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.

4 thoughts on “Competing Narratives: Interest-based learning vs. precise content

  1. MNorman

    I’ve got a few questions. First, should school be entertaining? It seems that, unless this concept of engagement is really very carefully considered, it will devolve into little more than entertainment. The goal is to encourage students to sink their teeth into challenges, to enjoy the difficulty of learning new things. It is not to get rid of the hard stuff or even the boring stuff, but to make kids learn to enjoy the process. For some, learning is an acquired taste, just like coffee or atonal music.

    Second, isn’t school about changing the student? One doesn’t go to school to emerge a few years later the same as he went in. There should be some growth, some expansion, some stretching and pushing and struggling. That’s the point, I think, of a general liberal arts education rather than vocational training.

    1. putyatin Post author

      Good questions. Interest and engagement doesn’t just result in entertainment. Think of any serious artist. Are they pursuing their interests? Yes. Are they engaged, deeply engaged? Yes. Are they seeking mere entertainment? I think they would say pursuing their interested involves a hell of a lot of challenge, work, new things, and difficulty.
      Second, isn’t school about changing the student? No. Absolutely no. That is the narrative that has been peddled, but it was never valid. People don’t change other people. People change themselves. School (and education) is about change, but the notion that teachers change students objectifies students, turns them into objects to be acted upon – which is not so. Students and all people are subjects, actors capable of acting upon the world. So, you are right, the goal is not to emerge a few years later the same as you went in, but any change that took place was by the agency of the student.
      The evidence for this is everywhere: “Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” Oscar Wilde. And he does not mean that nothing worth knowing can be learned. He says taught. Inscribed over the entrance to the Oracle of Delphi: Nosce Te Ipsum. So people came from miles around to be taught by the Oracle, and the message was know thyself. That, maybe more than anything else, supports the notion of interest based learning : Seek the drive for knowledge within yourself. What is our name for the internal drive to know? Interest.

      1. MNorman

        I agree. I agree that the student is ultimately responsible for growth and learning; that has certainly proven to be the case in my education. But I think that interest can be flexible: a good teacher can show a student the purpose of learning something that initially strikes them as irrelevant, such as European History, Philosophy, classical music, or post-colonialist literature.

        Call me a classicist, but I believe that there are things that everyone should and can know. Many of those things–goodness, justice, etc.–can only be “sussed out” through personal experience. But education can give a student the background necessary to be able to pick them out when he sees them.

      2. putyatin Post author

        Yes. I am with you entirely. Think upon the notion of relevance. Where does relevance “happen”? Does a teacher SHOW relevance to a student? Or does a student sense relevance when, in the exploration of ideas, things start to seem connected? I am not actually disagreeing with you. A good teacher can perceive what is interesting to a student and then point to other things that might lead to deeper explorations. In fact, that is the role of the teacher – facilitator of learning (but not maker of understanding). The only thing interest based learning is commenting on is where learning begins – not where it ends. Should learning begin with, “Do this now because I say so.” Or does it begin with, “What are you interested in learning?”

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