Saturday, March 16, 2019

Stop Teaching Skills That Disappear

I recently had the opportunity to watch the educational documentary, Most Likely to Succeed by Ted Dintersmith. It's a pretty powerful video.  While there were dozens of ideas that struck me during the viewing, there was one particular idea that I keep circling back to.

I understand that we all have a curriculum to teach and standards to align our instruction to, but I think we need to ask ourselves some tough questions about what exactly we are teaching.

Are we teaching students things that stay with them or are we teaching them things that disappear?

If you really think hard about this, it might be a game-changing question for you.

My son is in first grade and every Friday he has a spelling test, a vocabulary quiz, and a reading test. Don't get me started on the fact that a 6 year old has already deemed Fridays as "test days".  He knows about the 5-day death march that we trudge through week after week.

Luckily, he doesn't have to study a lot for these tests, as he has strong literacy skills. But, imagine if he didn't.  Some students have to study for 4 or 5 tests every Friday.  Let's think about what it is that he is learning. He gets a set of spelling words on Monday and then is tested at the end of the week.  Once Friday comes and goes, that knowledge also goes. While he will apply spelling patterns in the future, he'll never have to regurgitate that list again.  Why have we created these routines in education?

Consider a similar situation in an upper level math class.  Our students memorize formulas for the big test and then throw that information away once it has served its purpose.  I fear that we are forcing our students to consume information that they will never use again. What if we taught students things that stuck with them, like how to work in a group or how to think flexibly about a problem. What if our lessons focused on how to communicate with others and confidently present an idea. Then we would be equipping students with skills for life, the skills that don't disappear on Friday or any day a year or two from now. 

We wonder why kids say--when am I ever going to use this?  It's because we are teaching them things that will disappear--likely sooner than later.  How can we change that trajectory?

Connect with kids--Every conversation we have with our students allows us to model the importance of relationships. The interactions we have and the stories we tell shows students that people matter.  Their words matter. That is a life lesson that won't fade away throughout their schooling.

Design tasks that matter--Rethink your instruction and create tasks that push student thinking and force them to tap into skills that don't disappear like grit, empathy, and perseverance.  Memorized skills and rote repetition won't stick with your students much beyond Friday's test. Opt for learning experiences that will expand creativity and equip them to solve problems.  These are tools that will help them in any class, job, or life experience.

Provide a purpose-Learning a topic "because we have to" or taking a test on Friday out of habit are not good enough reasons for me.  Tell your students why they are learning what they are learning. Define the purpose and make sure it's a good one!  Provide students with the reasons behind the content they are learning. 

When we provide a purpose, connect with kids, and design tasks that matter, we are building knowledge within our learners that won't fade away over time.  We can give them a foundation for learning that will stick with them and show them the value in this thing we call school.

This week, reflect on what you are teaching and assessing.  Are you focused on skills for Friday or skills for the future? Teach your students the things that won't disappear.  

Share a comment below about your reflection. 

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