Monday, February 10, 2014

What's the Point?

There is an ongoing debate about what is essential for students to learn.  Do they need a common core of knowledge, a common core of skills, both, or neither?  Our social studies curriculum favors a common core of knowledge but I struggle more with this focus as the years go on.  Certainly it is good for the kids to learn the stories of history but do they need to know all of the details of this history?  I must confess that each year, as I prepare to work with the kids on each of the units we have in social studies, I find myself re-learning some of the details.  So I ask myself, "How important is content knowledge?"

With all due respect to those who taught me when I was a kid, those methods are not appropriate for the world in which we live.  Is it important for a student to know the third emperor of the Roman Empire?  No.  They will survive quite nicely without knowing that fact.  Why, then, do we "teach" it?  If something is "Google-able" then do we need to teach it in class?  Most kids today walk around with a device that has more computing power than the first rocket to the moon had and can, if given thirty seconds, look up those answers.  So what do we do?

Somehow, we must use the stories of history as a backdrop for kids finding their place in the world today.  After all, why should kids care about what happened hundreds or thousands of years ago?  What is the relevance to their lives?  In some cases, the kids' natural curiosity will carry them through a unit of study, but often, it does not.  Making our content relevant to the students' lives is essential.  If students can "own" the content because it is important and relevant to their lives, then they will remember it.  Therein lies the challenge for me.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Curiously Collaborative - Student-Driven Learning

Yesterday, I attended EdCampSTL, a professional development "unconference".  Basically, it is a professional development conference run for teachers by teachers.  Teachers come in, sign up for presentations/conversations they'd like to facilitate, and attend presentations/conversations in which they are interested.  My teaching partner, Melissa Hellwig, and I attended a session and gave two sessions of our own, 20% Time, a project we are doing with the kids on our team.  For more info about 20% Time, go to

I've always been a proponent of putting teachers in a room together with no program or agenda.  What naturally occurs is sharing, building and creating.  It is in this way that EdCampSTL is different from traditional professional development.  Teachers learn more in an "unconference" setting than they do in the traditional manner.

So....I got to thinkin' "Why can't we do something like this in our classes?"

I talked to many like-minded teachers this weekend who felt that it could be done if they were not locked into a rigid curriculum.  A colleague, Patrick Dempsey, sent me a link to a short documentary video called "Future Learning".

Educators in this video talk about the future of learning and how the necessary skills will be different for them than it was for us when we were growing up.  According to Sigata Mitra, the most important things a student will need are reading comprehension, information search and retrieval skills, and how to believe.  So, with all that I have learned this weekend, I believe that I am doing my students a disservice by continuing to drill social studies content into their heads.  I've always tried to make it fun and different, but it remains content-based.  Now, I want to break from the way I've been doing things.