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Rethinking WHAT We Teach

WhatWeTeachI graduated from high school in 1982.  By my students’ standards, that makes me old.  I grew up in an age of books, pens, and paper.  Information was scarce and if I wanted access to knowledge I had to look in libraries, textbooks, or in the minds of my teachers.  In contrast, today’s students are living in an information-saturated society.  All the content they could hope for is available by simply pulling out their smartphone, tablet, or computer.  Students are living in a fundamentally different world than the one I grew up in.  What are the implications of this new world and how should this impact our current school systems?

Before we talk about information overload, let’s look at curriculum.  You see, I have been thinking lately about WHAT we teach our students. For many years what we teach has been determined by groups of adults who sit on committees and determine what information is important and what information isn’t.  If it makes it in the textbooks, the curriculum guides, and the standards, then it gets taught.  If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t get taught.  And, by implication, it isn’t important.

I have been one of those adults who helped determine state content standards.  When I did this, we gathered content experts from all fields and asked them to tell us what was important so that we could fashion curriculum.  The problem with this approach is that everybody we asked thought that their field was important.  What resulted was a bloated curriculum that has too much content and is impossible to teach in the time allotted.  I know the common core is supposed to address some of these issues, and my estimation, it is a good start.  But we still have too much to teach.  I think of it much like the graph below.

In my experience working with teachers, they feel the weight of too much curriculum.   They feel they are doing their students a disservice by cramming it all into their limited class time.  There is a growing angst among educators about too many expectations with limited time and resources.

So WHAT should we be teaching? Are we teaching too much?  Shouldn’t we reconsider the WHAT of teaching and explore something different?  How should this look?

Here is my two cents worth:  I believe we should abandon roughly 20% of what we teach.  I am not saying we should get rid of years of curriculum development and work, but we need to cut down on what we teach so that students can get to deeper learning experiences.  We collectively need to make hard choices about WHAT truly is and is not important.

Then, with the additional 20% time, I propose that we give students choices to learn what THEY want to learn.  If we teach only 1% of knowledge (it is probably much less than this), each student needs the right to explore their passions and interests in this 20% time.  This is not a new idea with me.  I first read about the 20% rule in Dan Pink’s book Drive.

This is where technology and the information-saturated society we live in comes into play.  Since information is so easy to obtain, we can leverage technology to tap into students’ passions.  If they love to fix a car, or study jaguars, or cooking, or dogs, or nanotechnology, or famous artists, or….. I think you get the picture.  Let’s allow students to explore what they want to learn about.  Let’s fashion projects and activities which harness their innate curiosity about the world.  Let’s fuel their curiosity to a raging flame that will never go out.

Could this happen?  You bet!  It would take a commitment by policy makers, curriculum coordinators, teachers, and yes, students.  This requires the entire community to get together and start the conversation about changing WHAT we teach.

Our students deserve the opportunity to explore THEIR passions and interests.  What do you think?  What are some practical ways we can begin implementing this into our schools even now?