Jun 30

Why Do We Need to Know This?

“Why Do We Need to Know This?”

It is the question that many teachers hate to hear from students in their classrooms. Whether it is the format of the Shakespearean Sonnet, the Pythagorean theorem, or why the Periodic Table of Elements is organized the way that it is, kids spend a lot of time in schools wondering why they are learning what seems like a disconnected series of facts and skills that don’t seem to have much importance to the lives they are leading. And from time to time, the bravest of students will screw up the courage to ask that question.

Sadly, too often, the answers (when a teacher is even willing to engage with the question) students range from “It is going to be on the test,” to “It will help you some day,” to “It’ll help you get into college.” When really, more often than not, it’s because the subject matter in question is “part of the curriculum.” If a student is lucky, the teacher is teaching that particular thing because the teacher has a real passion for the subject, but even that really doesn’t answer the question in any meaningful way.

Students deserve an answer to the question. And we, as educators, need to understand that if we can’t answer the question powerfully, we have to start questioning what we teach and how we teach it.

We live in a fascinating world. There’s more really interesting stuff to learn, understand and do than any one person has in a lifetime — or probably ten lifetimes. Helping students to see the power and beauty of all that stuff is one of the most important, if not the most important, job of a teacher. That is where an inquiry-driven, project-based approached to learning is so essential. Questions like, “How do I be a better boyfriend / girlfriend,” “What pollutants are in the drinking water in my home,” and “How do we build my ideal learning space?” all give powerful answers to the questions of “Why do I need to know this?” for any of the information from the first paragraph. And all of them are questions that could have relevance to the students in our classes, and all of them open students up to the received wisdom, not just of the teacher of the world at large. Equally as important, all of those questions could lead students to engage in powerful problem-solving, artifact-building, and reflection as they consider their personal answers to those questions.

If we remember that the time students spend in school is supposed to be about helping them to become better citizens, then the question of “Why do we need to know this?” becomes essential to what and why we teach. The questions and answers that follow the asking of the question should and will have profound implications on both our content and our pedagogy. And if we create our learning spaces as places where the question, “Why do I need to know this?” is actually the right of every student to ask, but is the first, most exciting question of every day, we can create vibrant, powerfully relevant classes that engage and empower everyone in it.

Jan 03

Find Meaning Every Day

When I was first out of college, I lived in Washington, DC, and part of my daily walk to work took me past the Capitol building every day. When I first started doing that, I was awed by what it meant to walk past that building, but it quickly just became my routine, and most days I barely even noticed it.

It’s inevitable that even the most amazing of environments becomes routine, and when it does, it becomes easy to lose sight of what makes it so special in the first place.

This can be true of the most incredible schools as well. In the end, no matter how empowering, no matter how amazing, no matter how meaningful, there are going to be days when the work feels like, well, work. And the most powerful learning experience can be unappreciated.

That’s o.k. We shouldn’t fear that. If anything we should embrace that.

We live in a world where we expect the spectacular, and more often than not, people are disappointed when the everyday lives we lead fall short of that. Schools can help us celebrate what we have that is special — and help us re-value the every day.

When I lived in DC, it often took someone from outside the daily routine of my life — a friend who was visiting from out-of-town — to make me realize and remember how special my surroundings were. And at SLA — as EduCon quickly approaches — our entire community will be reminded anew of how lucky we are to be together when 500 or so teachers from all over the country descend upon us.

But it shouldn’t take that. We can make the everyday meaningful in some very basic ways in every school. Here are two simple ideas to make sure that the work we do has meaning and the relationships we have stay vital.

First – students and teachers should take time every day to ask of their work, “What does this hold for me? Why am I learning and teaching what I am teaching today and what relevance does this have?” When this becomes habit, we really can train ourselves as teachers and students to make the work meaningful.

Second – and this again is true for teachers and students alike – we can ask ourselves every day, “What did I do of value today?” And while this may seem like a related question — and it is — it is also important to note how it is different, because it forces us to reflect on our own actions and challenge ourselves to be of value.

There are days when those questions are harder than others. But if we can make those questions routine in our schools, we can work together to look inward and outward as a community every day.