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)!
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?