A recipe for a future-oriented curriculum

It’s often said in graduation speeches that “education is the future.” But most of our schooling is based on the past. We read books that were written in the past, discoveries that were made in the past, quotes people said in the past, and so forth. Much of what students do is simply reproducing the culture of the past. The present and the future are still largely neglected, if not completely ignored at the moment.

I think that schooling should show more of a balance between the past, the present, and the future. We should move the notion that “education is the future” from cliché, to reality, as much as we can.

But don’t get me wrong, I think it is also extremely important that students learn about the foundation of knowledge that the humanity before them has laid out for them. So, overall, the majority of the time spent should focus on the past. So if (hypothetically), the percentages are at: 80% past, 15% present, 5% future, we should try to shift it to something like 55% past, 20% present, 25% future.

So while I’ll cover “the present” in a future post (perhaps there are puns intended…), here’s my Recipe for a Future-Oriented Curriculum which can be applied to mostly any subject:

The future of society: Write papers envisioning what they think the future of our society will be like, or what they hope the future will be like. (Focusing on 1 aspect of it, the topic will vary from course to course.)

Future leaders of society: Read and talk about leaders in the world today who have a long-term vision, and are trying to bring about that vision on a practical level

Their future role in society: Write, or talk about how they see themselves being a part of / contributing to this future society. Have them ask themselves, “Am I going to be a part of the problem, or a part of the solution? And how can I remind myself of these commitments in the future?” –> Hopefully, this can contribute to their moral foundation that can guide them later on in life. We see all too often examples of fully grown adults who have clearly forgotten what they learned in kindergarten!

The future of their personal lives: Have students write about their personal life will be like, to set long term goals for themselves. Ok, so I remember in Grade 8, we actually did something like this. We set short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. And this is great. But, as with much of what we did in school, there was never any follow up with our goals. My suggestion here is to have students hold on to these plans (or have the teacher hold on to them), and to bring them out twice a year to have student check-up on how they’re doing. To add a sense of continuity to the exercise.

The future of a body of knowledge: For science, social studies, and other classes, have students try to come up with their own theories, or new insights they can add to the material they’re learning. It can either be a theoretical insight, or an applied one e.g. In biology class, a student can ask what allows plants to stay upright and grow, or how the emotions of animals differs from the emotions of humans (ok, ok, that was something I asked in biology class!) But instead of having it be a passing thought, allow the class to incorporate the student’s suggestions and interests and discoveries.

Not only will implementing this be a virtue in and of itself, but having a future-oriented curriculum, I believe, would actually be very intrinsically motivating for students. Knowing how what they’re learning is going to affect their future gives students an extra sense of purpose and meaning in school.

 

Learning and producing knowledge generally go in that order, but it’s not absolutely necessary that they do. They can also go hand in hand, you know…

The way our system is set up, it is assumed that students have to keep acquiring knowledge until they reach graduate school at around age 22. For two reasons. 1) It’s assumed that only then are they mature enough to start producing new knowledge and have the rest of the world take them seriously. And while I agree that maturity is a factor that shouldn’t be ignored, children and teens offer something special: extra doses creativity and passion. A lot about making a new discovery requires creativity, and children are full of it. Why don’t we leverage that?

2) Our traditional educational model assumes that you need to learn everything that has been researched in an academic field before being able to contribute to it. But I disagree with this notion. I believe students have the capability to come up with insights, knowledge, and new questions to be explored as they spend years exploring the material. Okay, so students at a young age might have all of the experience necessary to write a lit review for their paper, but this is where teachers can help them out. To work with the student, rather than lecture at him or her.

For instance, even in the second year a student learns biology, they are capable of coming up with new hypotheses to be tested. If a student comes up with something novel, their teacher could help explore that topic, by providing them with whatever resources they need, and by offering them with advice. The student should feel free to take a break from their usual schedule of learning, to go into further depth on their topic of choice, on occasion, to conduct real research to a real audience, and then to return to whatever else they were “supposed” to be learning at that time.

This is all about sending the right messages to kids. At the moment, we send the message that society won’t listen to them, and doesn’t really care about that they think until they become an adult. I think it’d great if we started sending them different messages.

PS: If you’re interested in this last topic I brought up, check out this wonderful related TED talk by Adora Svitak:

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Consistency or brilliance?

It’s pretty much a given that schools are the best at measuring a student’s level of consistency… consistently attending class, consistently doing homework, and consistently submitting papers. Each day has the same # of classes (until high school graduation), each class is the same length of time, every class is consistently graded out of 100%. You get the picture.

But what about brilliance? While consistency seems to be very well taken care of, brilliance has yet to be adequately valued in the system. Strokes of brilliance don’t come often, but when they do, they can be meaningful, memorable, and worthwhile experiences. They can even change a student’s life.

I’d like to see the value of brilliance (as well as consistency, in some senses of the matter) be infused into the organizational culture of our schools. We need to show students how they, too, can have moments of brilliance, moments of Flow, and profound moments of discovery that they can remember forever.

Getting into the Flow at PS22

PS22 is an elementary school in Staten Island, New York which has reached superstar status for its school chorus program. No, it’s not a special private school or art school, but what it does have that’s special is one of its music teachers, Gregg Breinberg. Gregg turned the school around with his unique style of engaging his students. His class went viral on YouTube, has been visited by many celebrity pop artists, and is inspiring audiences everywhere. The school’s principal says that not a single student in the choir has ever gone to summer school. So this seems to suggest that this choir is helping their academic life as well.

But what makes Breinberg’s teaching style so unique? Well, one thing that he does well is that he encourages his students to “get in the moment” when they sing. While he also teaches and expects high levels of technical quality from his students (which is also important), Breinberg wants his students to feel the music, rather than just sing it.

Introducing Flow

A psychologist by the name of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi proposed a concept known as flow. He has performed many studies and has written many books about the subject. Flow is “a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter” (Csikszentmihalyi,1990). Flow has shown to provide many benefits, including improved performance “in a wide variety of areas including teaching, learning, athletics and artistic creativity.” (Click here to read a bit more about Flow, and get the ball rolling, if you’re interested.)

I believe that Mr. B. is turning music class into a flow experience for the kids, and that’s what’s motivating them and giving them a sense of meaning in school.

Can this translate elsewhere?

Flow theory would says that any activity has the capacity to become a flow experience. I would say that, under this premise, every school subject has the potential to be flow experience for students.

And these is just the kind of educational experiences that kids are “begging” for, whether they describe it this way or not. Currently, students are tired of the regular classroom environment, which is all too often often, uninspiring, and harsh in tone. Lectures are often monotone and stiff, leaving the students bored and restless. Sometimes, the teacher herself is visibly uninspired by the material! But I believe that learning and discovering at its core is anything but boring, uninspiring, and stiff, and like Mr. B is doing, we ought to show that to students.

Now granted, for certain topics, it’s acceptable to deliver them with less of an emotional “punch.” Like with math, for instance. And not everything needs to sweep students up into euphoria; not every class can realistically be a flow experience for every student.

But even with a topic like math, the teacher can spend a bit of time describing the value that mathematical concepts can add to the students’ lives and to our society. The important thing here is to convey why the lessons you’re teaching are valuable and meaningful. And that’s one thing that can motivate students to stay in school, to care about, and to get excited about learning.

Recommendation: Multiple Perspective Teaching

Sometimes, students remark that one of their teachers is too one-sided. That:

– their lectures all end up supporting one side of an issue,

– class discussion is only welcoming to certain viewpoints, and

– students who agree with the teacher are graded more favourably than those who don’t

But regardless of whether this is the case or not – and thankfully, it’s not… most teachers do try their best at lecturing and grading objectively – there is a lot of potential in having 2 teachers, rather than 1, in the class at the same time. For instance, teachers can play off each other, their ideas can grow and develop. Have you been to a luncheon which mainly consisted of teachers? It’s amazing to see what kind of intellectual discussions can ensue. Seeing teachers discuss topics at hand with other “experts” really gets them going.

So that’s my general recommendation here: have some classes be team taught by 2 teachers. This is actually very commonplace in the world of facilitation, where it’s known as co-facilitation. But for education, we need to break down the assumption that “there can only be 1 teacher in the classroom at any time.”

Recommendation 1: The Debate Method

One way we can do this is if we put 2 teachers with very different views to teach the course together. For instance, if this

was a class about abortion, then you would have one very pro-choice teacher, and one very

pro-life teacher. During the lectures, they would go back and forth, playing off each other, and providing points and counter-points. Of course, they wouldn’t be debating all the time. Let’s say about 30%. The rest of the time, they would be working together to present the material, theories, case studies, and so forth. And of course, they can show how each side of the debate actually agrees on some fundamental assumptions. It’s just having these multiple perspectives that would be refreshing for the teachers and the students.

Recommendation 2: The Multidisciplinary Method

For this idea, instead of having teachers with different points of view, why don’t we have teachers with different intellectual backgrounds teach together? The course would cover one theme, but from 2 different disciplines.

For instance, a course about social media can have 1 teacher with a background in sociology / symbolic interactionism, and another with a background in computer programming / website design. The material can weave in and out of the theories, and make connections between their research.

 

Note: Currently, there are a few courses (at the university level only) where there are multiple teachers for the same sections. But usually they are never in the classroom at the same time. Usually, 1 teacher teaches for the first half of the semester, then the other takes the other half. And often, they teach about 2 different aspects of the material, and don’t often “cross over.” This is interesting is its own right, but it’s not the same as what I’m recommending here.

So many topics, so little time

Here’s a growing list of education topics that I’d like to discuss soon.

  • Inquiry-based Learning
  • The Finland model of education
  • Different schools of thought: Paulo Freire, John Holt, etc.
  • Practical learning
  • Creativity in education
  • Classroom dynamics
  • Study skills
  • How textbooks and academic papers are written
  • Academic freedom
  • whatever else will come to mind throughout my day

Let me know if you have any other topics that you’d like to discuss!

Update: Thank you to everyone who has responded and shown me stuff you’ve found as well! Keep it coming, it’s amazing! I just wish I had more time to respond to them all! I’ll have more time this summer.

The 3 things I (eventually) learned on the last day of school

Back in high school, the last day of school was always a thrilling day! Especially after the last period: everyone would be emptying their lockers and throwing away all their stuff before heading home for the summer. What commotion, what fun!! All you could see and hear were notebooks, dictées, and month-old assignments flying into the garbage. (Knowing this would happen, the school would bring out extra garbage bins, to act as recycling bins.) OK, maybe they still kept some of it, but the vast majority of it was gone, gone, gone by the end of the day.

I remember looking at this with a puzzled look on my face, but only now do I realize why I was troubled by this scene way back then.

You see, this type of scene is remarkable, because it speaks to at least 3 things:

1) How students in high school view schooling. Students are so excited to just get out of school. When it’s time to come back to school, students usually have “mixed feelings” about it. Their main reason for wanting to go back is to “meet up with my friends,” not the schooling itself.

I say, this should be the other way around. School should be so intrinsically motivating that going to school is a pleasure, not getting out of it.

EVERYBODY HAS AN INTEREST IN LEARNING

It is my belief that humans, by their very nature, love to learn new things. As self-determination theorists would put it, we have inherent growth tendencies. And as Mrs. Gaga would say, we were born this way. We love to learn, as much as we love to love, and we love to have fun. While we may differ in what we are interested in, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that every human being has at least something they’re interested in learning about. Even if it means playing video games all day, or watching Antiques Roadshow. So why aren’t our schools tapping into that? Why are they making it so that sitting in class and doing homework often so unpleasent, so boring, so externally motivating?

2) How the students view their schoolwork. Student spend hours upon hours working on projects and assignments, but at the end of the day, this scene shows how students don’t really care about what they produced. Could this be because they did all this work out of coercion? Because they did it just to get a good grade, and not out of a pure interest in the subject material?

This shows how our school work is treated as a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself. Possibly, even for the teachers themselves. They, too, focus much of their attention on using work as a measuring stick for grading. This, too, motivates much of their behaviour. And they too, shred old tests and assignments within months of the end of the school year.

ADDING VALUE TO THE STUDENT’S LIFE

Grades is used as the primary motivator for all school work from Grade 7, straight into U3. (Grad students, let me know if this changes later on!) But if you strip away the role of a student, what people want more than anything else is to add value to their life. For example, when you go shopping, when you browse you weight the pros and cons of each decision you make. You think to yourself, “how much value is this going to add to my life?” and, “is this added value worth the money?”

I think that a big reason why students are unmotivated in certain school work is that they (consciously or not) realize that whatever it is they’re being told to do is not valuable enough to put the effort into it. For instance, if a student is procrastinating to study for their history midterm, part of the reason why they’re procrastinating is that they subconsciously understand how they’re going to forgot 80% of what they learn a few weeks after the test, and that knowing those facts isn’t going to do them much good.

Now, granted, this is the student’s perception on the matter. It could very well be that:

a) The subject material really isn’t relevant to their life

b) The subject material matters, but the student doesn’t realize it (often due to age, or other factors)

So, this post is just a start, (please do send me your insights, and feedback on the matter!), but I think some solutions to these issues would be to:

a) The subject material really isn’t relevant to their life –> change the curriculum, or make it more flexible, so that it becomes more relevant

b) The subject material matters, but the student doesn’t realize it yet (often due to age, or other factors) –> find better ways of explaining (or better yet, showing) the value of what they’re learning

3) The fragmentation and discontinuity of schooling

Now, I say this one with great caution, because from my experience there is a lot of concepts that build on each other, especially in anything math-based, or based on a specific kind of vocabulary (e.g. accounting terminology). But often times, once a course is over, all of that knowledge is completely ignored and forgotten. (This phenomenon is especially present in the qualitative courses, such as those in the social sciences, unfortunately.)

MAKING CONNECTIONS

Students aren’t encouraged enough to make connections between the things they learn across courses, and across semesters and years. This discontinuity also contributes to their lack of motivation. The more you make connections between courses and between school years, the more this adds value to the material. Perhaps, this relevance may not translate into relevance outside of the school (as was discussed in point #2), but at least it can provide a relevance within a student’s school life. This would then be a sort of reconciliation prize, for not having the relevance between school and the “real world.”

Conclusion, for now

So I guess my 3 main arguments from this first reflection are that an engaging education should:

1) Tap into people’s natural interest in learning and growing

2) Add value to the student’s life

3) Emphasize connections between the different things learned in school, and between school and “real life” (this will add value as well)

I hope to revisit these themes in my future posts, and to generate more concrete ways in which we can attain these (and other) goals. The sky’s the limit!

Postscript

Each year, I used to sift through all of my papers very carefully to see what I would get rid of, and what I would keep. Every sheet was reviewed. And I’m happy to report that it’s all still in relatively good condition!

How education is not set in stone

How it is
When kids grow up through a particular school or education system, this school or system only ever shows them one way of going about education.

They transmit messages and assumptions about the way things “need to be,” such as:
“Classes should be taught by one teacher at a time,”
“English class needs to include one work of Shakespeare per year,”
“Recess should be about 15 minutes long,”
“Students need to learn the “basics:” math, English, and science
“Students should be divided up according to the year they were born,” and so forth.

It becomes very easy for the students to endorse the messages that their school sends them, because they’re so omnipresent. Most students are only ever exposed to one elementary school, one high school, etc. And even those that change schools, usually switch between schools that operate under the same educational system, or the same assumptions.

Some students may disagree with some of these practices, but the furthest this ever goes is a rant with their friends over lunch time.

What it is

Students usually have no say in how they are to be educated, in any sense of the matter. The only choices they have are:

1 – What courses to take, but only partially. in Quebec at least, this is the amount of flexibility at each level

Elementary: No choices whatsoever

High school: 1 choice of art class (art, music, drama, or dance), and 2-3 complementary classes in the last few years

CEGEP: Depends on program, but all programs are highly structured. It’s more flexible in the English system. For general education, the structure has been determined for them (4 English, 3 Humanities, 3 Phys. Ed., 2 French, 2 Complementaries), but students may pick courses from predetermined lists.

After a student picks their courses, it’s time for them to “put up, or shut up.” With one exception…

2 – Sometimes, students have a choice of what subject material to complete projects on, and which peers to work with on group projects.

But there is so much more to determining how schools operate! Students have very little say in:
– evaluation methods
– method of lecturing/non-lecturing
– classroom dynamics/composition
– timing of courses, day, etc.
– subject material (within the subject…. for instance, yes, they may be able to pick between history or geography class, but they cannot determine whether they will learn about Aztec or Russian history, etc.)
etc, etc, etc.

How it really is

But what we don’t tell out students, is that the way we run our schools is actually quite arbitrary. It’s got some roots in (what I’ll call) the “fundamental nature” of human beings, but that most of it is a social construction.

For instance, at its core, English class is important because it teaches students to communicate well, and communication is part of our “fundamental nature.” But most all of the stuff beyond that – e.g. what kind of books we’re supposed to read or not read, how we’re supposed to write using a five paragraph essay format, etc. – is a social construction.

(Aside: Some of this fundamental human nature is still largely ignored, though. This is where the exciting part comes in: tapping into that human potential!!  For instance, tapping into our natural desire to learn things.)

How it is… or how they can be?

Being arbitrary is a good thing. Just like how every student is different, we can adjust the way we teach to address their individual needs.

There can be many different possible solutions to educational issues. They can be in operation at the same time, and even within the same school, but administered to different students. Sometimes, the “best” solution for one student, one culture, or one period in history, might be totally ineffective for another student, culture, or period.  I believe that our recommendations should should flex and evolve, as we flex and evolve as a society.

How this blog will be

In terms of this blog, this means that many of the recommendations I will propose in upcoming posts should be taken with a grain of salt. I don’t intend to have everything work for everyone, all the time, and everywhere. But I believe there should be a plurality of solutions in operation simultaneously, and that students should be given a relative amount of freedom to find the methods that work best for them.

Conclusion

We should be wary of anyone who tries to push one method as the “one, and only” method for educating our youth. And that we should challenge our individually, and collectively held assumptions about how things “should” be, not not treat them as if they were like the unchangeable, physical laws of the universe.

We often learn in school that for one question, there is one correct answer.
But in education, we should learn that, often, for one question, there are many correct answers.