that not every student needs upper level calculus, but that we all need some preparation for our financial futures. "Mindfulness" comes to the forefront with our teaching choices. For every single student in my room, I have become passionate about asking, "Why I am teaching THIS, when I could be teaching THAT?"