When designing student learning, what questions guide us?

We ask lots of questions as we plan for our student's learning. Some of the questions we ask are about where they are with their learning. These are the questions that we answer with information from assessments combined with our professional judgement and our interactions with our students. Some of the questions are about what our students need to learn next. These are the questions where continuums such as those described within the curriculum provide us with guidance. We combine this prescribed continuum with our knowledge of learning and learners to decide where we hope to take our learners in their learning journey. Some of the questions we ask involve our understanding of the world beyond our classrooms and our thinking about the skills and dispositions which will be of most value to our students in their tomorrows.

But perhaps we miss one important question along the way. Maybe we should be asking questions about how our students will apply what they learn?

David Perkins describes the ‘uppity question’ that students ask; “Why do I have to learn this?”. Often the answer is something along the lines of ‘it will be on the test’ or ‘you will need this as an adult’. The truth we know is that much of what we teach is at best infrequently used and while it may be on the test, the students would be right to counter our argument with ‘why is it on the test?’. The typical response to this line of thinking is to reconsider what we are teaching so that when we tell our students 'that this learning will matter in the lives they are likely to live’, we are confident that it will be.

But maybe we can strive to avoid the question altogether. Maybe we can plan for learning experiences where the utility of what is taught becomes self-evident.

Some of the learning situations that our students engage in have such clear relevance that the question ‘why do I have to learn this?’ is never asked. Consider a situation where a student is developing a solution to a problem that matters to them. Maybe the student is making something through a design thinking methodology. From developing an understanding of the problem, through a process of ideation and prototyping the student’s efforts are clearly linked to a problem that matters to them. Along the way they undoubtedly find themselves requiring new skills and knowledge in areas which may not be immediately associated with the problem they set out to solve. Perhaps they need to budget for resources, communicate their ideas with collaborators, research related concepts and phenomenon. This secondary learning has meaning because of the part it plays in the primary task.

Other learning tasks reveal their relevance in other ways. A teacher who reveals their passion for a subject invites their students to share in that interest. When we find a topic engaging, beautiful, powerful and share our emotional connection to the learning with our students we remove the sense that it is merely content to be learned for its future utility. Learning that is situated in a context of social connections and relationships takes on a meaning that brings immediate relevance.

Another path is to reveal the empowerment that comes with a new skill or understanding. Telling our students that 'knowledge is power’ will not suffice, they need to be shown how the knowledge and skills they acquire empowers them. Learning to analyse poetry so that one can write an essay on the evolution of the sonnet has little meaning but being shown how poetry serves to ignite powerful emotions in the reader or provide an avenue towards self-enlightenment might spark an interest. With the right start, the learner can be invited to participate in a process of evolving and fine tuning their skills and expanding their repertoire such that they are increasingly empowered by the knowledge they possess.

Increasingly in contemporary times we understand that our students need not wait for adulthood before they apply their learning to real-world purposes. The young entrepreneur who transforms and idea into a business reveals the presence in society of new opportunities. Innovative ideas no longer require the backing of big-business to succeed. Small-scale, grass-roots projects baked by crowd funding and low-volume manufacturing techniques or purely-digital solutions allow anyone with an idea to capture new markets. Social media brings new avenues and youth activism is revealing itself as a powerful agent for change. Young people are not waiting to achieve voting age before finding their political voice. When students learn about global issues such as climate change, poverty or gender inequality they are able to take action and discover their agency. Education needs to keep pace with these trends and recognise that it has a part to play in training both political actors and the next generation of industrialists to use their power in responsible ways.

These new opportunities for students to apply their learning immediately bring with them new challenges. Once, education was like filling a bucket with water in the hope that it may one day be used to fight a fire or nurture a garden. Today our students are using their knowledge, skills and dispositions to solve problems and achieve goals that were once the preserve of adults. It was sufficient in the past to teach the skills of persuasive writing and leave learning about the consequences of its use in achieving political goals for later. This is no longer a safe strategy and we have seen repeated examples of young people who have found themselves in the midst of a political storm for which they have little or no preparation. What are the understandings children need to navigate these waters and what opportunities might schools provide for students to experiment safely in this new territory? Clearly there is a new set of questions to be asked about what we might teach our students.

By Nigel Coutts