Saturday, May 22, 2004
Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: An Education For All Human Beings 
Every six months or so, I go back and read this astounding interview with Howard Gardner. In contrast to the "study whatever you want" philosophy of the least-structured unschoolers, he feels that everyone should learn some key things in math, science, languages and social studies (even if the student doesn't really feel like it). But in even sharper contrast to the conservatives who want to standardize curriculum even further, he believes that we try to cover way too many topics in each discipline. He wants depth, not breadth in curriculum.

Digging into a couple of meaningful topics within one discipline teaches someone the practice of that discipline and trains the mind to think about context, relationships, and connections. He's talking about learning to think, then applying knowledge and skills to new problems and topics within that discipline, with the possible spinoff of cross-discipline applications as well. This approach takes away the pressure to "learn" thousands of facts:
"The notion of coverage, of going through a bunch of disciplines, and learning facts and concepts, is assessed by schools all over the world. It's never been a very good idea, but now it's really irrelevant. I would throw away 95 percent of the coverage that we do; figure out really important questions and issues, and give people lots and lots of time to learn about how disciplined minds think about those issues, and then to practice those disciplines themselves."
Right now, an average high school student studies might take two history courses between Grade 9 and 12. One might cover all the important points from 200 years of national history in five months. Maybe the other one tries to pull out the highlights of 500 years of European history with the same amount of class time. Even if those courses are exceptionally well-taught, the odds of the student retaining much of that information past high school is close to zero, and more importantly, they aren't learning anything about the process of thinking about historical problems.

Now, discard that traditional view of high school history. What if history students could spend a whole year studying the holocaust? Think of the web of knowledge you could build around that concept, stretching back into the roots of racism, digging into the geopolitical climate of the years following World War 1, analyzing the economic and social costs of World War 2, studying the personal stories, images and art of the people involved, and extending it into the creation of the Israeli state and the United Nations.

Ideally, the students could find areas of interest within those parameters, even choosing to focus on a relatively small number of sub-topics depending on what stories were compelling to them. But most importantly, they would learn how to find the resources required to really understand some aspect of what happened in the past. Each student could then use the processes and skills they've learned (and perhaps some of the historical knowledge as well) to learn independently about any other period in history. Once you have the cognitive tools, finding the information is easy, especially in the information age.

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Jeremy - You asked me to comment. I agree. I think especially in math at the elementary level we are forced to teach WAY too much math. I think (and my conversations with middle and high school math teachers seems to bear tghis out) we would do everybody a favor (mainly our students) if students left 6th grade knowing the basic facts forwards backwards and sideways including manipulating to show understanding - have place value down - knowing the basic algorythms add, subtract, multiply, divide - have a good basic understanding of fractions, what they are and maybe simple adding and subtracting - and problem solving experiences to the Nth degree with all of that - I'm sure I left a few things out, but you get the idea. High school math teachers tell me that if 9th graders showed up with those skills they would be thrilled and could take them from there - plus kids brains are much closer to being fully developed and so more of them are developmentally ready to learn those other pieces of math instead of making them feel stupid like we do now by trying to teach them math many aren't ready to learn yet (how stupid is that?)
I didn't comment on every aspect of Gardner's interview here - but you get my basic gist - I do tend to do projects based on student interest and the importance of the content and go deeper and broader on that subject.
Thanks for your comment.

Thanks for this excellent comment, Brian. I must admit that I don't often think about math when I'm considering these issues, probably because it's not really my background. I know for sure that in my most recent courses, the math teachers were the ones most likely to be railing against the basic tenets of constructivism. At first I just thought they were old-school stick-in-the-muds, but I've come to see that it really is a different type of subject, with different constraints than say, English, geography and history (my focus). Thanks again.

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