“We shouldn’t be teaching that!”

I recently read a terrific post by John T. Spencer about personal connections and reading. “Personal insight” is becoming a central goal of my teaching, so the post stirred some thoughts in my head. Is personal connection a reading strategy? Two skeptical teachers say no. They won’t waste their time with it.

John also describes his own experiences getting to know the Founding Fathers. In school he learned mythic tales about superheroes of patriotism, full of great deeds and honor. In college he read Howard Zinn’s counter-narrative, which John realized was merely a “smear campaign.” He was unsatisfied until he read Founding Brothers, which gave him a sense of nuance and paradox as well as personal identification with these historical figures.

It all got me thinking about what should be taught in schools. Reading strategies? Personal connections? Evolution? Creationism? What about our nation’s founding? Which story should we teach? What about Math? Computations? and on and on we go…

Can you guess what I think?

* * *

John recounts this story:

I’m in a staff lounge when a teacher says, “Are we supposed to have them make personal connections?”

“I don’t know. I don’t even think that’s a reading strategy. It’s nice. It’s a great byproduct of reading, but it’s not a strategy.”

“I’m not sure it will be tested. How do you test that? I’m not going to spend my time teaching personal connections when they can’t read as it is.”

“I know. I need kids increasing in fluency. I think all this mumbo jumbo about personal connections is why they’re not reading more.”

Given current legislature and prevailing approaches to school, I can’t blame these teachers for focusing on “increasing fluency.” Obviously, this is something we all want, but I think they have the relationship backwards. Personal connection isn’t a “byproduct” of learning. I could say a lot here, but let me leave it at this: Personal connection is the best way I know to create historians, artists, designers, writers, mathematicians, and experts of all kinds.

This, though, is about what we should teach.

* * *

The way I was taught, the way I see it, teaching History is about doing history – reading, thinking, researching, rethinking, formulating opinions and theses, supporting them, and responding to the criticism of your peers. This is what historians do, and in this way, History class is about making “historian” a part of the student mind and identity. It isn’t about internalizing the correct view of our nation’s founding.

Likewise, teaching Science is about the history and practice of the scientific method. English class should be about making language a central and vital part of your life, the way you speak and communicate, not satisfactorily mastering ______. My Algebra 1 students and I agreed; The product of school isn’t the degree conferred or the facts you can recite. The product of learning is the alteration of your thinking. Can you think like a mathematician? A writer? A scientist? Do you?

* * *

But seriously, should we teach Creationism or Evolution? Isn’t that a hugely important question for curriculum? No. Not really. Let’s teach students the importance of thinking, and let’s help them strengthen their ability to do it. The questions they take on and the results they land upon (for the time being) should be completely their own.

Finally, math. Math class is a place to become mathematicians – wondering, asking, thinking, researching, formulating ideas and questions, sharing solutions and proofs, and responding to the criticism of your peers. This is what mathematical fluency really is – the ability to think like a mathematician.

As John put it, we see “the Founding Fathers as proper nouns, enshrined in ideological monuments, inaccessible to a postmodern man.” We do the same to mathematicians, when in fact, math is now and has always been done by humans like the ones in our classroom. Let’s get busy doing math.

Is a square a rectangle? Which definition should we teach? As my friend Justin told me, “teach the controversy!” Teach thinking.

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7 responses to ““We shouldn’t be teaching that!”

  1. Paul,

    I agree with this wholeheartedly: “the ability to think like a mathematician” is what our students should be taking away from our classes when they leave. I don’t think they’ll remember much else mathwise. My problem is always how to match that with the content I have to teach…

    • You’re very right about making this happen for the curricular structure we’ve been given. I’m confident this is possible, so I suppose I should start posting a bit about how I’m doing this in my classroom, but again, I’m not held to the same standards as public school teachers. I am trying to take on the same mathematical content and concepts, but I have much more freedom as far as techniques and the rest.

      Certainly, however, this is my hope for ed reform. Thinking is the curriculum.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. My first reaction when I saw creationism was to say, “There’s no way we should be teaching creationism, it has absolutely no basis in scientific evidence and therefore has no place in a science classroom!” But that’s exactly the point you’re trying to make – the students need to be able to work it out for themselves and decide on their own that it is not scientific.

    I am right with you on ed reform – thinking needs to be the focus, not facts.

    • You’re exactly right. Students need to be thinking it through for themselves. The questions of religion are hugely important and can be wrestled with for a lifetime. I also agree that creationism is unfounded and unscientific, but I do think there are legitimate arguments to consider there. At least, to present these things as solved problems and answered questions is a mistake.

      Most amazingly, I’d bet that asking kids to think critically and actively take on questions like this for themselves will actually lead to what has wide scientific founding.

      But that’s not my immediate goal. I just want to support strong thinking in the minds of our students.

  3. My son got into an argument with his pre-school teacher, because he was sure that a diamond wasn’t a real shape (it’s not) and that what he saw was a rectangle and a square and “if it was taller, it would be a rhombus.” It proved to me that even preschoolers could wrestle with these things.

    • Great story, John! Preschoolers absolutely can wrestle with these things. How stupid is it to try to standardize the names and definitions of shapes for kids as they think seriously about them for the first time! Oh my. Glad you’re kid has the gumption to stand up for his own insight.

  4. Pingback: Homework this week: “free-choice time” | Lost In Recursion

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