Sunday, March 22, 2009

Are we providing our students with useful information?

While reading a book on web usability titled “Don’t Make Me Think”, by Steve Krug, I happened across a quote that comes from a Sherlock Holmes novel. The stage is set by explaining that Watson is quite surprised that Sherlock does not know that the earth travels around the sun. At this point, Sherlock explains that he cannot have useless information getting in the way of the useful information. He says…
“What the deuce is it to me? You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

How many of our students wander the halls each day with similar thoughts in their head? How many times have we heard them ask “When are we ever going to use this?” or “Why is this important?” Do we always have an answer? Do we always have a good answer? I have heard this question a number of times and I have often pondered on it without being asked but I am afraid that I have yet to come to a solid conclusion. Now don’t get me wrong, I love my subject area very much; I find it very interesting, very meaningful, and I love to share the knowledge with students. While this makes the information very useful to me, it does not mean that the information is useful or interesting to everyone else. I simply need to come to grips with that reality. Since our students come from many backgrounds with a wide range of experiences and aspirations it does seem reasonable to say that what we teach may be useful to some and worthless to others and while I understand that some of what we teach our students is universally critical to achieving success in the nation today, I also know that some of it is not. This is not an easy thing to swallow, especially when we are talking about the topics we each feel so passionately about that we decided to share it with thousands of students we will no doubt see throughout our careers as teachers. It hurts to know that maybe they don’t care about the same things.

So how much of our student’s valuable time is wasted in classes that do not provide them with the tools and information that is useful to them? State requirements for graduation with a high school diploma varies from state to state but I wonder how many of the additional credits that students need to graduate from high schools around the country come from courses that are useful or interesting to the lives of the students who take our classes?

I realize that the idea of usefulness is relative, which makes me wonder if changing a teaching style, differentiating instruction, making more hands-on activities, or implementing any of the latest teaching techniques will truly have the desired impact on students that we are looking for. A common goal among many schools is the development of responsible citizens and life-long learners. Are we discouraging this by forcing material on them that they feel is neither personally interesting nor useful to their future plans? I posit that life-long learners would be easier to create if they were always engaged in learning that was useful or interesting to them during their four years of high school. I posit that responsible citizens are formed through a combination of things such as providing a safe environment to learn, showing genuine care for them, helping them to make continuous improvements no matter how small, giving constant encouragement, creating notable experiences and value, making connections to the real world, and keeping them engaged.

It would be just as foolish of me to think that 100% of our students will be fully engaged for four whole years solely in classes they find useful or interesting as it was for President Bush to think that No Child Left Behind might actually work but maybe we can make some positive gains by taking a more critical look at how we do business. I love the idea of well rounded students but exactly how well rounded are they after a few short years out of high school?

There are so many ideas here that warrant a discussion - please tell me what you might be thinking. How do we transform the way we educate our nation's children into something that is relevant, engaging, and effective in order to produce high quality citizens who are able to function effectively and are capable of meeting the needs of our country in the years to come?

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