Random Thoughts

When did content trump learning?

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I know it sounds like such a stupid question….and maybe content has always trumped actual learning but I continue to find myself in conversations that end with:

“I’d love to do so much more, but we have to cover all this content and I just don’t have time.”

Why is that? Why is content…which is now available anywhere and everywhere still what we feel like we have to do as teachers. I hate to say it but I think I got out of the classroom just in the nick of time. I would be considered a horrible teacher today. We use to go off on tangents in my classroom that could last for weeks. Somebody would bring something up and we’d run with it asking questions, answering questions and find ourselves in a whole other place be the time we were done. Off topic? Yes. Fun? Absolutely! Did we learn anything? More than I could have imagined!

But it seems today at all grade levels we’re so focused on covering content for this test, or by that date, that learning…..real true deep learning gets skipped over. Personally I find that very depressing.

Yes….I’m afraid I’d be a bad teacher today. I’d be the person who’d close their door so that nobody else could see that I wasn’t “on task” and yet my students would be among the most connected in the school. Our learning would revolve around what my school is calling it’s Definition of Learning:

Our learners develop knowledge, skills, and attitudes by connecting prior learning to new experiences.  The most significant learning generates increased understanding and can be seen in our expanded capacities to analyze, synthesize, reflect, apply and communicate our new learnings in a variety of situations.  At ISB, we recognize learning as a life-long adventure.

I could almost garuntee we wouldn’t cover the “curriculum” but we’d learn a lot about a lot of things and have a heck of a lot of fun figuring it all out together.

I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


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  4. I am so impressed with your school’s definition of learning. It definitely should be a life-long adventure. Learning is part of being human, yet we focus so much on content that we actually squelch the learning process. At the same time, our students can be stuck in old paradigms of teaching and learning. I recently had a student say of my teaching, “she doesn’t teach, but I learn a lot in her class.” They expect to be passive learners. I took that as a compliment. So, in my opinion, it’s great to be a “bad” teacher.

  5. I think in a formal educational setting, content WAS learning when general information outside of one’s realm of first-hand knowledge was hard to attain – like back in the days of one-room schoolhouses. The two (content and learning) have diverged significantly over the last 100 years, but we’re still largely stuck in a several-century-old educational rut.

    I am a parent, so a teacher in that role, but not a teacher in a school setting. As a parent, I have MUCH more freedom when it comes to the education of my children. Unfortunately, school teachers are put in an untenable position. Not only does content trump learning, but politics trump progress. Teachers are virtually required to teach to tests and focus on narrow content standards to keep their jobs and livelihoods. Creativity is not rewarded in “real life.”

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  7. “There is a world of difference between the modern home environment of integrated electric information and the classroom. Today’s… child is attuned to up-to-the-minute “adult” news… and is bewildered when he enters the nineteenth century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns, subjects, and schedules. It is naturally an environment much like any factory set-up with its inventories and assembly lines.”

    -Marshall McLuhan… writing in 1967


  8. Jeff – such a good and timely post!! You’re right – by focusing on content, we are focusing on the “nouns” of what students need to know, which, as you stated, is so easily accessed on the Web. By doing so, students are paying the price by not learning what you DO with content…the VERB of how to grapple with incoming knowledge and ideas.

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  12. Jeff,
    I’ve always thought the same thing. A wise friend of mine a few years ago back in Canada said to me, “Cover the curriculum? The only thing that we should be covering the curriculum with…is dirt.”

    And I 100% agree. Teachers these days get so inundated with content…and expectations…and everything else that we tend to lose our real focus in teaching.

    Dirt really is valuable.

  13. Jeff,
    Great question! As you know, I am an International Baccalaureate (IB) teacher–and all of us who teach IB (whatever the discipline) have a ton of content to cover. My content extends over four semesters, and then culminates in an exam that is worth 50% of the student’s final grade.

    I can honestly and enthusiastically say that the IB curriculum offers “content” that is amazing! But do we have time to “go off on tangents” where often the most learning takes place, where we can spend extra time with, say, a poem, where individual students have those “Ah ha!” moments. The answer is very, very little.

    I don’t think that “content” and “learning” are necessarily mutually exclusive. But they do often contend (duh!). We need to creatively collaborate in order to find ways to make “content” and “learning” symbiotic–and I’d be willing to bet that with creative collaboration (IB teachers working with non-IB teachers working with administrators working with Ed Tech Specialists working with librarians) we could make that happen.

    It would be worth a try!

    • I agree that content and learning are not mutually exclusive, but I continually hear teachers who have to give up learning to cover the content. I understand has a student goes through education that more and more classes focus on content. But when I’m hearing the same thing from a 3rd grade teacher as I’m hearing from an High Level IB teacher I get very concerned. 🙁

    • Interestingly, I’ve found the IB to be particularly suited to teaching learning *over* content in both IB Film and IB Art. Both classes assess the students’ vision; the specific content that forms the basis for this vision can be introduced by the teacher, but it can be introduced by the student as well. Both classes allow a great deal of latitude for what is covered.

      I think your point about ‘creative collaboration’ hits the mark exactly! I’ve found that what works best for my classes is (aiming towards) a collaboration between myself and the students, or my class and other classes like mine outside the school in introducing content.

  14. Hello,
    Jeff your post has evaluated the true meanings of teaching and learning. I guess we are putting much effort in teaching tenses not the real concept that should be made to understand. Wendy is correct they are passive learners and as teachers we should seek ways to make them learn. Thanks for bringing such a point of discussion which you have called a stupid question

  15. Given that most schools here are so afraid of either not making AYP or getting off of AYP, it is tough to sell them on doing what they know in their hearts is right. Not being constrained by NCLB gives you a lot of freedom to focus on what we all should be focussing on-Learning! Unfortunately, Obama and Duncan don’t appear to be leading us in the right direction…

    • I agree…and I think this is why as tech people we feel like we have “sale” ourselves and our ideas because it doesn’t usually have to do with content but rather learning. We still have tests whether it be the IB Exams or the SAT students are focused on passing those tests. So although we don’t have NCLB (which is one of the reasons I love being overseas) we still have this pressure to cover content that students will be tested on. I have no issue with the IB Learner Profiles if only we were able to assess students on these profiles of a learner rather than the content I think the IB would be revolutionary.

  16. We met this week to curriculum map which is a good thing. the bad of it will come when assessments are added and then evaluated (we are talking state tests here) to see if there is learning. With so much “content” I can see it driving to learning stuff still and the “what do we do with it” will be an afterthought. I see this as a slow train wreck.

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