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


A space to call their own (part 1)

I want to spend some posts discussing the spaces in which we teach and learn. And I want to keep these posts short because, well, life, and I’d like you to actually read them and not skim, scan, browse, sweep, or any of the multitude of reading skills our brains have perfected in the age of social media.

So…we’re asking our students to spend 8+ hours each day in our spaces and it seems to me that any discussion of student agency should include those tangible walls, floors, and ceilings.

At my school here in southern California we’re in the midst of a space makeover with an eye on emphasizing 21st century learning and interdisciplinary units. In this backdrop, a couple of recent experiences has me thinking about how our spaces could be used in a way that truly foster student voice and agency:

  1. I had the opportunity to visit High Tech High, a K-12 school in San Diego. If you’ve seen the documentaries Beyond Measure or Most Likely To Succeed than you already have an idea what this school is all about — intense PBL, no letter grades or report cards, and student empowerment. In terms of space, High Tech High’s minimalist, no-frills approach is a refreshing (and, quite frankly, jarring) departure from the often manicured setting that classrooms can become. There are no posters or bulletin boards that no student ever looks at, and no collection of dusty books that no student ever wants to read. There is lots of white space, lots of empty physical space. Lots of opportunity.
  2. Dovetailing nicely on this visit, I picked up The Space by Rebecca Hare and Robert Dillon. It’s a wonderfully concise and thoughtful book that challenges teachers and administrators to consider the goal of every inch of the classroom. Like High Tech High, the authors preach minimalism, and they also emphasize student voice in designing and maintaining the space. I highly recommend this book.

So over the next few weeks I’ll be posting about how our teaching and learning spaces can promote student agency. I’d love to hear your ideas, especially if they are concrete, tangible risks you’ve taken in your own spaces. For example, here’s one simple thing I did recently: I asked our head custodian to create a white board desk for me–I call it my ‘brainstorming desk’– out of a broken white board and an old desk.


I’m not totally satisfied with the results, since my 8th graders often just want to doodle on it, though I think with more modeling and emphasis on how it connects to the ATLs (Use brainstorming and mind mapping to generate new ideas and inquiries) it could be the start of something really special. One message that both The Space and High Tech High have made abundantly clear: more writeable surfaces!