Monthly Archives: October 2012

Competing Narratives: Interest-based learning vs. precise content

Here are two ends of a spectrum.  The first comes from the website of a California charter school group moving toward opening a new school.

By outlining the precise content that every child should learn in language arts and literature, history and geography, mathematics, science, music, and the visual arts, the Core Knowledge curriculum represents a first-of-its kind effort to identify the foundational knowledge every child needs to reach these goals–and to teach it, grade-by-grade, year-by-year, in a coherent, age-appropriate sequence. (1)

The second is from an older source, John Dewey and his seminal work, Experience and Education.

There is, I think, no point in the philosophy of progressive education with is sounder than its emphasis upon the importance of the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his activities in the learning process, just as there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active co-operation of the pupil in his studying. (2)

So, there it is.  That is the debate many of us are having in high school education today.  I am reminded that it is an old debate – Dewey wrote the book in 1938.

The worthy question at the core of the debate is – Who decides what is worth learning?  Many teachers put themselves in the driver’s seat on this one – “I know what students need to learn,” they say, but never in quite those words.  Even so, the message is the same.

Whether it is a mission statement that claims to outline the precise content that every child should learn or a scope and sequence discussion at the department level that begins with the question, “What do we want our students to know and be able to do?”, students are not typically a part of the process – and I think Dewey would object.  Student input, he would say, is critical for real education – today we would say engaged education because engagement has become the gold standard.

How do we get engagement?  Involve students in their own learning.  Ask them what they want to learn.  Then structure the content of your course around their interests.

Here is 17 year old Nikhil Goyal, a senior at Soyosset High School in New York on the topic.  Whether you agree with choice in schooling or not, listen to him.  He is a student in the system and he is telling you what he wants to learn.  Does it sound that unreasonable?  Is he asking to squander his time?  He is asking to be an active participant in his education – and most students will ask the same.

If you care about engagement, if you believe in its worth in the learning process, it is hard to disagree with the notion that student voice is a powerful tool in leveraging buy in.  In other words, students should help determine what is worth learning if engagement is part of your equation.

But let’s be clear, if you are a teacher and you don’t care about engagement, then you don’t need student input.  Just decide what you are going to teach based on whatever metric is meaningful to you, and be sure you have a strong discipline system in place and a solid understanding of how coercion works – because you are going to need it to persuade students to do what they have not chosen to do.

It is true that students will comply to pursue goals that aren’t theirs if they are pushed hard enough, but it is a fraught tactic.  Why not ask them what they want to learn and then entice them deeper into learning with the fun and fulfillment of following their interests?

2.     Dewey, John. “the meaning of purpose.”Experience and education. 60th anniversary ed. West Lafayette, IN: Kappa Delta Pi, 1998. 77. Print.