16 September 2012

Subjects Aren't the Content, They're the Delivery

I don't think every student needs Algebra itself, but I still think every student should take the class. It's not Algebra that they're going to be using every day in their jobs, it's problem-solving. Grammar isn't so crucial as is communication. Passing a wood shop class doesn't mean you'll be able to build your own furniture, but it might teach you spatial reasoning and planning.

Subjects aren't the content, they're the delivery. Americans might not be as good at math or science as other countries—although that data is inconclusive due to a variety of variables not factored—but I think one of the reasons we're not all suffering a giant societal meltdown is that maybe, just maybe, we're teaching what's really important: problem-solving, collaboration & communication, work ethic, respect, and learning. (That's not a complete list, it's just one I came up with off the top of my head.)

Problem-solving (number one for a reason)
I don't know if I've ever been to a job interview that didn't ask me about a time I was confronted with a problem and how I went about solving it. This is a crucial question because that's how life is no matter what you're doing or whether you're getting paid for it: new problems will arise, and it's not your prior knowledge—those pesky subject-specific facts you're tested on—that will guide you, but how well you can analyze a situation, think critically about what the actual problem is, brainstorm possible solutions, picture how well a possible solution might play out, execute the plan, and reflect on the effectiveness. Granted, most people who solve problems probably don't realize they're going through those steps, and I'm not so sure it's important to teach students those steps the way I see them taught.

The way I think we should go about teaching problem-solving is coming up with as many subject-related problems as we can, and then implicitly guide their brains through the steps. "Your solution doesn't seem to be working very well. Did you come up with any others? Look for alternative solutions" (Brainstorming). "What's the real problem here? Look closer" (Critical-thinking). "What do you think will happen if we do this? Try to consider all possible outcomes" (Imagination). "How did it go? Don't worry about failing. Think about what went wrong and what you could do better next time" (Reflection). Maybe later on you can actually delineate the steps. Terms mean more when they're already familiar with the definition. But the important thing is that they get comfortable with solving problems. That's a skill that transfers.

Collaboration & Communication (two words I actually hate)
Every group assigned to a project has its doers and its floaters. One or two go-getters decide to take charge zealously or reluctantly, and the rest try to do as little as possible. Or, in good circumstances, you get a good leader who shares the vision of the group and the group itself follows through on their individual assignments. Whether you're a leader or a soldier, it's good to know how to work well in groups, and that includes communicating well. Not every project in school should be a group project, but where possible it should be.

Every subject has its own set of vocabulary and literature. If a student has a hard time with English class but really enjoys Multimedia, he/she can read and write about that subject in that class, acquiring reading comprehension skills and writing skills. The reason I tie communication in with collaboration is that you don't really get one without the other. Good groups need to communicate well, and if you're communicating in your job, you're probably collaborating somehow.

[A part of me says we can do away with the traditional English class which has a monopoly on grammar, reading, writing, and vocabulary. We can have a semester-long grammar class which teaches sentence and essay structure but the rest can and should be left to other classes.]

Work Ethic (it should be rewarded for its own sake)
For most classes, I imagine, a student who works hard already performs well. Not so in an artistic/creative class. I have a lot of students that spend a lot of time working on projects that don't turn out well, sometimes because they simply don't work very efficiently, sometimes because they simply haven't developed an artistic eye. Either way, the product doesn't look that good. Rather than give a bad grade, I came up with a grading system that rewarded hard work as well as talent and creativity.

Most of my bosses liked this trait. If work was slow they'd just want me to stay busy and find things to do. So to reward that trait in school is to encourage the habit later on. 

Respect (and decorum)
For some reason, respect feels almost like an antiquated idea. Only kids from the South even call adults sir and ma'am. But adults in a functioning society must have respect for one another or else it's not a functioning society. Kids can learn respect through classroom rules. In fact, in college they tell future teachers to basically revolve all their rules around respect. Respect the teacher and other classmates by raising your hand. Respect the building by not leaving trash on the ground. Respect others by not being disruptive. Respect yourself by doing your best. These respectful students grow up to be polite to their teller at the bank, they stand up to shake the hand of their interviewer at a job, they treat their customers kindly and are sensitive to other cultures. Respectful students grow up to create a well-functioning society.

Decorum comes in by learning how to behave yourself in different situations. At school it means that in gym class you run around and you're competitive, but in the library you keep your voice down. You work in a group in some projects, and you can move your desks around and talk, but in other projects you work independently and focus. It's another skill that transfers well to the real world.

Learning (yes you can learn learning)
Particularly in an internet age, knowing how to learn is a very valuable skill. Sometimes you go to a new job and they train you on their proprietary software. Other times you already have a job but they're looking to downsize, so you have to make yourself more valuable. Or maybe you just want to learn a new hobby at home. In any case, it's important to know how to keep learning, whether or not you have someone to teach you.

In class it means sometimes you allow your students to figure it out on their own. Allowing students to learn for themselves is a troubling idea to teachers. If they don't need to be taught, what's the point of a teacher? Luckily, good teachers know that teaching is a small part of their classroom responsibilities. A good teacher creates assignments and projects that promote the right kinds of learning as well as motivate them to want to do well on them. 

A side-note on learning: some of the best learning occurs from failure. Are we going to punish that with a bad letter grade?

Final Thoughts
In the end I'm just a really big fan of project-based learning. (I didn't even know there was a term for it until recently.) I think it's silly that we need state standards and learning objectives. If you give projects taken directly from life (and spruce them up to be more interesting to teenagers), you'll naturally meet objectives.

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