April 13, 2010

Why Teach That!

Several weeks ago, while “assisting” my daughter with her homework (read “sticking my nose into her business”), we had a conversation that went something like this:

ME: What is it you are learning from this worksheet?

DD: We’re supposed to read the passage then answer the questions.

ME: I know, but what are you learning from doing this exercise?

DD: I don’t know. I guess just to answer the questions?

ME: Don’t the directions tell you to do that? What did your teacher say you are supposed to learn from this exercise?

DD: She didn’t say anything about it. We’re just supposed to do it. That’s all.

ME: OK. But, what do you learn from this exercise?

After some more “I don’t knows” and “I guesses,” she admitted that the only thing she learned from this and other similar “read and respond” worksheets is that to get the “right” answer, she must find in the reading passage the same words that appear in the question prompt, then copy from the passage the text immediately following those “key words.” In other words, what she learned from the exercise was not the ability to synthesize or apply information from the reading passage (the questions following the reading passage do not require this of students), but rather she learned a test-taking strategy that will result in a “correct” answer. A handy skill if you are taking a standardized test, I suppose, but I wondered if this truly was the teacher’s intention in assigning the exercise.

After our conversation, I asked myself what I wanted my students to learn, be able to do, or experience in my courses. I quickly produced a list of information and activities that I thought my students should learn and complete. In examining the list, I noticed that my content was essentially the same as the content I taught as a graduate teaching assistant, and similar to what I experienced as an undergraduate student. And, it was very similar to content found in courses and textbooks across the country.

Because my content was consistent with that of so many, I assumed I must be on the right track. What, I failed to ask myself, however, is probably the most important question an educator can ask - "Why teach that?"

I looked again at my list of learning outcomes, asking “Why teach that?” Of what value is this content to my students, now or in the future? Am I teaching these things because they have practical application or some intrinsic value, or merely because I "think" this is what they should know? As a result, I made several immediate changes to my course content, with more changes coming next term.

In designing my courses, I never truly considered what my students might need to know or be able to do, but merely assumed that what I was teaching was correct because it was what I was taught and what is being taught elsewhere. How many other teachers make this error, too - designing their curricula based on outward perceptions and/or personal/administrative needs, rather than the short and long term educational needs of our students?

The question of "what" should be taught should be followed immediately by "why." As educators, "why" always should be at the forefront of our instructional vocabulary, challenging our students AND ourselves continually. Asking "why" makes us think. Asking "why" makes us reason and consider alternatives. Asking "why" forces us to understand before we ask our students to understand.

Because of this conversation with my daughter, I learned the importance of asking “why" in teaching. I’m so glad we had the chance to talk.

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