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:

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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?

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

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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

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Studio 5- Too Much Too Soon?

I want to be a rebel, but I feel like things are getting a little outside of my comfort zone.

(UPDATE: I realise that being out of your comfort zone is probably what being a rebel is all about!)

Don’t get me wrong, I’d bite your hand off to be pushed to innovate as much as Studio 5 has done, but I want to ask a few questions to understand how far we should go.

  • Is the last year of elementary school too late or too soon for the level of student agency that Studio 5 is proposing?
  • Is it too much to offer this level of freedom outside the Exhibition?
  • Can we not still offer voice, choice and agency whilst following a programme which offers a balance of disciplines, ie. by following each Transdisciplinary Theme?
  • Is there not enough space within each Transdisciplinary Theme in the PYP for students to still take control of their learning and direct it around the breadth and depth that each theme offers without students having to create a unit from scratch?

I get it, they should have choice etc, but are we actually doing them a disservice by exposing them to the multitude of subjects that exist? Can we still provide space for student agency even if students are not all planning their learning from scratch?

I’ve been wondering about what agency means and if a ‘choose anything you want to learn about’ limits the possible options students can have access to. Can a student find their passion or talent unless they explore every element of language, art, mathematics, science etc.? When are they ready to decide what they want to learn? How long does it take to expose students to every strand of every discipline?

Of course they’ll develop interests away from school and these should be respected and we should be aware of them, but are we redefining school as a place where learning about the world, even though you didn’t choose that topic, is a considered a opportunity missed?

Should we be asking how student agency can exist in a programme that still offers a spectrum of opportunity to learn from a predetermined list of disciplines, or should students be able to choose to learn anything they want at any time?

I think we should try first of all not to create a system which provides too much structure and predetermined lessons which do little more than provide an opportunity to test comprehension. That’s obviously not helping anyone develop curiosity or maintain what was there to start with.

Let’s provoke, challenge, question and make space for our students to inquire about the world around them, and let’s take the opportunity as their guides to open their eyes to the wonders of the world whilst allowing them to bring who they are to the table, too.

I’m imagining something like this: take the theme How the World Works. We want the children to be scientists, to observe, to question, to experiment, to challenge themselves. What if we provide them with provocations, stimulating images, stories about the universe, information about scientists, about the different strands available to choose for their inquiries and then see where their curiosity leads them. Sometimes you don’t know that you’re fascinated by whale sharks until you discover them. Sometimes you can’t marvel at the power of nature until you see it in action.

My point is to offer them these options at each grade level instead of focusing on one in particular each year; that way they can still develop deep conceptual understanding about how the world works whilst developing knowledge in the area that fascinates them. There’s no need to necessarily teach natural disasters in grade 3 and biodiversity in grade 4, for example.

We can let their curiosity take the lead whilst sparking the fire.

Studio 5 has created something which challenges the preconceptions of the school model and taken it into the stratosphere, but has it also given the students too much freedom of choice too soon? Have the students explored enough to know what they want to do? Has personalised learning gone too far?

I’m just wondering, of course. Any thoughts and opinions would be greatly appreciated.

UPDATE: After sleeping on these thoughts, I have also realised that I’m looking for a way to go as far as possible towards what Studio 5 is offering students, whilst imagining an easy transition model for others to follow towards student agency within the POI that we currently use. I know full well that I need the support of school leaders to make my dream a reality.)