Monthly Archives: August 2014

Knowing Stuff: The balance between content knowledge, and the inquiry processes

Every year our board produces a video.    I got to watch it (twice) this week.    It is very good.

One of the messages is about how our board prepares students for a very complex future.  I started thinking about how education has changed (or not) in response to our global community where information and knowledge is at our fingertips 24/7.  Historically the teacher was the keeper of all knowledge.  If you didn’t go to school and listen to the teacher, you didn’t know stuff.  But, when was the last time you wondered about something and didn’t find the answer instantly by googling it?  Today, it is easy to find out stuff.  So what is the teacher’s role now?  And, what about the stuff—don’t kids still need to know stuff?

Kids do need to know stuff.  They need to know how to read and how to read critically because there is more information to sift through.  It is far more efficient to know your timestables and addition facts than to pull out your phone (I almost wrote calculator!).  But, I would pull out my phone to solve 3425/49, knowing though, whether the answer was reasonable or whether I’d mis-pushed the buttons.  It is helpful to have an understanding of the geography of Canada, our history and how the scientific elements are organized.  We can’t get along without knowing stuff.  When you know stuff, then learning other stuff makes more sense.  When you know stuff you can access more.  When you know stuff, you can talk to people.

But other things are also increasingly important to know how to do.  It is important to be able to solve problems creatively, especially since most of the jobs our students will do have yet to be invented.  It is important to be able to think critically.  It is important to know how to find the other stuff you want to learn and how to synthesize it with what you already know.  It is important to be able to work collaboratively.

In the days when the teacher was the holder of all knowledge, it took a long time to pass all the knowledge on and we sort of left the other stuff until later, maybe.  The idea of school was the transmission of the stuff.  Today we need to find a balance of learning the stuff and the process of learning.  That’s your challenge.  Sometimes we think that in the “new” way of doing things is only about the process and that we aren’t supposed to teach the stuff.  We think that we have to have kids doing inquiry, doing projects and collaborating all of the time and that means we don’t have to worry about the stuff.

We do need to worry about the stuff.  First of all, rich problems, rich inquiry and rich collaboration all work much better around a strong knowledge base.  And, the problems, the inquiry and collaboration are the processes for arriving at the stuff.  When we have students work in pairs or groups problem-solving in math, the ultimate goal is that each student will learn the stuff.  When student develop inquiry questions in the social sciences, they are learning the stuff as they answer their questions.  When students engage in the process of writing for a specific audience and purpose, they are learning the stuff of the writer’s craft.  In the past, we taught the stuff and then let them do the higher order thinking.  Now, we learn the stuff as we are doing the higher order thinking.

So, the teacher’s role is still about getting kids to know the stuff.  But the process by which students learn stuff has shifted.  Instead of telling kids the stuff and having them memorize and regurgitate, they learn the stuff through the processes of inquiry, collaboration and problem-solving.  As they are learning the stuff, they are also learning to think creatively and critically, to solve problems, to synthesize and evaluate information and to work with others.

As you begin your year, think about how you set up your students to know the stuff through processes which develop their creativity, flexibility, and curiosity.

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Do you create in your classroom a culture of “done” or a culture of learning and improving?

Do you create in your classroom a culture of “done” or do you create a culture of learning and improving?  A culture of “done” implies task completion.  Very quickly students begin to see school as a list of tasks to complete.  Completion is the goal, not the process.  Within a culture of “done” we also tend to create a culture of “correct” because “done and correct” is the ultimate goal.  But, “done” frequently supersedes “correct” and students become satisfied with getting the work done.  Most often, these tasks to complete are routine, unchallenging and mundane.  If you want your students to move past task completion, you need to recreate your culture.

On one of my summer walks I was listening to a Freakanomics podcast about failing.  The gist of the podcast was that human beings don’t like to fail, and, in fact, will persevere with projects even though it is quite clear that it is not going well, just to avoid the feeling of being wrong.  Isn’t that the same as “done”?  It lead me to think about how we develop classroom cultures.  How often do we make it okay to fail?  Do our students see failure as a chance to learn or as something to be avoided at all costs?  Do we model saying “I don’t know”?  Do we help students to see that their mistakes can lead to greater learning?  Do we develop tasks that are challenging and difficult and require hard work to achieve?

Let’s think about the student who is working through a math problem in a small group.  The problem is challenging for the students but not impossible.  As they work through the problem together they are receiving feedback about their mathematical thinking each time they do not get the correct solution.  They receive feedback from each other as they discuss the problem.  Once they arrive at the solution, they get feedback that grit and resilience pay off.  What would happen if the teacher had gone in and rescued them the minute they went off on the wrong track?  Their feedback would have been that this problem is too hard for you.  Does that mean that the teacher has no role at all?  Definitely not.  It is the teacher’s job to observe and enter into the math conversation to offer the exact amount of feedback or direction that will allow the students to move forward, without telling the students what to do. I often suggest to teachers that they give their little piece of feedback and then WALK AWAY.  Walking away tells the students that you trust them to arrive at the solution.

Let’s think about a workshop environment in reading and writing as a means of moving away from “done”.  If a student is engaged and making choices about his or her writing, completion happens when the piece meets the criteria the student has set out.  The piece says what the student wants it to say.  The teacher now provides feedback that helps the student meet the writing goal (e.g. “I’m not sure that your lead hooks me as a reader.  What were you trying to do here?”).  If a student has choice in what he or she reads and has opportunities to discuss the text with others, then “done” happens only when the student has a good understanding of the text.  In both instances, students are learning that a deeper feeling of accomplishment requires engagement and perseverance.

I hate doing laundry.  It is a mindless, never-ending chore.  I am always happy to be “done”, except the next day rolls around and there it is again.  Laundry is task completion.  I love solving problems.  I love being challenged and having to think hard.  In those instances the time flies, I persevere, I check and recheck to make sure I have it right.  When the problem is solved I am proud and I know that it is done, because I have determined it to be so.  As you begin the new year, think about the tasks you set, the culture you create, and move away from laundry-like task completion.


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