What’s Worth Learning in School?

shifting-conversations-logoLet’s take a quick quiz of some of the things you probably “learned” in high school:

1. What’s the circumference of a circle with the radius of 4?

2. What Scottish scientist discovered penicillin in 1928?

3. What geologic era are we in right now?

4. In the sentence “The swimming pool is closed today,” is the word swimming a participle or a gerund?

5. What’s the most abundant element in the universe?

If you’re like me, even just these five are a struggle. (I got two right.) I’m pretty sure I passed the test question when I had to oh so many years ago, but I can honestly say that none of the above has ever come up in my life as required knowledge to get me through my day. In fact, when I think about all of the content we covered in school that I actually did end up using more than just a time or two, it actually kind of depresses me.

It depresses David Perkins as well. Perkins, a Harvard professor, has a new book out titled Futurewise: Educating Our Children in a Changing World which takes a hard look at the question “What’s worth learning in school?” To frame that question, Perkins cites a number of trends that we’re going to have to wrap our brains around, among them a move away from traditional disciplines, a move toward more global perspectives on everything, making learning more “lifewise” or relevant, and giving learners much more choice in what to learn.

While the whole book is worth the read, I want to just briefly touch on one distinction that Perkins makes in the book: the difference between the achivement gap, which everyone seems to be obsessed with, and the relevance gap, which is a much more complex problem to fix. Perkins acknowledges the seriousness of the achievement gap, writing “shortfalls in basic educational achievement are part of a pattern of limited participation in, benefit from, and contribution to a contemporary society” (Kindle 746).

However, the relevance gap, Perkins argues, is equally if not more problematic. Apologies for the extended quote, but here’s the gist of his argument:

We might consider another gap alongside the achievement gap. Let’s call it the relevance gap. The achievement gap asks, “Are students achieving X?” whereas the relevance gap asks, “Is X going to matter to the lives learners are likely to live?” If X is good mastery of reading and writing, both questions earn a big yes! Skilled, fluent, and engaged reading and writing marks both a challenging gap and a high-payoff attainment. That knowledge goes somewhere! However, if X is quadratic equations, the answers don’t match. Mastering quadratic equations is challenging, but these equations are not so lifeworthy. Now fill in X with any of the thousands of topics that make up the typical content curriculum. Very often, these topics present significant challenges of achievement but with little return on investment in learners’ lives. Here’s the problem: the achievement gap is much more concerned with mastering content than with providing lifeworthy content (Kindle 764)

Interestingly, Perkins sees the relevance gap as more of a conundrum to fix than the achievement gap:

So why don’t we see more attention to the relevance gap alongside the achievement gap? Well, attention to the relevance gap upsets the apple cart of conventional practice much more than attention to the achievement gap. The achievement gap is all about doing the same thing better. With the achievement gap as our target, we want to do a better job imparting skills and understandings we already try to teach. But embracing the challenge of the relevance gap asks us to reconsider deeply what schools teach in the first place. Topics and themes that have been part of typical curricula for centuries might get displaced, reduced, or reframed. Textbooks might need rewriting. Teachers would find honored parts of their disciplines under siege and new and tricky content knocking at the door— barbarians at the gate (Kindle 785)!

But embracing the challenge of the relevance gap asks us to reconsider deeply what schools teach in the first place.

I’ve made this argument in countless other places, but now that we have access to so much information via the Web, our focus now has to be on relevance. What does every single child need to know? And if it’s worth knowing, how do we make sure our students get that knowledge in a fom that’s actually connected to their lives, not just as some answer to some question on some test? This question is especially crucial when we consider the amount of time we spend on subjects and topics that are irrelevant. I’d say in my own kids’ lives, my guess is they are wasting about 90% of their learning time covering topics that serve only some outdated measure of “achievement” instead of real “lifeworthy-ness.”

So, I’m wondering, how can we go about having a serious discussion around “What’s worth learning in school?” I know it’s complex, that there are parents and policy makers and admissions counselors and employers who all have an opinion to voice. But maybe if we did some self-reflection, if we honestly asked ourselves what parts of the curriculum actually ended up serving us in some relevant way in our lives, and if we had some open conversations about that, we’d get a better focus on what really matters for our kids.

Oh, and by the way, the answers to the above questions are: 1. 8 2. Sir Alexander Fleming 3. Cenozoic 4. Participle 5. Hydrogen

How’d you do?

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.


  1. Jon F says

    Hi Will,

    Boy, this question really plagues me. I’m sitting at my dining room table planning out the next few weeks in my Honors Biology class and in looking at what I should get into next (according to ‘how it’s always been done’) I am so uninspired that I end up surfing the net and wind up here and read this. Teaching Biology is a funny thing because people (including me at times) get really confused between Biology and Biology Facts/Trivia. For years, I had taught Biology as something of a training session for some trivia night in the students future. I’ve shifted away from that to some degree, but that is difficult when you are a single class within a system that has certain expectations. That said, I try to expand on the base of traditional knowledge as much as I can.

    This piece made me look at the next few weeks of material fairly critically and has steered me from covering two chapters before break to asking one question: “Can we cure cancer?” The material in the chapters that were next up (cell division, chromosomes, mutations, DNA) line up decently with the knowledge needed to answer that question (as best we can) and it seems much more relevant to the world the students live in. As we go, I’ll help students figure out a good way to research, learn basics, explore unknowns and figure out a way to share what they learn (and assess that). It is both exciting and uncomfortable to approach as a teacher.

    One last thing- my wife questioned that the circumference of a circle with a radius of 4 is not 8. We Googled it and it is 25.13 (you may have meant diameter). Of course, that means between you, me and my wife we still had to head to Google to confirm the answer.


    • Will Richardson says

      Hey Jon,

      Thanks for reading and commenting. And catching my error!

      The cancer question is a much more interesting approach, and I hope you’ll let me know how it goes. I wonder, though, if there’s a way to get them to ask their question given the upcoming topics. I remember little or nothing about Bio from school (shocking, I know,) so it would be hard for me to come up with a personal question of interest in there. You may want to see if they have any interesting ones nonetheless.

      • Jon F says

        Hi again Will.

        The unit actually went very well. I decided to apply some of the ideas from Dan Pink and Alfie Kohn that had been banging around in my brain. I explained to them my thoughts on the unit, gave them freedom to choose the aspect of cancer they found most interesting, let them choose the form of the assigned product and told them there would be no grade for this unit. When I do stuff like this, I always try to explain ‘why’ I am interested in approaching a unit in the way we are using. That seems to help them get past the fact that it doesn’t match what they have been trained to believe about school. We took something of a K-W-L approach and that did let them generate their own questions. The questions varied greatly and many were fairly basic (‘What is cancer?’ was the most common…turns out they didn’t know much more than it was bad, made tumors, etc.).

        The students worked for a few weeks on researching and planning their ideas for a product. I checked in every day and gave guidance regularly early on. The products were excellent (though I am not sure they qualify as authentic in the way many describe) and showed a great deal of learning and creativity. When I asked them about the unit, all were very positive and I heard comments like “I enjoyed this because I could focus on learning because I didn’t have to spend time memorizing.” Not a bad outcome.

        I’m not exactly sure where to go now, but I intend to adjust my regular routine to involve more project-based learning.


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