What’s worth learning?

Recently I gathered a group of volunteers from Grades 4 and 5 to help me look at our strategic plans for the coming year. We had identified three areas of focus (space, community, engagement) and I asked the students for their ideas, suggestions, questions, wonderings, thoughts and opinions for each area. There were so many inspiring and thought provoking statements that have caused me to pause and reflect. But today I’d like to look at one line of comments they wrote down, “we always have the same subjects… more variety/options.” I asked our learners what they meant by this and they asked me why school is always about English, Math and History? They wanted to know why couldn’t they learn about other areas like Psychology, Design, Carpentry, Mechanics, Video Games, Robots and Statistics.

I’ve been thinking about these questions and statements over the past few weeks. And I am stumped. Why can’t we learn about these other areas? Why do we tend to focus on just a few subjects? Do our units of inquiry allow enough breadth? How do we know what we need to learn and teach? Is it still relevant for today?

What is worth learning?

As I thought about this I saw a Twitter post (with linked blog post) by Eric Sheninger that made me think further about what might be worth learning:

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 12.17.23 PM

The skills listed refer to jobs of the future as outlined by the World Economic Forum: “advanced robotics and autonomous transport, artificial intelligence and machine learning, advanced materials, biotechnology, and genomics.”

Are skills what is worth learning? Is that what we should be really focusing on? Then what about knowledge? While I can see the math and science within each of these future jobs I do not see the point of learning these subjects in isolation. Should we be looking at more opportunities for transdisciplinary learning?

And so once again I return to the question posed by our students, what about other areas of study? And therefore what’s worth learning? I am beginning to wonder what are we teaching? And do we focus too much on what we think should be the learning?

Sugata Mitra said in his TED Talk, Build a School in the Cloud, “I think we need a curriculum of big questions… but we’ve lost sight of those wondrous questions. We’ve brought it down to the tangent of an angle.” Are we focusing too much on the “facts” that need to be learned and not enough on the passion of learning?

The Teacher Questions in a PYP Unit of Inquiry are often written last and many times as an oversight. But without really good questions where is the inspiration for curiosity? We have determined what should be learned and we have the scope and sequence (or curriculum objectives, standards, benchmarks) to back us up. But have we considered what’s really worth learning and what will inspire our learners to think creatively and discover their passions?

When we plan our Units of Inquiry we write Central Ideas and Lines of Inquiry as statements of what we think our learners should understand and inquire into. These inquiries have to fall under one of six Transdisciplinary Themes. Is this too confining, is it really all that is worth knowing? Does it allow for voice, choice and ownership?

Can we forget about the scope and sequence, the planned units and focus instead on wondering, questioning, discovering? Can we accept that children will learn even without adult intervention and curriculum objectives? Aaron Browder suggests in his article, “Can we stop obsessing about learning,” that we can and I am inspired by this idea.

But I also wonder how our learners will discover what they don’t know? How will they learn if they are unaware of the options for learning? If we never introduce them to multiplication will they figure it out, if they do how much time will be spent on the journey, is it worth it?

From: https://dojo.ministryoftesting.com/dojo/lessons/not-sure-about-uncertainty


From: https://poststatus.com/known-knowns-known-unknowns-and-unknown-unknowns/ 

So if the purpose of school is not to teach bits of knowledge that can be found through any good Internet search, is it to teach subjects that would never be learned in isolation outside of school? Or is school a place of wonder, where we discover ? A place where passions are born and students learn how to learn? Sugata Mitra said it best:

“It’s not about making learning happen. It’s about letting it happen. The teacher sets the process in motion and then stands back in awe and watches as learning happens.”

Let’s look at how we can set the process in motion, how we can inspire and provoke and question. How we can show our learners their unknown unknowns? Let’s reconsider what’s worth learning

4 thoughts on “What’s worth learning?

  1. Very powerful and so true! Something a colleague said to me recently which is related to the start.

    Rather than focus on student engagement, can we focus on student empowerment.

    What you’ve done is empower your children to take action in their learning 👍


  2. Ryan – I really enjoyed your post. The idea of what’s worth learning is something that I have been thinking about for a long time as well. There are many answers to that question and I don’t think that there is one correct answer. I do agree with your students though and feel that the idea of focusing education on a specific set of subject areas is not really the best way to prepare students for the future. I have been working on shifting that focus from content to skills at my school ISHCMC and believe this is at least one way forward.

    We have been developing units with a skills first approach. For example, a unit that used to be focused on the science of simple machines now focuses on social skills and working collaboratively. Students still learn knowledge and concepts, but that is not the focus of the unit. Instead we focus on their team work and students reflect on how they worked collaboratively to solve challenges, developing their social skills.

    This approach allows for true inquiry and students can explore what is unknown to them as well. Instead of having one topic that all students need to research into together, focus the unit on the research skills themselves. Then students can explore topics they are interested in and teach what they learned to each other, sharing the knowledge. Learning knowledge is small compared to developing the skills of researching. If students leave school with research skills, they can find the knowledge they seek.

    The idea of focusing on skills is not a new one and it is already something that is part of many classrooms. I just don’t think that is is always at the center. It is more of an afterthought. Have you ever been disappointed with a student’s presentation? The way they spoke or the font/color they used in a poster? Were they ever explicitly taught how to present information? Was the presentation of the information the lesson or was the knowledge?

    I submit that if we are looking to have classrooms where students are empowered in their own learning choices, deciding the what, how, when, where and why of their learning, then they need to have the skills to be successful. We need to shift the focus of education to explicitly teaching and assessing these skills.

    You started an interesting discussion, but I am wondering what you think is worth learning?


  3. I enjoyed reading your post. If as schools we were given the freedom to choose our own curriculum and subjects then it would be easy. This comes from top down and must start from the Universities then Ministries of Education. IB (example) school districts then schools.
    There needs to be an understood common framework or a common core otherwise you will have a world that is not vertical or horizontal in its knowledge.
    As for planning – Kath Murdoch is the educator that gets it right! Her model is used in many schools in a linear way – this was never her intention. How you describe teacher questions as being written last is a “ habit” as it is clearly documented within the PYP that these are written first – they are driving questions – the provocation if you like to ensure that it is conceptual knowledge . The student agency comes when the student begins to wonder, what if? Then what? How can?
    There needs to be a balance – I am all for student agency but come on – we are doing our students no favours by not setting a framework.
    Skill based learning has always been there! So often the skills are are taught without being conscious of it. Think of one inquiry lesson and go through it step by step as a reflection, note how many skills you covered in that one lesson. You will be amazed and see that in one lesson you will cover at least 4 of the 5 ATL every time. Try it!
    A thought provoking article but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water….


  4. Ryan, thank you for this! I have been battling with these same questions. Especially now as I read Katie Martin’s “Learner Centered Innovation”.

    My school is transitioning to the PYP and I have been struggling with the confinement of the inquiry units having to fall under specific interdisciplinary themes whilst honoring voice, choice and ownership.

    Reconsidering what’s worth learning is a huge paradigm shift- thank you for wondering and provoking!


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