Monday, October 11, 2010

What Should Students Know and Be Able To Do?

(Cross-posted at The Huffington Post.)

I'm a teacher. A parent. A citizen. Those are the lenses I view teaching and learning, educators and students, education and school through. That doesn't make me an expert, and I don't have all the answers, but I think I have some good questions, so let's get started with one of those questions.

This is the question that educators are constantly asking themselves.
What should students know and be able to do?
It gets back to an old argument in education, the argument about which is more important -- content or skills. Like most teachers I've talked with, I think that's a false dichotomy. I want both. I want students to know some content and have the skills to be able to use their knowledge. I don't want them to just "cover" the material, I want them to uncover their own understanding, and to think critically about the content.

My bias, however, is that too often in schools we err too much on the side of content. I once heard Cris Tovani, a wonderful reading teacher in Colorado, say,
Yeah, as a teacher I can cover my curriculum. I can get to that finish line. But often when I get to that finish line and look around, I'm all by myself.
That's even more true today, when we live in a rapidly changing, information abundant world. We live in exponential times. There's just too much content out there. As Eric Hoffer said,
In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.
He said that more than thirty years ago, and I think most of us would agree that the pace of change has only increased since then.

Schools were designed for an age when information was scarce, when students came to school because that's where the information was. It was in the textbook, it was in the teacher's head, and -- if they were lucky and had a good library -- it was in the additional resources the school library provided. But now, now we live in an information abundant world. I don't hear many people complaining that they don't have enough information (although they may complain about the quality of that information), yet schools are still designed around the concept that this is where you go to get information. That needs to change.

Which leads, I think, to an even more basic question. A question I think that, despite all the education reform lately, we haven't really talked much about.
What's the purpose of school? Is the primary purpose of school to meet the needs of society, or to meet the needs of the students?
There's a strong argument to be made that since society is investing so many resources into educating the young, that schools should be designed to meet the needs of society. After all, if schools don't meet the needs of society, why should society support them? This is the argument that is currently in fashion.

But I'd like to suggest an alternative, that the primary purpose of school should be to meet the needs of the individual. That if we meet the individual needs of students, we will ultimately meet the needs of all students. And if we truly meet the needs of all students, we will then meet the needs of society. I think this has always been the case, but it's even more important in a rapidly changing, information abundant world, a world where society doesn't even know what its needs are going to be in five years, much less in thirteen (for K-12 education) or longer (if you include post-secondary education).

This is a problem for many of the current school reform discussions because, despite the rhetoric about leaving no child behind and racing to the top, they rely on a standardized view of success, a one size fits all approach. I think individual students are different, and to ignore that fact is to deny the evidence that is all around us, at least if you ever met more than one kid.

No, I'm not talking about lowering expectations. I think we can have high standards without being standardized. Standardized curricula create standardized minds. Standardized minds create collateral debt obligations and credit default swaps. You know all those folks on Wall Street aced their standardized tests. They were the best and the brightest, the success stories from our schools, at least by our current definition of success in schools. Yet clearly there must be more to success than just those test scores.

So, I would suggest we need to slightly modify the question we ask ourselves as educators. Instead, perhaps we should be asking,
What should this student know and be able to do?
I think the addition of just one word might just make all the difference.


  1. I loved the post, one of your best yet!!

  2. Karl- Interesting quote "What should this student know and be able to do?". I love the idea in theory. Yet, in practice, until school wide testing percentages of passage and failure are not published in the newspaper to proclaim the success (or lack thereof) of all the teachers, administrators, and workers in a school or district...we are forced to chunk all kids together. "No Child Left Behind" is not about the single child.

  3. Great post Karl - this is the article I will send will send to colleagues and friends who want to know alternatives to "Superman."

    Having experienced first-hand the effectiveness of cognitive diversity in the engineering/startup workplace, I agree with your critique of the "standardized mind." In my search for a more robust reasoning behind that observation, I recently found a book called "The Difference" by Scott Page. He discusses the reasons why, for hard problems that have no single correct solution, cognitive diversity trumps narrow ability every time.

  4. Your post sums up the importance of differentiated learning perfectly.

  5. "Yeah, as a teacher I can cover my curriculum. I can get to that finish line. But often when I get to that finish line and look around, I'm all by myself."

    I loved that you pulled this quite out from Tovani to quote. It is so true about how we used to teach and what we are trying to move away from. As a consultant for our board of education I run workshops trying to get teachers to see that things have changed - it's not about us anymore. It's about the students and trying to get them to the finish line.