Home > Uncategorized > What’s “useful” in education?

What’s “useful” in education?

In discussions of curriculum, it’s common to hear  assertions that students won’t use one element or another in required courses.  Chris Lehman makes such a point in the TEDx Philly talk that I included in my last post, asking his audience “How many of you have made a ‘Box-and-Whisker’ plot in the last year?”  And Grant Wiggins does it in his recent article, “A Diploma Worth Having,” when he writes, “We are on the verge of requiring every student in the United States to learn two years of algebra that they will likely never use…”

Such cheap shots don’t befit the fine arguments that both of these educators are making. Lehman does later acknowledge the value of the thought process behind seemingly arcane topics in math.  And Wiggins makes a fine argument about changing the emphasis in education.  I just don’t think the subject matter that adults use in daily life is a relevant standard.  One may not be working algebraic equations, but life is full of constants and variables and complicated relationships between them.  To have manipulated them in a rigorous, logical framework in math class empowers adults to analyze the situations they face.  (I have no evidence to support that statement, but I believe it’s readily available).

We could, of course, do a better job of helping students see the connections between real world challenges and the skills we’re teaching.  Adult life is inherently interdisciplinary.  To buy a house, for example, one uses math to evaluate mortgage options; visual/spatial skills to imagine one’s life in a given structure; interpersonal skills to relate to a realtor, inspector, and family members involved in the decision; and much more.  Such connections are rarely made for students in the disciplinary framework of schools.  Without undoing that framework, we could teach students more about using it to weave strands together.  (I’ve been teaching The Odyssey, so the weaving metaphor is on my mind).

Whenever people speak of educational content that goes unused in adult life, I think of my own experience with French.  I studied French in Durham Academy’s standard foreign language program from 5th to 12th grade.  (This program is essentially unchanged today, but more languages are offered; French was the only one in the 1970’s).  I’ve rarely had occasion to use French since graduating from high school, and I can point to no crucial moments in my life where French played a role.  An outside observer would probably put it in the “unused” category of my education.

Yet I would argue that French has been absolutely central to my life.  It was because I felt successful at it that I studied Spanish, however briefly, in college.  Familiarity with both languages contributed to my desire to travel after college.  When I found myself in Greece, I approached that language with confidence, determination, and rigor.  Without the money to pay for a course, I bought myself a book and worked through it,  reaching out to native speakers around me.  In Greece I discovered teaching, met my husband, and learned to look at the world through that different lens that only comes from immersion in another language and culture.

Who I am today comes in significant part from high school French.

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