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I teach math to kids. They teach me a lot of things, too. I think it's an even swap.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Teach how to learn, not what to learn

I just finished reading a short book by Will Richardson titled "Why School?" It's based on a TED Talk he gave in 2011, and appears to only be available as an e-book, which fits with the theme of the book - technology in education. In this book he questions the fundamental purpose of schools in this age of the internet.  Having also read "Disrupting Class" by Clayton Christensen, I was expecting another book that was going to espouse software as the next great teacher.  We can debate if that is the point of Disrupting Class or not, but it certainly wasn't the point made by Richardson.

Richardson acknowledges that information and facts are in abundance, and there is no point in teaching facts.  Each student holds in his or her pocket a device which can retrieve those facts in a few clicks.  Unfortunately, driven by skills-based, high-stakes testing, this is what teaching has become more of, and it is how the majority of technology in the classroom is being utilized.  We fool ourselves into thinking we are cutting edge technologists by sitting kids in front of Khan Academy videos.  As Richardson asks, "What is the point of going to school for something you can do from home?"

I think most well-meaning educators share Richardson's view that school should be a place to develop deep inquiry, a place to explore passions.  Yet, a pitiful amount of that goes on in our schools.  More and more we are at the mercy of politicians and businessmen who are well-meaning but think that an education can be broken down into a few numbers.  And as a result of the ever-increasing push to increase test scores, schools are becoming test prep centers, not the places of academic enlightenment we believe them to be.

Our schools are driving curiosity and creativity out of our kids.  I recently received an e-mail from one of the hardest-working, most driven students I have ever taught.  It choked me up when I read it.  Here is an excerpt:

 Entering Summit, I: 1) read for fun all the time and 2) loved math
 Leaving Summit, I: 1) never read for fun and 2) was kind of sick of math, despite having an excellent teacher for three years of it.
I can attribute some of that flagging intellectual curiosity to the social environment of public high school, but I still think Summit's academic environment didn't do enough to stimulate my love of learning. I truly believe in Summit's vision and mission, but I think that it is sometimes so standards- and test-driven that it forgets some of the most crucial goals of education. I realize there are a lot of other factors at play including the educational backgrounds, cultures, and goals of the Summit student body, but I think that genuine intellectual curiosity can be one of the most valuable qualities a person can have, and it can absolutely be fostered in Summit's classrooms.
This from a 19-year-old kid.  Why can't he be in charge of our state's educational policies?

We MUST change.  But how do we go about it?  Richardson gave one word of advice - Scream.  Talk to teachers, school boards, politicians, and even the high-powered foundations and institutions that are, more and more, the dictators of educational policies.  He boycotted his kids' schools during the end-of-year testing period.  What would happen if we all did that?

We need to teach how to learn, not what to learn.

In my next post, I think I'll chat about how I envision using technology to do that.  It includes some of Richardson's ideas, as well as my own based on experiences with incorporating technology in my own classroom.


  1. Hey Julian,

    Just wanted to say thanks for reading and for blogging about my book. Glad that it resonated.

    I'm not averse to teaching some facts, just not as many as we seem focused on now.

    And thanks for sharing that e-mail. I wonder how many of those never get written and sent. Sad.


  2. Just wanted to thank you for my first comment, Will! I am new to this blogging thing, and I am hoping that it proves a constructive and useful outlet for some of my current ramblings and frustrations over education. Take care.