Back to school edition.
The sooner educators craft alternatives to the 20th century “transmission of knowledge” model of teaching the better. Why? Because traditional school knowledge is instantly accessible via the media and internet and there’s much more to preparing students to participate in pluralistic democracies than transmitting information.
In fact, if we mindlessly accept the “transmission of knowledge” model as a given, one might ask, after about the third grade, are teachers really necessary any more? In fact, why require school attendance at all?
The alternative that I’m advocating for is to question and challenge the educational status quo by asking, “What might teachers do differently and better than television programming, films, radio programming, periodicals, and Internet websites?”
Some may fret that alternative models of teaching will be characterized by watered-down curricula taught by teachers with little subject-matter expertise. This is not what I am promoting. I believe teachers need more, not less, subject-matter expertise, and that we need to develop more, not less, substantive curriculum materials. Importantly though, in order to revitalize our classrooms, we must reconceptualize what constitutes subject-matter expertise and what qualifies as rigorous curricula.
Most curricula consist of objectives, content, and learning activities designed to promote specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Too large a percentage of teachers rely on fill in the blank worksheets and the “questions at the end of the chapter” and emphasize information as an end-in-itself. In large part, this explains many students’ relative disinterest in seemingly interesting subjects like history and their tendency to forget the information their teachers transmit. The opportunity cost of this “information as an end to itself” approach is that too little time is spent on helping students develop lasting skills and attitudes, including what Dewey convincingly argued was the most important attitude of all, “the desire to go on learning.”
Skill development, including higher-order thinking, is one substantive way teachers can make unique and important contributions. Even though the television documentary may be illuminating, the independent film thought provoking, the radio interview engaging, the newspaper article informative, the Internet website current and comprehensive, the media are ill equipped to help students think conceptually and analytically, to write clearly and convincingly, to collaborate thoughtfully and effectively, and to resolve conflicts imaginatively and sensitively.
In short, there needs to be a serious rebalancing of emphasis between knowledge, skills, and attitudes. I am not advocating a watered-down curriculum exclusively focused on the process of learning. In contrast, I am calling for a delimiting of the traditional curriculum and what may be thought of as a “knowledge as the means to developing lasting skills and attitudes” model of teaching and learning.
What might this look like? In different parts of the country individual teachers, teaching teams, departments, and school/university partnerships are implementing promising alternatives to the transmission of knowledge model, but few know anything about their examples because the public schooling conversation is currently dominated by students’ standardized test scores and the need for greater teacher and school accountability.