Educating for the unknown- what’s worth learning?

David Perkins from Harvard University was another keynote speaker at the Singapore conference.

He put the proposition that a lot of what goes on in schools is educating for the known – we teach lots of information – spelling rules or maths equations or history often decided by state wide curriculum or in textbooks – not that it’s not worth knowing but the information and skill list is endless.

So who decides on what to learn?

It’s generally accepted that we live in a complex and changing world  with transportation, communication and bological revolutions. Life is also becoming more demanding and the concepts that the world is becoming smaller and flatter [refer Friedman] means there is a need to develop a sense of world citizenship and responsible activism around ecology or poverty.

Perkins argued that not only do we have an achievement gap but now we have a relevance gap. What’s important for students to know, to understand and is empowering to take action.  

His solution was to reframe topics to bring out their flexpertise which he defines as ideas central to disciplines but used to proactively understand the world. We pick the richest topics first, work in some of the others, just touch on some and drop the rest. So what about the outcry – when you drop [i.e. bike education or quadratic equations?]. He suggested thinking about what you really wanted to keep and decide what to do with the rest. 

David was clear that we need to decide what the choice means in the local context and go forward with a vision of the future of knowledge. He finished with an acknowledgement that these are hard problems to solve with entrenched interests and traditions to keep the conventional curricula in place.

So what do I think? His argument about relevance gaps goes in some ways to the heart of some student disengagement. The unspoken words of students why do I need to learn this are important to hear. As a principal I am responsible to ensure a balanced curricula but sometimes I wonder do we reflect enough about our curricula content and structure challenging tasks to promote world citizenship and responsible activism?

We have a framework based on key understandings in the statewide curriculum [VELS] and developed with support from Kath Murdoch a series of throughlines [refer Tina Blyth’s works from Project Zero] which connect the individual class inquires over the 7 years of primary school. But do we look enough at the world issues and use flexpertise to decide what’s most important to learn in our context?

Boy – do we educators need some time and feedback, both student, parent and research to make content decisions on a yearly basis. Lots more reflection needed here and it does make you wonder if others are pondering a relevance gap?

Bottom line – “Just accept that gap and get on with it tackling it”.    




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5 Responses to Educating for the unknown- what’s worth learning?

  1. mwalker says:

    I looked at the predictions about universities with some interest, as you know I’m currently at university studying for my Masters.

    Point 2 about innovative use of technology, point 4 being a mixture of online and on campus classes and point 10 about more use of online resources rather than textbooks is my currently reality.

    My Masters course uses 3 blogs, an online discussion forum for a week, assignments posted online with student feedback posted and an expectation of a wiki or blog to share your research as examples of innovative use of technology.

    Our course has a small element of online classes with students using webex technology to log into classes remotely.

    We also use lots of online resources with only a few textbooks per term. Each textbook is around $60 – $80 so this is still an expensive component.

    So the summary is universities from my experience are certainly usding technology in innovative ways as suggested by your reference.


  2. I found this interesting blog post on ’25 Predictions for the University of the Future’ which I though may be of interest to readers of this entry and others readers of Mark’s blog

  3. mwalker says:

    Thanks Jenny for the comment.

    Yes I agree its what’s relevant to learn that’s important – and how will we know if they understand the deeper connecting concepts beyond literal reacll as you refer to – is another.

    One of the challenges we face is making the time to reflect on that question of relevance as we sit and review the unit of work or inquiry as we refer to it.

    I have nearly completed reading Elmore’s latest work “Instructional Rounds” and he continues to say that unless the task we ask of students is challenging, and I might add stretches their zone of proximal development as Patrick Griffin from Melbourne University explained the other day, then we will continue to get what you refer to as the literal knowledge coming out.

    Speaking about Patrick Griffin he also challenged me in thinking about my school culture when we referred to teams who do make the time to reflect but just shared their reflections – “the culture of safe” – that unless we learn to challenge, to probe one anothers commments deeply, to trust and learn from one another then we might never bridge that relevance gap.

    Some work to do. Thanks for the comment and feel free to share the site.

  4. Jenny Ashby says:

    Hello Mark,

    I have been directed to your blog from I didn’t know where to put my comment but as it’s more directed to your wonderful blog I thought I would post it here.

    I will be forwarding your blog to others so I hope you don’t mind. Your writing brings together so many players in the educational setting that I have read and say, “Oh yes” However the way you link others into your writing will be a terrific way for my staff to read others thoughts but in context. And we know learning is in context.

    What to teach and not to teach? Perhaps it should be what to learn and not to learn? Students already make this decision and tune in and out of the day. Relevance is a predominant criteria and so part of our role is to share the relevance of learning everything. Students need to know why we are learning everything. We have a greater knowledge of the world from our lives and have gathered relevance from hindsight that students do not yet have. Do teachers think why are we learning this or are they just teaching what they learned? Teachers need to ask is this relevant today? Why or why not?

    As well as relevance in learning a the shift is needed to change from literal knowledge consumption to the use of challenging questions that need the input from literal knowledge to be answered. It’s not the facts that are important but what we do with the facts.

    Many thanks for your writing I now have another source of inspiration,

    Cheers from Jenny Ashby

  5. Arsento says:

    I added your blog to bookmarks. And i’ll read your articles more often!

Interested in your thoughts