Earlier this week I had a conversation with a teacher who wanted something creative to do with her next social studies unit, the Mayan civilization. I brainstormed with her for a few minutes and we came up with an idea combining laptops, research led by our librarian/media specialist, collaboration, synthesis (production rather than consumption) and, oh yeah, info about the Mayan civilization. I told her that at the end of the unit, kids would have learned something about a new software platform, research skills using online databases, collaboration with peers, and they might also have learned something about the Mayan people. She looked at me with a puzzled stare.
I explained to her that I believe we need to be moving away from the tired, old model of teach-centered history instruction centered on data acquisition and rather toward a model that encourages kids to do something interesting and meaningful with the plethora of information available to them. I could see the light bulb over her head glowing brightly.
This morning, as I worked through the pages of The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner, I came across this statement on page 111: The rigor that matters most for the twenty-first century is demonstrated mastery of the core competencies for work, citizenship, and life-long learning. Studying academic content is the means of developing competencies, instead of being the goal, as it has been traditionally. In today's world, it's no longer how much you know that matters; it's what you can do with what you know.
Of course, much of the content we teach is important for kids to know. However, the thinking skills we hopefully are teaching them in the process of teaching the content, in the long run, will be more important. Louisiana State university requires all incoming freshmen to have taken physics. Why? LSU does not place a premium on student understanding of the laws of thermodynamics but rather on the logic and problem-solving skills students need in order to successfully complete the course.
If we look carefully at what we're teaching in the classrooms through a different lens, perhaps we can find ways to emphasize skills and competencies by making some of our content the means to an end rather than the end.