“Sir, why are we learning this?”
“Miss, when am I ever going to use this?”
All of us will likely recall asking similar questions ourselves at some point along our journey through school. Those of us who are teachers, especially those involved with students older than, say, TEN, will likely have memories of that uncomfortable silence that hangs between, “I don’t know what to tell you” and “I should know what to tell you”. As a grade eight teacher, when all else failed, there was always an easy—but less than satisfying—default position. “You’ll need to know this for high school,” I would say, a little bit of an edge to my voice.
It is always a little discomforting when the context for learning is expressed as preparation for the next stage of learning. While there is no denying the fact that there are many aspects of learning that, necessarily, build on accumulated skills and knowledge, when it comes to creating a context for learning, the storage for future reference argument is never that inspiring.
The parochial roots of our education systems are showing and they are holding us back from taking seriously the renewed conversations about widened contexts for learning that we so desperately need to be having. Oh, we’ve done a fine job of imagining what transformed schools could look like if we opened up the doors of the schoolhouse to new technologies. We’ve dreamed of learning spaces that both reflect and encourage a focus on skills like collaboration, creativity and communication. We’ve talked about forging new types of relationships between schools and the wider communities that surround them. This is all important stuff but, to borrow from Simon Sinek’s now famous TED Talk , it is the stuff of the what and not the why.
Yet, when we talk about creating a context for learning that is, at once, compelling and inspiring for all involved, we need to hold the why firmly in front of us. Perhaps the best way to reconnect with the why of schooling is by looking closely at the curriculum structures that currently form the foundations of modern schooling. Instead of asking how we can make history more interesting, science more relevant and mathematics more accessible, let’s start to take a deeper look at why these disciplines are important to our sense of quality education in the first place. Curriculum reform movements, including the ones that are happening across the country, and south of the border, all seem to begin with questions about what is important to know and be able to do at various stages of the educational process. But what might happen if our energies were first spent on coming to a clearer understanding of the purpose behind studying particular disciplines and what that study can do to nurture our vision of the educated person?
Why is it so important that we learn history? What is it that science can do for our individual and collective consciousness? What is it about mathematics that contributes to our image of a civil society? Why continue to study the great literature of both the past and present? These are questions that are often glossed over when we talk about new approaches to curriculum and pedagogy.
But they are the very questions that will help us to engage in deeper, albeit more philosophical, conversations about deeper and richer contexts for learning.
In his brief, yet powerful, essay, The Reform of Thinking and Education in the Twenty-First Century, philosopher/sociologist Edgar Morin suggests four foundational aims of education:
1) A brain well-formed rather than a brain well-filled
2) Learning about the human condition
3) Learning how to live
4) Citizenship training
In Morin’s view, curriculum needs to placed in the service of our aims, and not the other way around. And he starts to provide some engaging thinking around how our thinking about existing curriculum approaches might begin to change.
For example, when science is seen as a way of helping us place human existence within the cosmic story, a powerful and compelling context is created. When the study of history takes on a similar narrative purpose by helping learners to better understand the creation of communities, nations and cultures, then the discrete facts that we associate with the discipline take on a a richer and more meaningful purpose.
But, Morin argues, education is also about the subjectivity that can be realized and understood through the study of literature, poetry, art and media. These are the places where the human condition is brought home and placed in the context of personal and interpersonal relationship. It is here where the art of living is explored and connections among individuals and cultures are made manifest. And what’s more exciting, possibilities for connections between traditional disciplines become much more apparent and realistic
In a sense, curriculum is the place where the dance between the objective and subjective, between the global and personal contexts, takes place—an important and necessary dynamic! For me, the exciting part of this type of thinking is that it brings us face-to-face with the why of our work as educators. It doesn’t in any way discount the importance of learning content but it forces us to make our intentions very clear around how it fits into the wider context of our work.
How might our response to the why are we learning this questions change if these types of these deeply-rooted conversations began to take place at all levels of our education systems, throughout our communities, and in the public square?