Among education bloggers and the Tweeters who promote them, a couple of ideas have been breaking out in pixels regularly over the last year or so.

One that seems to get a lot of retweets is the idea that students don’t actually need to know information because knowledge is available everywhere. This position, summarized in a post at gigaom, holds that the teacher’s role is to teach students to think, get them to ask questions, and spark passion for the discipline.

That seems to me to be a good idea until I try to figure out how it would work.

- How would a teacher go about sparking passion for his/her discipline without presenting information about that discipline?
- Can students be taught to think and ask good questions without having some information to think about?
- Are teachers who have been brought up on putting information into their notebooks to be transfered to test papers later likely to be willing and able to teach without packaged content?

I can see how teachers in the arts and technical, hands-on fields might be able to spark a passion in some students by having students work along with them. Painters and plumbers, for example, might raise up disciples without resorting to presentation of information first. Could physicians and paleontologists? I somehow doubt it.

Another idea ricocheting around the Twitterverse is the idea that teachers should allow students to learn what they need to know by pursuing the subjects that interest them most. [Non-working link removed 2014-05-08]

That also seems like a good idea until I try to figure out how it would work.

The concept presupposes that the teacher knows what students need to know.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that teachers have accurate knowledge of what students must know. (Teachers cannot predict with certainty what today’s third graders will need to know at age 23, but they should have a fairly good idea of what today’s high school senior will need to know the first week of August.)

How would a high school teacher English teacher with five classes averaging 25 students go about individualizing instruction so each of those 125 students is allowed to read and write on whatever interests them most and ensure that all 125 wind up knowing the essentials?

My guess is that most English teachers became English teachers because they followed their passion. As a result they are likely to be too narrowly prepared to be able to help more than a handful of students develop essential knowledge, however that’s defined.

Not only does the second argument presume that teachers know what students need to know, it presumes that students know themselves fairly well. How many high school kids really know what they want to do with their lives? How many will change their minds once or twice when they get to college? Or even choose to pursue a second career later in life?

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Good point. It never occurred to me to expect students to be interested in something that had any real life value. I’m either way too cynical or way too stupid.

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Have you tried it?

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If you’re asking me whether I’ve deliberately set out to spark passion among students in some subject, the answer is no. My teaching has mainly been first year college composition. I taught writing as a tool students could apply in whatever work or avocational interests they had. I’ve had a few students with some genuine writing talent, but none with a desire to be a writer. I figure I’ve done my job by giving them skills and confidence to develop their talents later on if they chose.

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