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?


10 Responses

  1. Honestly, this simply points out more than ever the necessity to abandon the whole system. Students can best pursue their passions in homeschool settings. This is being proven over and over. The practical way to achieve this is to separate school from state as a starter. I know the curriculum does press hard on teachers. This is a behaviorally programmed phenomena that has existed for years. It also occurs with homschooling parents who grew up in the system and is the major reason WHY the best homeschool parents were NOT teachers. I am very involved at the research level with flip, and see it as a great stop gap to SAVE the K-12 system, at least temporarily. The article flip or be flipped is a strong warning to teachers at all levels to learn how to flip.

    1. I am not ready to abandon the system yet.  I am not against home-schooling, but I feel I am realistic in that I think not all parents will be good at home schooling–nor can many.  Thus:  Lets think through how to transform the system we are in so that all students can learn.

      1. Jonathan, I await the day when you do abandon “the system” and catch up with the homeschooers. I would agree that not all parents are good at home schooling BUT I am sure that MOST of them are better than the “teachers” in the system. This is NOT a fault of most of the teachers but is a systemic problem. The fact is, however, that the worst homeschool teachers are those who actually HAD “professionally” taught before homeschooling. If you search the literature and research you will find it to be true. This is due primarily to the indoctrination within the teaching institutes itself which were designed around testing and mass education. Meanwhile, I await eagerly your joining the rapidly growing homeschooling movement. Oh, and I am a FLIP researcher.

    2. Technology should be 100% of what we teach according to our new 1:1 curriculum. I am a teacher in a middle school that is going eMints and 1:1 next year. All of my lessons and student learning is to be on the computers. Daunting. Exciting. Effective?

  2. Getting rid of 20% of curriculum will not give us 20% more time, it will give us adequate time to discover the remaining 80% of the curriculum…..Maybe 20% time is what the new standards assessment people are thinking when they tell us we have to have end of course assessments completed before May (so they can compile data) – now we can spend May doing 20% time…..

  3. Debbie. Wessels

    Thank you for this article! We have been talking about this exact idea at school but have been struggling with what to include and what to leave out of current curriculum. I am the head of a small private school and have more freedom to make changes than friends in public school . Is there anyone moving in this direction? Is anyone starting to move towards grouping by interested and needs rather than age?

    1. Adams County 50 in Colorado (Westminster) is grouping kids by level of mastery (competency).  No more grades:  They are seeing some great results.  I too am looking for some teachers who are doing the 80%-20% time.  I know of 2 isolated teachers doing this, but don’t see this happening systemically. 



  4. Josh Cannon

    Teaching at a private college preparatory school probably gives me more luxury than the public sector teacher has, in order to allow my students time to investigate their interests a little more within my courses. Especially after I flipped my class, I have more time available for students to design and experimentally test their ideas during class through open inquiry based labs. I am no longer a content delivery machine, more of a guide or a coach in the learning process. I use state and national standards to establish my courses curriculum, but I am fortunate enough that I am the one that gets to deside what I want my students to learn, and how they will approach learning it. Trimming some material allows me more time for them to learn to be better resourceful problem solvers and critical thinkers, rather than memorizers of large volumes of information. So when they encounter that 20% I did to cover, they will be able to figure it out on their own.

  5. I agree! Finally someone in the universe has figured out education. I actually personally believe that the content we teach has to change every 6 months. I also think that school is not allowing students to be creative. We’re suppressing ingenuity. How, we have very few “creation” type activities and we have all the book and quiz activities that keep people in the box.

    Education is improving though, and I think it will accelerate more and more every year. I just hope the new kids can keep up!

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