Thanks for nothing, Mrs. Clark, or What’s important to teach?

As people have been hunkered down at home during the Covid-19 epidemic and parents have been smacked in the face with the difficulties of trying to keep children productively employed in confined spaces for hour after hour, I’ve been thinking about Mrs. Clark.

Mrs. Clark was my high school English teacher. I clearly remember two things from her classes.

First, I remember that when she talked about fiction, Mrs. Clark said the details a novelist chooses are important. To illustrate that concept, she said that when she did dishes, there was always one spoon left in the bottom of the dish pan after she thought she’d finished washing up.

 

kitchen sink with single spoon in it
Sure enough, just as Mrs. Clark said, there’s a spoon left in the sink.

I don’t recall what novels we had to read in Mrs. Clark’s classes other than Lord of the Flies and I’m pretty sure is there was no dish-washing scene in  that. Nonetheless, what Mrs. Clark taught, stuck with me. I probably remember her a couple times a month when I do dishes and find a spoon left in the bottom of the dish pan after I think I’ve finished washing up.

I also remember that Mrs. Clark taught us to spell cemetery.

Mrs. Clark said that if you went by a cemetery on a dark night, you might cry, “E-e-e.” That mnemonic came in handy after the death of my uncle’s widowed second wife’s second husband when I emailed my sister to report that I had gone to the funeral and to the cemetery to represent our family. That was about 50 years after Mrs. Clark had taught me to spell cemetery, and I hadn’t forgotten.

Mrs. Clark taught well. Her mnemonic stuck with me for 50+ years.

I also hadn’t needed to spell cemetery any other time in those 50 years.

And this is the first time I’ve needed to spell cemetery since.

Why think about Mrs. Clark now?

When the children who are confined at home during this epidemic look back in years to come, I wonder what they’ll have learned from the experience.

What will kids learn now from the pandemic and afterwards in school?

Will it be something they will use just once in 70 years?

Or something worthless they remember vividly?

And when the epidemic is history and they get back to school, what will they learn there?

Will it be something they will use just once in 70 years, or something worthless they remember vividly?

Or might it be something they use day in and day out for the rest of their lives?

While we’re hunkering down in our homes, waiting out the Covid-19 epidemic, let’s use some of this time to think about what we can teach students that will have every-day-all-their-lives significance.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Learning to relearn in a digital world

There are three main types of knowledge that can be taught and learned in schools:

  • Content: facts, concepts, and processes that are the stuff of instruction
  • Tools: classes of devices (including software) used to manipulate, remodel, re-purpose, and re-imagine facts, concepts, and processes.
  • Skills: procedures required to use those tools efficiently and effectively.

Of the three types of knowledge, skills are the most important for teachers to teach and students to learn.

Content expires quickly

Having content at one’s fingertips is probably useful for people who create bubble tests, but for most people remembering the factual material taught in school isn’t useful in the long term.

Content is primarily information we can look up as needed. Content is just stuff: It comes and becomes obsolete faster than entries in the Urban Dictionary.

For example, for decades there were nine planets. Then Pluto was demoted for not being good enough, and we bought T-shirts saying “In my day there were nine planets.”  Two years later, scientists found what they think may be a genuine planet at the edge of our solar system. Overnight our knowledge and our T-shirts were obsolete.

Similarly, this years’ PD on mindfulness and PBL will be replaced by PD on some other buzzwords and acronyms next year.

Tools become obsolete

In the last 30 years, the tools we’ve used to work with facts, concepts, and processes have become outdated almost as quickly as our content.

For example, the entire tool class known as word processors emerged and disappeared in a quarter of a century.  (If you remember using stand-alone word processors, you probably should be reviewing your Medicare coverage options for 2017 instead of reading this post)

Search engine AltaVista  and web host GeoCities—big names in the information sector 20 years ago—have become Jeopardy questions for nerds. Yahoo, which purchased both companies, seems to also be disappearing into technology’s sinkhole.

In five years we may be asking each other, “Do you remember when we used Twitter and Canva?”

Skills have durability

In the midst of all the degradable knowledge in our information age, skills still have remarkable staying power.

Chances are, if you learned how to use AltaVista in the ’90s, you learned how to use at least one other search engine since then.

If you created websites with GeoCities back in the ’90s, you probably have learned how to use several tools for creating websites and digital presentations since then.

Certainly, many tool-specific skills that were essential 20 years ago have practically disappeared—using a card catalog, writing a paper check, or operating a mimeograph machine are skills the under-20 population has not experienced—but the meta skills for retrieving information, transferring money, and making printed duplicates of written material have not changed.

Twitter may die off, but people will still use tools for interpersonal communication across distances.

The ability to learn to use a new digital tool with which to manipulate content to produce original outputs is a learning skill that can transfer from old tool to emerging tool and from old content to new content.

In my next post, I’ll explore what we need to teach (and what we shouldn’t bother to teach) to enable students to become good re-learners.


If you’re one of the 1,200+ people who subscribe to this blog by email (you wonderful people!) or one of the equally wonderful people who pick it up through RSS or through postings on Twitter or LinkedIn, you know that skill learning is one of my soapbox issues. Here are some of my earlier posts on the topic:

Reflections on learning from work experiences

Learning when those who can, teach

Work experience as education

Use your bloomin’ mind; get some bloomin’ skills

 

Teachers should set teaching content

Teachers wail that the Common Core State Standards don’t tell them what to teach.

And they are right.

The Common Core State Standards are educational objectives: they specify what students have to be able to do with knowledge, not what specific facts they need.

The business of deciding what information students need to know to get to the objective is a job for professionals.

That means it’s a job for teachers.

Teachers need to figure out the minimum information they must teach to enable students to do higher level learning. The authors of A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing (the revised Bloom’s taxonomy) stress that students can learn complex processes without first memorizing the terminology experts use to discuss those processes.

It’s perfectly fine for students to talk about this thing and that thing until they learn how this thing and that thing work together to make the rocket go up.

If Josh and Caitlin want to go into STEM fields and build rockets, they’ll have to learn the terms that people in STEM fields use for this thing and that thing. But they do not need to memorize those terms in elementary school to enable them to learn what makes a rocket soar.

Don’t leave the work of deciding what information students need to know to bureaucrats.

It’s a job for teaching professionals.

Are you professional enough to do it?

[Link to material no longer available removed 04-03-2014.]