What do we need to know?

I keep circling back to this question of what do we need to know, or to learn. It comes up so often in conversations around education and is closely connected to what we hope to achieve for our students. It is a question whose answer shapes not only what we teach but how we teach and what we assess. It strikes at the heart of how we perceive the role of education in society and the way we answer it reveals much about our personal philosophy of education. 

In preparing for a presentation I sought out ideas that support the need to teach for agency. I wanted to understand and to demonstrate why teaching our students to identify with their capacity for goal directed action. Peter Johnston offers this advice “If nothing else, children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals”. Clearly Peter’s priorities for education are that it might achieve something other than a headful of knowledge. Ryan and Deci are inspiring and aspirational when they describe "The fullest representations of humanity show people to be curious, vital, and self-motivated. At their best, they are agentic and inspired, striving to learn; extend themselves; master new skills; and apply their talents responsibly.” Spending a little time unpacking this reveals significant implications for education. What are the conditions required to encourage our young people to strive to learn, to want to extend themselves and to master new skills? How do we spark their curiosity and what role does self-motivation play within systems of rules, rewards and external assessments?

Deanna Kuhn asks to consider the questions we ask about how we teach in her article ‘Is direct instruction an Answer to the Right question?’. She argues that it is more important for us to look at what we teach than how we teach it. In debating against advocates for direct instruction, Kuhn indicates the importance of understanding the factors which motivate our students to be learners and to be clear on what skills/dispositions they will require: "the only defensible answer to the question of what we want schools to accomplish is that they should teach students to use their minds well, in school and beyond.”  Kuhn indicates the role of motivation in determining what we might attempt to teach our students and the need for them to see the value in what they learn. More than just the acquisition of knowledge long term success in learning comes from the individuals efforts to attach meaning and value to what is learned.  Kuhn proposes "that the most defensible educational goals are those that pertain to mental self-management—taking charge of one’s own learning—and coming to value learning and knowing and one’s self as learner and knower.”

In ‘Creating Cultures of Thinking’ Ron Ritchhart asks the question "What do you want the children we are teaching in our schools today to be like as adults?”. The common responses focus on dispositions and personal values which have little connection with basic skills or acquired knowledge. They are qualities of individuals who are confident in their capacity to learn and to grow, to interact with others positively and to communicate effectively. These are the so called soft-skills of the 21st Century, the ones which are difficult to assess. 

"curious , inquisitive, questioning, creative, problem solvers, risk takers, imaginative, and inquisitive, collaborative, empathetic, good listeners, helpful,
able to deal with complexity, analysers, makers of connections, critical thinkers, global citizens, members of a community, someone aware of his or her impact on the environment, effective communicators, compassionate, joyful"

For a long time our educational systems served the needs of society well. A structured and disciplined system of lessons and practice, based on a well defined curriculum prepared a workforce ready for the routines of the workplace. Employers knew what to expect from graduates and little other than a foundation in the three Rs of 'reading, writing and arithmetic' was all that was expected. The average graduate would be in the workplace for many years before they might be expected to think for themselves a reality assured by suitably defined policies and procedures. This is the world of dystopian representations of workers as little more than cogs in the machinery of industry and the rationale behind Pink Floyd’s assertion “that we don’t need no education”. 

'What do we need to know to pass the test?' might be the question students learn to ask from their time at school. The unavoidable exit slips that educational systems impose on learning. The need to assess the years of learning and to rank students as they move beyond schooling. Do these assessments reveal learners who are agentic and inspired, striving to learn; extend themselves; master new skills or do they capture our performance at one brief moment in time. What are the messages we send to our students about learning with systems that serve purposes seemingly at odds with the purposes for learning?

When we ask what should we teach? or what do we need to learn?, we unconsciously shape our thinking about education. The question itself impedes progress towards a focus on long-life skills and the empowerment of learners. It directs us to lists of content, to skills we can assess, to learning that becomes connected to the purposes of others. We need to ask better questions; ones which are linked to the cultures we create within our schools, to the dispositions and values we immerse our students in and to the conversations around learning that we might hope to inspire. It seems we are clear in what we hope to achieve but tied to our past by the questions we ask. 

Johnston, P.  (2004) - Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning. Stenhouse Publishers

Kuhn, D. (2007). Is direct instruction an answer to the right question? Educational Psychologist, 42(2), 109- 113. 

Ritchhart, R. (2015) Creating cultures of thinking: The eight forces we must truly master to transform our schools. SanFrancisco: Josey-Bass  

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.



by Nigel Coutts