“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” ~ Oscar Wilde
A few months back I was walking along the streets of Kitsilano when I happily ran into one of my favourite people—Sandra, a grade 9 student. I hadn’t seen her since she began year two of high school so I seized the moment to ask her how it was going. A sour look fell upon her face, followed by, “It’s boring. We’re learning how to measure the circumference of a circle.” She then went on to say with a little bit more bite, “Like we’re ever going to need to know how to do that in the world!”
She was right. The chances are slim to none that she’ll ever use that piece of mathematical knowledge.
It’s thus worth considering: How much of what kids learn in math class will they ever use? How much of what you learned in math class do you use today?
Only a small percentage of kids will grow up needing the complex numbers and quadratic, exponential and logarithmic equations of algebra. Few will derive benefit from the derivatives, linear functions, radians and binomials of calculus. Indeed, most kids will grow up requiring little more than the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Compound this with the fact that we have calculators, spreadsheets, apps that calculate measurement, and the Internet, and we must then ask ourselves:
How much math do we really need?
Sunil Singh quit teaching math in 2013. She writes, “There were many days I hated math more than my students did. Way more.” And so she walked away, “happily leaving behind job security, a pension and the holy grail of teacher benefits: summers off.” Singh just couldn’t compromise her integrity: “I felt like a charlatan when I implicitly or explicitly told my students that what we were learning reflected the heart of mathematics or that it was the core of lifelong practicality. ‘When are we going to use this?’ has been the No. 1 whine in math classes for a few generations. We should stop trying to sell mathematics for its usefulness. It’s not why you or I should learn it.”
She goes on to note that the institution makes teaching math utterly “boring”. Indeed it does. How many creative and engaging ways can kids learn math outside the limits of tedious worksheets and a rigid desk? Kids can count rocks and clouds. They can build a fort that requires calculating dimensions. They can take measurements while playing with a cooking set or helping their parents bake. They can create music with others or through technology like Garage Band, which demands attunement to timing and beat counts. They can play board games that require counting money or tracking the score. They can make their own fun and imaginative games that require + – x ÷.
Just like how we can teach colour by saying, “Hey Jimmy, look at the blue sky!” or “Pass the green crayon!” we can learn and help others learn on the fly, which is how learning best happens.
“Anything you can teach in an indoor classroom can be taught outdoors, often in ways that are more enjoyable for children.” ~ Cathy James
Making room for wonder
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” ~ Alvin Toffler
How much time do kids spend learning what they will never use, not only in the subject of math, but all subjects?
Looking back now, I don’t see much value in most of what I learned in geography and social studies, for instance, especially given the way it was taught. Knowing the difference between igneous and sedimentary rock has never proven to be useful for me, or anyone I know. What I have discovered, however, is that spending quality time in nature in wonder and curiosity teaches more about life than any textbook will.“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” ~ Albert EinsteinClick To Tweet
Knowing that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand catalyzed WW1 has been of little use as well. Historical facts can provide rich context for learning if students have the opportunity to explore the deeper reasoning behind why these events happen—if kids are given a chance to tap into their intuition, their native brilliance, and wonder and engage one another about what may cause a war or slavery or the Inquisition to happen.
Maybe the curriculum would come more from the students. Maybe the teacher might learn something from them.
Knowledge / information without reflecting on and gathering wisdom from it has done little to serve the world. What without why fails to engage students and inspire learning and new perspectives. Rote, didactic education turns kids into bored, conforming automatons who are more likely to repeat what has always been done.
There’s a reason small children ask why all the time… they’ve yet to conform!
There’s a reason kids appreciate teachers who explain why they are learning a particular topic.
Author Stephen Jenkinson reminds us that, “The instinct to want things to be better without the work of trying to understand how they have come to be as they are is guaranteed to keep you where you are.” Wondering how something came to be is now, particularly at this time of extreme global turmoil, equally, if not more important than simply learning what happened. We need kids who have a passion for inquiry, critical thinking and challenging conventional and longstanding views such that they truly engage important matters, not simply memorize them. In today’s Age of Information—when we can learn about most things by the simple click of a finger—, this is especially true.
Indeed, kids don’t need as much what; rather, if anything, they need to be creating their own content and worldviews; they need to be interacting with the world, starting with their fellow students and teacher; they need to be learning on the fly.
“The ultimate gift we can give the world is to grow our tiny humans into adult humans who are independent thinkers, compassionate doers, conscious questioners, radical innovators, and passionate peacemakers. Our world doesn’t need more adults who blindly serve the powerful because they’ve been trained to obey authority without question. Our world needs more adults who challenge and question and hold the powerful accountable.” ~ L.R. Knost
In valuing wonder, experiential learning, critical thinking, questioning and discussions more in education, as well as the instinctive wisdom and capacity of kids, it’s only natural that less emphasis would be placed on driving content and more on exploration and engagement. Or to use the words of early childhood educators, process would outweigh product. More space would open for mature, evolving perspectives, new ideas and bold leaders to emerge, ones the world cries out for more than ever. More room would be offered to kids to listen to themselves, and life, and in listening, determine their own curriculum, what matters to them.“Children have real understanding only of that which they invent themselves.” ~ Jean PiagetClick To Tweet
This shift would require teachers to have the courage to forgo their authority on knowledge in order to stand more in uncertainty with students, to question more and wonder with them. And it would require the leaders of the institution itself to take the risk to honestly and realistically re-evaluate what’s necessary—how much curriculum / structure is really needed—and determine, not just from rationale, but their hearts as well, what will best serve students, teachers and the world.
Less, they would discover, is much more!
Inspiring leaders of the new, emerging world
“Since the jobs that our preschoolers will do probably don’t exist yet, our priority is to teach them the skills to adapt and inquire and question and cooperate…life skills. So much more useful than rigid concepts such as the alphabet.” ~ Caroline Bellouse
We need to ask ourselves: What truly matters in today’s world? What will make a difference? What’s possible if kids spent more time outdoors exploring, interacting, playing, gathering the interpersonal skills increasingly recognized as valuable in workplaces and society as a whole? What might children discover if left to their own devices, to follow their impulses, to dream, wonder, collaborate and create as they wish to? How would the teacher’s role change if they could teach less and facilitate learning more, and with less structure restricting their capacity to improvise, follow and wonder? What skills and attitudes would be needed from facilitators? What is the balance between structure and flow needed to best optimize learning and joy? How much more joy would facilitators and students have?
“Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before.” ~ Loris Malaguzzi
It’s important to remind ourselves that the old factory model system of education, which the current public system models itself after, was built to create obedient, compliant workers for the burgeoning industrial economy of the late 1800’s. But that economy has been rapidly evolving for decades. In the next 20 years, as of 2017, it is estimated that 40% of jobs will be automated. The world we are preparing children for is not world that will exist when they graduate from high school. Many of the jobs that exist today will be gone tomorrow.
As this article suggests, “… the Canadian government has to figure out what to do with older workers whose skills are no longer sought after … the government must also think ahead to helping students upgrade their skills over the course of their careers — because what they learned in school isn’t going to remain as relevant as they think.”
The shift is happening. Jobs are increasingly rooted in creativity, imagination, innovation, collaboration, communication; in social and emotional intelligence; in people skills, skills that play, wonder, exploration, engagement, movement and time in nature teaches. The more mechanical, factory jobs are rapidly being taken over by automation.
“An analysis of 213 studies showed that students who received SEL (social and emotional learning) instruction had achievement scores that averaged 11 percentile points higher than those who did not. And SEL potentially leads to long-term benefits such as higher rates of employment and educational fulfillment.” ~ Jenny Soffel, World Economic Forum
What’s needed now is kids growing up listening to themselves—to what they wonder about, to the stirrings of their imagination and inner guidance, to what they can no longer tolerate in the world, to what they need and are passionate about. It is these intrinsically motivated individuals that will change the world for the better, ones who do not lose themselves in years of extrinsic motivation and the clutter of useless curriculum. It is people growing up attuned to their hearts, and the hearts of others, where imagination speaks and gifts are born from that will shift our planet for the better.
Our job now is to let kids lead far more than we ever have, and we do this, in part, by creating more space for them to be themselves. Indeed, to inspire kids to be the leaders of tomorrow, we have to let them lead today.To inspire kids to be the leaders of tomorrow, we have to let them lead today. ~ Vince GowmonClick To Tweet
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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults