The Subject of Subjects

I have thought some more about how I would redesign school, if I were given the chance. It is an intriguing task, but also very difficult. I could easily create a school that would be perfect for me, but it is a real challenge to come up with a concept that would suit everyone’s needs (if that is at all possible).

First of all,Β I would not do away with reading, writing, and arithmetic. There were subjects I didn’t like or even hated, but I’m not sure I would β€” or could β€” do away with them completely. Despite my animosity, I do see their value. However, the way we teach these subjects could use a serious makeover.

It is a tough decision which subjects to keep, but in describing how I would teach, I guess I also have to commit to what I would teach. After all, the content somewhat influences the form.

The biggest problem I currently see is that the curriculum is packed to the rim. Kids have to memorize endless facts. So one topic after the other is gone through in record time, never stopping to ask whether the kids have really understood anything.

Guys, you’re forgetting one important aspect: It doesn’t matter how much you can get through, but how much can get through to you.

Thus, I would be in favor of reducing content first, then decide how to best get the remainder into people’s heads and hearts.

Basic Subjects

I guess “reading, writing, and arithmetics” are the basic subjects everyone would agree we need.

Reading and writing are important skills. They help us to learn, to voice our thoughts, to read about new concepts, to communicate our ideas and opinions to others. What exactly children should be made to read or write about is debatable, but not the fact that they should be able to do so. More than that, they should experience how much fun these activities can be.

Highly undervalued skills in this respect are articulating yourself in speech and active listening. Maybe we could fit those in somewhere.

I’m more divided where arithmetics are concerned. Being able to do basic calculus is certainly important, such as a + b = c. So is being able to do some practical math, such as “I want to paper this room. How much wallpaper do I need?” However, everything that goes beyond practical usage should be offered for those who might need it in their later lives, but voluntary.

Additional Subjects

All other existing subjects, in my opinion, can be summarized into the following categories:

  • Science
  • Technology
  • History and Politics
  • Art
  • Foreign Languages
  • Physical Education / Sports

Science

I think I would subsume what we now have as separate subjects (Chemistry, Biology, Physics, and Geography) into one subject simply entitled “Science.” Kids need a basic understanding of how the world works. If there is fascination for one specific field, kids can still go into it deeper individually.

Geography would be cleared completely of memorizing geographic locations. This is what Google Maps is for. And behold how much time we’d suddenly have for all the important things!

My point is not that kids shouldn’t hear about those things, but why are we forcing them to memorize this stuff?

Technology

I admit I’m not up-to-date what computer classes look like these days. When I went to school around the late Nineties, our entire computer education consisted of a 2-year course where we learned the basics of a now obsolete programming language. I have never used it since.

When we ever had to use other software, i.e. for presentations or text editing, it was simply implied that we knew how to. All we knew about those things was self-taught through trial and error, which was probably just as well because we definitely knew more about it than most of our teachers anyway.

At my school, computer classes would be taught throughout the entire time at school. Starting with media literacy at an early age, kids would learn how to critically surf the net and find worthwhile content, they would be offered to learn touch-typing, using office programs, blogging, youtubing, and podcasting, safe online shopping, picture and video editing etc.

You get the feeling sometimes that school boards are afraid of new technologies and at a loss at what to do with them. But let’s face it: Technologies exist and they are being used. They offer so many wonderful new possibilities. There is no reason why they should not find their way into the classroom. And since parents are often not as media-saavy as their kids, schools should take it onto themselves to teach kids a responsible and critical usage of those technologies.

Ideally, at my school, all kids would get their own tablet PCs and notebooks to work with.

History and Politics

Subjects such as History, Economy Classes, and Current Politics I would subsume under a new subject called “History and Politics.” Kids would learn all about world’s history up to current political topics.

No more memorizing of facts and dates and important figures. Name dropping is important, of course, and kids should get a rough understanding of when these people lived and what they did. But more important is that they get a good understanding of how people lived in past decades. Living history instead of lectures about dates and events.

Art

Art includes both Arts and Crafts as well as Music. I’d leave those two as separate subjects. However, both would have the same teaching method in common: Kids get to try everything out themselves. They don’t get lectured and they don’t have to write any tests, nor are they graded.

In music class, I would start out with singing and getting to know various instruments in elementary school. Then they should get the chance to learn to read sheet music and play a number of instruments. They could get to know music styles and hear from musicians later, but only in-depth if they want to.

In Arts and Crafts, kids would get to know all kinds of artistic and creative stuff.

At the school I went to, Art classes mostly consisted of painting and drawing, very little handicraft work, and later studying the paintings of famous artists.

As a result, I never liked Arts and Crafts in school because it convinced me that I wasn’t good at any of it. I’m completely hopeless where drawing and painting are concerned. If I build something, it is very likely to be askew and fall over. If I had fun with something, the mediocre grades I received for my artwork always put me down again.

Funny, there are a number of crafts that I’m quite good at now and enjoy doing. No thanks to school. My mom showed me how to knit, crochet, and sew when I showed an interest in it. Computer layouting, bookbinding, and cupcake decoration mostly came through watching and reading online tutorials. We never did anything remotely like that in school.

At first, of course, I wasn’t really happy with my results either. But there was no one to put me down so I kept doing it until I got better.

Arts and Crafts classes should thus offer a greater variety of artistic projects. And kids should be able to follow their interests. Of course you should try everything out, but if you realize something is not your cup of tea, you shouldn’t be forced to continue wasting your time with it. There are so many crafts. Why not let the kids find out what they are passionate about? And let’s stop bashing their fun by grading their artwork. Art is in the eye of the beholder, anyway.

Foreign Languages

Foreign languages are a good thing. Again, however, teaching language would need to be reformed. Kids are taught languages like you would teach them to an an adult: With grammar exercises and rules. I find that now, as an adult, I like learning that way. But as a child, I learned other languages the same way I learned my mother tongue: By reading, listening, writing, and speaking in that language.

Don’t get me started on vocabulary tests…

Another problem we currently have in language learning is that kids couldn’t care less about the texts and topics in their text books. In preparing tutoring sessions, I’ve looked at those books. They truly bore you to tears. Why not let the kids choose their own sources?

Also, I think the kids should have more of a say in what language they want to learn. There is more than French, Latin, and Spanish, but this is where the curriculum ends. Most schools don’t have the teachers to offer other languages anyway. This needs to change.

I think I would also reduce the number of languages that children have to learn. One to two foreign languages are enough. A third might be optional.

Physical Education / Sports

Things might be different in America, but in German schools, sports play no role whatsoever. We don’t have any budget for it, we don’t have much equipment. Mostly you play soccer because the teacher often asks the class what they want to do and the soccer players are the quickest and loudest to voice their preferences. Sports is just a means to get kids moving a bit.

During my entire time at school, there have been only a couple of weeks! in which we did something I actually liked: inline skating and self-defence. All other sports I had fun doing and that I was good at, I did at home or in the local sports club during leisure time.

You cannot possibly suit everyone and you can’t buy equipment for every possible sport and you cannot possibly get enough people at the same time for every sport for this to make sense.

My vote, therefore, would be to do away with physical education at school altogether. A lot of people will argue now that physical education is so important for health and well-being and that kids are getting too little activity anyway. I would even agree with you. But school sports is not the answer.

Instead, let kids choose their own sport and their own club and get a statement from that club that they are showing up on a regular basis. The money that the schools save by not having to maintain gymnasiums and sporting equipment could easily go into supporting families who cannot pay club fees. Problem solved.

New Subjects

Having done away with some of the old subjects now leaves us some room to add a few that I think are missing on the current curriculum:

Philosophy/Ethics

At the moment, this course is only offered 2-3 years, at best, and the content is mostly reduced to some theories of ancient thinkers. While some of those are undoubtedly useful, I think ethics classes should be much more hands-on. I guess I would be watching and discussing a lot of old Star Trek and Quantum Leap episodes with the kids. πŸ˜‰ I’m sure some new shows as well as current events lend themselves for discussion as well.

Project-based Courses

In 12th grade (sadly for only one year), we had a course that was brilliant: Teachers came up with topics that they would then offer as a course.

Students who had chosen this topic would then form smaller groups within the course and work together on one project for half a year. Be it a play, a short film, a text written together …

At the end of the semester, there was a big get-together of all courses where all the results were presented on stage.

I would make this a regular course. Kids learn how to work in groups and how to each contribute their part to a larger project. You cannot value enough how many soft skills they would acquire here. As a bonus, they would have lots of fun in the process.

If you need to check individual contribution: We each had to write a little report about the project and how everything worked and what we participated. Even that was kind of fun.

Study Skills

Another regular course I would add is Study Skills. Here, students would learn all those skills that are currently expected but never really taught: How to do things.

How do I write a paper? How do I hold a presentation? How does active learning and self-study work? How to take notes effectively?

My experience when going to school was that those things were never truly taught. Teachers just expected you to have those skills. And either you did and were lucky or you didn’t.

“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” (Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist)

In the end, the most important thing we can possibly teach kids is how to study, how to find valid information, how to do things on their own, and how to acquire new abilities all by themselves.

Language Arts

I already said that I would not do away with reading and writing. But I’d like to replace the current classes with Language Arts because I would like to put the focus on actually using language yourself.

Too much time is spend reading literature, especially classic literature. There would be no required reading in my school. Kids would be able to choose what they want to read.

Some kids are just not into fiction stories but prefer nonfiction. Why torture them? The important thing is to get kids to read. Who are we to say what they should read?

Creativity

It probably won’t surprise you that I would give creativity a much greater part in education. At the moment, only some rare teachers foster it. School as a whole is rather trying to unteach it.

This is neither a clichΓ© nor a solid fact. Just my experience. During my entire time at school, I had but one truly creative teacher (surprisingly, she was neither a music nor an art teacher), and two who occasionally showed some spark of it or let you get away with it from time to time.

I think this is sad because creativity can play such an important role in learning. And it is a very important skill that will help us to adapt to new situations in the future.

Active learning would also play a role. Kids would have one study journal for each subject that they would be required to write into on a regular basis. To have time for this, they would not have any homework outside of things they are writing into their journals.

Freedom of Choice

I do agree that the basic skills should be made available to all children. However, there should be more room for individuality. All people have different talents and preferences and goals in life. Kids should have some say in what they want to explore deeper and how they want to explore it. And there should definitely be more choices for kids to choose from.

In the end, every student is an individual and should have the possibility to tailor their own education to their needs. So please, include more freedom of choice.

And please don’t tell me that kids don’t know yet what they’re going to need in their lives. Neither do you. The best thing we can do as teachers is to teach children how to find the information they need and how to learn.

“Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.” (Rabindranath Tagore)

We have to face it: Times change, and what was true yesterday can turn out to be completely wrong tomorrow. There are so many great new ways of doing things these days that many teachers haven’t even heard of.

At best, we are preparing them for the world that is today, while we should be educating them for an unknown future (i.e. how to face whatever may come, to think outside the box, be creative, adapt to new circumstances, be open-minded for new technologies but also know how to approach them critically). The current one-size-fits-all approach is helping no-one.

Grading

Schools shy away from individualizing learning not only because it is more difficult, but also because it is harder β€” if not impossible β€” to measure with their beloved standardized tests. That scares them, not least because it would require massive changes in other areas as well.

In school, grades determine how your education will continue. After school, many people use grades to judge you and to decide whether you are worthy to do something you want to do.

But let’s be honest: What is it exactly that grades say about us? What influences the grade we get?

Firstly, it is how much you participate in class. But it does not ask why you are or are not participating in class. What was the quality of your participation? Some teachers only give good grades for ‘correct’ answers while others like to reward contributions to class discussion or the effort to participate. Maybe the teacher’s teaching style didn’t lend itself to active participation, maybe you were good at the subject, but so good that the class level bored you to death and you rather spend your time reading books on quantum mechanics under your table. Maybe you are a rather quiet person and there were some more outgoing classmates that always beat you to it. Does a grade tell us any of this? I think not.

Secondly, it tells us how well you did in class tests. Again, it does not tell us how much you had to study to do so well on the test. Did you sit down the day before and learn the whole shebang in a couple of hours or did you have to study for weeks to get this into your head? If you do poorly, it doesn’t tell us whether this was because you were lazy and didn’t study, or because the teacher asked questions that were not discussed in class before, or because you had a bad day, or because you suffer from exam fright and were so nervous that your head went blank … And then: How good was your teacher at preparing exams? How willing was he or she to accept other opinions than their own? Did they only give you a bad grade because they didn’t like your style? Does the grade tell us this? No!

Thirdly, β€” yes, I realize that many people won’t want to hear this but it is true β€” a grade tells us how much the teacher liked you, and how much the teacher was like you or not. We are all humans, and teachers tend to give good grades to people they like or who have the same style they do. That’s a fact.

“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” (Robert Frost)

Frost didn’t say it directly, but isn’t that what a grade tells us about you: Your ability to listen to a lot of stuff you don’t need and that you don’t care about and how well-behaved you endured it.

In my school, therefore, grading would be limited to the absolute minimum.

Especially in artistic and project-based courses, there should be no grading of the ‘results’ of your work at all because art is highly subjective. If you participate, you pass. If you don’t, you don’t. Period.

Most importantly, grades in my school would not be based on (standardised) class tests or participation in huge class groups.

Study journals and what kids say in discussions with small study groups would be a much more realistic basis to grade their performance. This would not solve the danger of teacher bias. I guess the only way to reduce this is to have teachers pair up in reviewing a kid’s work.

No more teacher-centered classrooms

The hardest part of this mental exercise is to come up with a teaching concept that might actually work. In my opinion, we should do away with the teacher-centered classroom and the class group.

Every student has their own learning style and learning pace. They all have their individual interests and abilities. In teacher-centered teaching it is thus difficult β€” if not impossible β€” to find a suitable pace and style. Especially not in such large groups as we have them today.

First of all, I think that we should make school a nicer place. Instead of large, bare classrooms, there could be comfortable learning places where kids could sit down with their tablets or laptops, alone or in small study groups, and listen to podcasts, watch videos, or read texts on the current topic. Those could be study materials created by the school, by creative education experts, or content from the internet.

If something requires practice, kids could quiz each other, could play relevant games, or do computer-based exercises.

The teacher would rather become an advisor, going around and answering questions, having a brief look at what the kids are doing.

To support their learning, kids would write into a study journal for each subject, writing down what they learned, questions they have, ideas and cross-references that the new input might have sparked etc.

In total, kids should be given a good amount of time for each subject. This way, they can learn at their own pace. If something is easy for them and they want to learn more, they can do so while others can go over the material again and again until they get it.

Then, little groups might come together with a teacher and discuss what they have learned, maybe practise a little more. This way, the teacher can check whether everyone has understood the topic.

Conclusion

I’m aware that this is probably not the ultimate solution for everybody β€” although I would have liked to go to such a school πŸ˜‰ . It is a suggestion based on my experience both as a student and as a tutor.

What I have read and watched lately on the future of education, though, tells me that I’m not the only one thinking along these lines.

There are tendencies toward a more individualized education, more attractive school environments, integration of technology etc.

From what I’m hearing, some schools and individual teachers are already attempting progressive approaches, as much as the curriculum allows them to.

But the education system as a whole needs to change, and it needs to change decidedly. If even more people contribute to this discussion, maybe some day the people on the school boards will be listening.

What about you? Would you have liked to go to such a school or would you send your kids there? Is something missing that I didn’t consider? Tell us what you think…

Advertisements
Categories: Teaching and Learning | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Post navigation

2 thoughts on “The Subject of Subjects

  1. Can’t telll if you chose this as an alternate prompt today (July 22) or at an earlier date. I’m a latecomer to this prompt! Enjoyed your take on eduction. Here’s mine: https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/the-new-school/

    • Thanks for sharing your post! I wrote this a while back but still find the topic so fascinating and so important… I’ll for sure have a closer look at it!

Tell me what you think ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: