Your New Curriculum?

I listen to a lot of podcasts. Most take the format of an intelligent conversation between two or more people, or someone telling a good story.

icon for tell me something i don't know podcast

Then there’s the program called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, which the producers (who also do the more conventional but also excellent Freakonomics) describe as journalism wrapped in a game show package.

On most segments, they have a panel of three very smart people and a general theme. Audience members (often experts in a specific field of study) are then invited on stage to tell the panel about something they may not know related to the theme. The panel gets to ask any questions they might have and, after all the stories have been told, they decide who did the best job.

It’s all simple, very nerdish fun.

However, as I was listening to a recent episode, it struck me that this is very much what school should be.

Stay with me.

Currently, in most classrooms, a teacher stands in front of a group of students dispensing information. Or at least they direct the distribution of that knowledge in some way.

So, what happens if the teacher walks into the classroom and instead challenges the kids to tell me something I don’t know?

There would have to be some structure, of course. I’m pretty sure teenagers could reel off a whole lot of trivia they consider interesting that would baffle most adults. But the show itself provides some of that organization.

The rules of the game are that the IDK (short for the “I don’t know”) presented must be something we truly don’t know, something that is actually worth knowing (which may eliminate everything on the E! channel), and something that is demonstrably true.

Ok, there are probably more than a few details that need to be worked out before anyone puts this idea into practice.

But what better way to get students to look at learning in a different way than to ask them to choose a topic they find interesting, immerse themselves in the details, and then put the material they find into a compelling form for a live audience?

Enlist Your Kids in the Cyber Army

If you don’t read the publication called The Hill,1 you probably missed a recent opinion piece pushing a new topic for our already overloaded K12 curriculum: hacking.

According to a professor from Carnagie Mellon University, there is a “critical national shortage of” computer security experts and the first thing we need to do to correct this is “promote hacking at the K-12 level”. “[W]e need a national push to build effective cybersecurity education programs.”

No. Just no!

He’s very right that privacy education is essential for kids. Most adults as well. I agree completely with his positive definition of the term “hacking” and that “we need to recognize that hackers are valuable”.

However, we do not need yet another program designed to solve perceived corporate personnel shortages. Too many schools have already bought into the STEM crisis myth.

Or one to feed students to build his college program, which seems to be an underlying goal of his proposal.

And I’m extremely skeptical of his conclusion that “we need to embrace hacking as an essential skill for kids to learn in order to keep this country safe in the future”.

Instead, how about going back to the original concept of K12 education? The one where students received a broad liberal education and had the opportunity to explore a variety of subjects, especially leading up to high school where they would have the option to take some vocation-specific electives.

Maybe “hacking” should be a part of that experience. Building a child cyber army to fight off the bad guys should not.

Designing a Change

Serpentine Gallery Pavillion2

Although not as much of a rockstar in the ed reform headlines as STEM or maker, the concept of “design thinking” is beginning to seep into the top ten. Like STEM, maker, and PBL, it’s touted by advocates as a new idea that could revolutionize learning. Also like those other terms, few people can agree on what it is and how it might fit into the classroom.

But don’t worry, even the experts are not sure how to concisely explain design thinking.

Confusion around the precise definition of design thinking is understandable, said Neil Stevenson, the executive portfolio director at IDEO Chicago, one of the best-known purveyors of design thinking. “Design thinking isn’t one thing,” he told me in a phone interview, “but a bundle of mindsets and philosophies all wrapped up in one term, which obviously has the potential to lead to ambiguity and misunderstanding.”

Which means it fits right in with STEM and those other vague educational concepts: “a bundle of mindsets and philosophies all wrapped up in one term”. Ambiguity and misunderstanding probably describes all of them and more.

I like the idea of design thinking being applied in the classroom since the concept of design incorporates many of the skills we say we want students to learn during their time in K12 (creativity, collaborative, critical thinking, etc.). From my experience, it offers students and teachers an organized process for creating solutions to problems in just about any subject area.

At its best, design thinking incorporates proven-effective teaching techniques such as self-directed inquiry and collaborative problem-solving, and dovetails nicely with social-emotional learning curricula that emphasize interpersonal skills such as collaboration and empathy.

Ultimately, design thinking is not a curriculum, advocates like Stevenson say, but a process for problem-solving, a strategy to elicit creativity rooted in empathy and comfort with failure.

However, there’s just one big problem with trying to incorporate design thinking into our current learning model: the concept does not fit with the curriculum, pedagogy, and objectives used in most American schools.

Simply inserting a few “design” activities into the school year when time allows (aka after the spring tests) does not help students become creative, to learn to think in new ways. The same is true when we try to graft STEM, or maker, or PBL, or any of the many other buzz concepts onto what is already being done in the classroom.

If design thinking is really important (or STEM, or maker, or <insert your favorite curriculum idea>) – if it is really a process students should learn and use – then make it part of everyday school instead of a special activity. Rewrite the curriculum around design principles, help teachers revise their pedagogy to make it work, and completely reimagine how to assess student progress.

Without a complete redesign of what school is, we simply have our 1950’s expectations with a few modern talking points.

The Usefulness of Math

Catching up on items in my Instapaper queue we find a writer who says we should stop trying to sell math for it’s usefulness.2

One of the fall outs of children not understanding mathematics and the associated failure which often follows at some point in their 500 hour tour of the salt mines of mathematics?—?aka math education?—?is that teachers, through no fault of their own, start to sell/hawk mathematics like its some discontinued K-Tel kitchen product at a Saturday Flea Market.

Kids struggle with the number and symbolic manipulation we present as math for a variety of reasons, but the lack of context that necessitates that selling process is probably right up there. They are not dumb. Students understand that adults sometimes do use some math in their lives. But they also realize that there is likely an app for that.

Dozens of calculators to do the basic work, laser pointers that measure more accurately than a simple ruler, even software to produce each step of a process just as the teacher asked for. There may be a lot of trig involved with kite flying but learning from the mistakes of throwing it into the wind is more fun.

However, marketing math based on “its sometimes messy and intricate fun” and the intrinsic mystery of “symmetrical curvature” is also a dead end. And it won’t be especially beneficial to students in the long run.

Certainly playing with math can be both entertaining and lead to interesting discoveries. But even traveling that path, we will still arrive at the inevitable question: “when are we ever going use this?”, not to mention “is this going to be on the test?”.

I think there’s a middle ground between trying to sell kids on the need for our current formal mathematics program, most of which they will never use, and encouraging students to embrace the beauty and poetry of math.

How about using math to solve actual problems, other than those in books with mathematical titles? Like validating a survey in social studies. Gathering and analyzing data in science. Applying Geometric patterns to make art.

Maybe it’s time to eliminate the subject area silo called “mathematics” altogether in K12 (except for those few students in high school interested in that field), and instead incorporate those tools into the overall problem solving process. It would be a wonderful first step to tearing down all the artificial walls between subject areas.

I’m pretty sure someone can tell me why this is idea is impractical, unrealistic, or just plain looney. But there’s got to be something between “useful” math that really isn’t and “beautiful” math that few can appreciate (or even want to).

School Math is Void of Common Sense

A research mathematician turned teacher has a word problem for you: “There are 125 sheep and 5 dogs in a flock. How old is the shepherd?”

Most adults would quickly come to the conclusion that there is not enough information to find an answer. Not most students.

Now consider that, according to researchers, three quarters of schoolchildren offer a numerical answer to the shepherd problem. In Kurt Reusser’s 1986 study, he describes the typical student response:

125 + 5 = 130 …this is too big, and 125–5 = 120 is still too big … while … 125/5 = 25 … that works … I think the shepherd is 25 years old.

Remarkable. In their itch to combine the numbers presented to them, students negotiate three solutions. They show some awareness of context in dismissing the first two candidates. But a 25-year-old farmer is plausible enough for students to offer it up as their answer. The calculations are correct, but they are also irrelevant. Common sense has deserted these students in their pursuit of a definitive answer.

He says those findings are the direct result of the type of problems we ask students to solve during their travels through school math.

Students believe that all math problems are well-defined, usually with a single right answer. They strongly associate mathematics with numbers, to the extent that they will instinctively derive numerical answers to problems regardless of the context. They are subservient to computational procedure and trust that accurate calculations will always lead them to relevant truths. They accept that confusion and ambiguity is a staple fixture of mathematics, willingly offering up solutions that are void of context, meaning or even common sense.

So, what’s the alternative to our current standard math curriculum, featuring repetitive pages of calculations and ambiguous word problems with one right answer? The writer has some excellent ideas. However, they would require completely reimagining the way we teach math.

At the core of those changes is an emphasis on understanding process rather than finding answers.

Mathematics is a journey; it is defined by process, not rigid outcomes. That process can not be reduced to a series of discrete computation steps. It is governed by a flow of reasoning that guides the thinker towards a solution. Problem-solving often an unstructured, messy affair that requires several iterations of developing and testing assumptions. Error and ill-judgement are the most natural components of problem solving; they should be embraced. All mathematicians need pause to reflect on their problem solving strategies; to step back and retain full view of the big picture. Students must be afforded the same opportunities; their development as mathematical thinkers depends on this sense-making.