What If Schools Created a Culture of “Do” INSTEAD of a Culture of “Know?”

Here at Educon yesterday, I had the chance to learn a bit more about design thinking from David Jakes

David's central point was that schools and teachers often get stuck in a "Yeah, but…" mindset when thinking about change. Instead of dreaming about what's possible — taking a "What if" stance towards the challenges standing in our way — we're all too ready to trip over the hurdles in front of us without even attempting to jump. 

David asked each table group to come up with a "What if" question spotlighting a more positive — and possible — future for classrooms and then to break that question down into the tangible steps that schools and teachers would need to take in order to move towards that future.

Here's a graphic organizer detailing what Kristen Swanson, Patrick Larkin, Larry Fliegelman and I came up with:

(click to enlarge)



Our key question is a good one, isn't it? 

What IF schools created a culture of "DO" instead of a culture of "KNOW?" Doesn't that action-oriented stance reflect the kind of real-world learning environment that we know resonates with kids? 

More importantly, don't we WANT kids who see themselves as living, breathing contributors to the world around them rather than simply as little people locked away behind our walls waiting to be released?

Of course, we'd have to work to take active steps to redefine almost everything about our schools if a culture of "Do" is really going to be possible.  Grading will need to change — from a focus on content mastery to a focus on demonstration of an ability to apply content in novel situations.

Purchasing and budget decisions would have to change — from a commitment to buying containers holding content (read: textbooks) to a commitment to giving kids opportunities to interact with their worlds. 

The rules that govern how kids advance from one grade level to the next would need to change — from an emphasis on hours spent in seats to an emphasis on the use of artifacts to prove levels of mastery that we're comfortable with.

So this all sounds great, right — but how do you move forward with what seems like such a significant change?

That depends on your role in the system.  As a principal, Larry was ready to start rethinking purchasing decisions starting on Monday morning, placing an emphasis on spending that encouraged doing instead of just knowing. 

Patrick — also a principal — was ready to begin moving towards creating a separate track in his high school that parents who were interested in a "doing" experience for their kids could opt into, knowing that it would be non-traditional in almost every way. 

Kristen and I are convinced that most teachers could begin creating learning opportunities that allowed our kids to work independently — and interdependently — on meaningful tasks without much trouble.

The key point — as David would argue — is that EVERYONE needs to move forward.  Find a step you can take tomorrow.  Find a step that you take a week from now.  A month from now.  A year from now.

But move forward.  Give up the "Yeah, buts" and start asking "What if . . ."

17 thoughts on “What If Schools Created a Culture of “Do” INSTEAD of a Culture of “Know?”

  1. Guyonlife

    It has been very interesting for me to contrast elective learning in adulthood with childhood schooling.
    I am spending my time and money to master a second language. A piece of paper ‘demonstrating’ my proficiency is of no inherent use or value to me. Being proficient is of use to me.
    The difference became very obvious when a substitute teacher began trying to teach me to pass the test rather than master the necessary knowledge and skills.
    The questions this raises are how do I demonstrate mastery and how does the school prove the value created without a standardised test? Like it or not education must prove value created (for both sides) and I think this question needs answering first before looking at how to deliver the education.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Latin Caitlyn wrote:
    As I am striving to become a teacher I don’t want my students to have to simply just know the material but to actually be able to use that material and retain it for more than just a test.
    _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
    Here’s what’s scary, Caitlyn: I don’t know many teachers who want to be governed by the knowing parts of our curriculum, but most of us are.
    The reason is simple: We’re literally judged by end of grade test results — and most of those tests don’t measure any doing skills at all.
    Heck, in some states, teachers can be fired when their EOG test scores don’t reach acceptable levels.
    So that spirit of commitment to do is quickly ground out of you when you get into the machine that is the school system.
    Will you really be as willing to fight for do when your job depends on nothing but know?
    It’s a difficult question to answer.
    Does this make sense?

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Ian asked:
    Is the issue with standardized tests that they test a bundle of skills that would be hard to organize a class to achieve by a certain test date?
    Or is it that they’re only testing classic reading math skills, and not project skills such as planning and troubleshooting?
    _ _ _ _ _
    It’s the latter, Ian. Take our state for example. In Language Arts, there are 6 standards. 4 of them are doing standards — engaging in a conversation, giving feedback etc.
    2 of them are knowing standards — understanding bias, picking out main idea, using grammar correctly.
    The test literally ONLY measures the 2 knowing standards. The 4 doing standards aren’t even assessed.
    And because the test makes comparing students, teachers and schools easy, it’s become the only measurement that anyone ever really asks about.
    Does this make sense?

  4. Latinicaitlynedm310.blogspot.com

    Hi Mr. Ferriter, I am an education student in a micro computing systems class called EDM 310 that has assigned me to your blog page. I enjoyed reading your last post about “What If Schools Created a Culture of Do INSTEAD of a Culture of Know.” As being a student who just barely finished high school a few years ago, I was one of those students who only felt locked up behind a wall and who only memorized what was needed. Most of the information that may have stuck in my head is of little importance to me now in the real world. I have realized that the only useful information learned is from what you actually experience or go through in your life. The school systems in America do not have a good way of teaching and it is very evident when you reach a higher form of education and cannot teach yourself simple concepts. So in conclusion I agree on the whole idea of “Do” and I hope our school systems can find a way to teach differently or our country will continue to struggle in the education department. As I am striving to become a teacher I don’t want my students to have to simply just know the material but to actually be able to use that material and retain it for more than just a test.

  5. Barb

    So what do you do for the lower grades? If K-2 is learning how to read rather than reading to learn, how do you decide what part to give up? Do you say it’s okay not to recognize or be able to write the number 12 if you can count twelve objects or clap twelve times? Is it okay not to learn Dolch words (which really do need to be drilled since they don’t follow patterns) because you can listen to the story and act it out? At some point there has to be a realization that there is an age where a a skill based curriculum is necessary. My kindergarteners can’t just “do” because they have to “know” first. I think parameters would need to be set for the ones who don’t know rather than using broad stroaks to rewrite the entire system.

  6. Ian Rae

    Is the issue with standardized tests that they test a bundle of skills that would be hard to organize a class to achieve by a certain test date? Or is it that they’re only testing classic reading math skills, and not project skills such as planning and troubleshooting? The good thing about projects is that the result is there for people to see: a play, a working model, a podcast. Much easier to get buy-in when the results are visible.

  7. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Ian,
    Thanks for jumping into the conversation! As a parent, you’ve DEFINITELY got a dog in this hunt — but the voices of parents aren’t always heard in #educircles.
    To answer your question, there is a real push to get to the project-oriented approach that you mention. Teachers believe in it. Principals believe in it too.
    The hitch is that we still have massive curricula to work through. Worse yet, standardized tests — which are the only tool that communities are using to hold schools accountable — don’t measure the kinds of skills students learn in a project-oriented approach to learning.
    The result is a desire to change that goes unfulfilled simply because our collective hands are tied.
    Does this make sense?

  8. Ian Rae

    Hi, I’m a parent not teacher, but am really enjoying this blog. Mot sure what exactly you mean by ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’.
    How can anyone do without knowing? or know without doing? Is it a matter that school practice total regurgitation of facts? I thought that was no longer the practice. Or is it a more project-approach curriculum where a student, say, films a video with script and editing, thereby learning skills in language, math, art, etc.

  9. Bill Ferriter

    John wrote:
    I dont think its a culture of this, instead of this.
    Great point, John — the word instead in our thinking probably needs to be redefined. You can see on our organizer that we were wrestling with where exactly content should fit into the conversation because we get that its hard to effectively do unless you know.
    Having had this conversation with about a thousand people yesterday, though, I REALLY believe that were already living in instead schools — but its the doing thats been left out. Heck, I even look at my own classroom where easily 90 percent of what I do is cram content down my kids throats.
    The fact of the matter is that massive curricula have put us in the position where do has almost no place in our buildings and where know dominates. We dont measure, encourage or incentivize do — and thats because were too flippin busy plowing our way through all of the crap that people think our kids need to know.
    I want balance too. I dont think we can be places of doing only. Knowing facilitates doing.
    But right now, our kids are expected to do a TON of knowing without ever getting the chance to do.
    How boring must that be?

  10. Ashleigh

    Reminds me of the ethos of Sudbury Valley School (http://www.sudval.org/). Many find this extreme but the fact that it (and the growing practice of unschooling) exist shows that more and more people are questioning the “education=knowledge of information” paradigm.

  11. Jason Lynch

    Mr. Ferriter, I am relatively new to the education profession. I am currently enrolled in an education program at University of South Alabama. Part of my EDM 310 class is to read other teachers blogs try and grasp their concepts and leave a worthy and substantial comment. As well as, summarize what we have read and include our comments on to our blogs we have created. I have read your blog on “What If” with a culture of “Do” instead of “Know” and I can see where you are trying to direct your goals for your educating path. I have seen teachers frustrated and exhausted with dealing with the current structure of teaching. In class our professors ask us to make changes when we become teachers. To not follow the same path as others before, for us to make a difference in children’s lives. But, I am older than my fellow classmates and not new to the work force that is controlled by red tape and bureaucratic ideals. I have seen great ideas pushed aside because it was not given by the right person or given during the right time. I honestly believe we could change the structures of schools and create a more adaptable education system. The only concern, I would have is the entrenched supporters of a system that has changed little, over the years. I believe they would continually fight new and different ideas that not only enrich the students education, but bring new meaning to the academic world, because quite simply put it is “different”.

  12. John T. Spencer

    I don’t think it’s a culture “of this, instead of this.” Paulo Freire was right when he said it needs to be a cycle of action and reflection. Too much of one and it becomes shallow, close-minded activism. Too much of the other and it becomes useless intellectualism. They’re both necessary.

  13. Samcunnane

    Here’s a record of the beginning of our attempt to move towards more ‘do’ and less ‘just demonstrate what you know’. I was going to write ‘less know’ but it seems to me that actually the students need to know a whole lot more to function and succeed in this type of context. The big difference is that the knowledge is contextualised and given a purpose, rather than just being ‘stuff’ that you collect on the way through school.
    All the best for your adventures in this direction.

  14. Kristen Swanson

    Bill, I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the last day or so. One “aha” that I had over the last few hours was that– we were looking at design thinking. We are trying to design a system that is organized around doing. While knowing is obviously a part of that, it is only a part. I think we are all searching to find ways to teach for transfer. Great getting to know you. The man behind those great books I give to students in my M.Ed courses (TIG) is 100% for real. 😉

  15. Steve Horsch

    Been working on skills rather than curriculum for a few years now. I am happy the students are happy (well…satisfied with their growth). The product produced has measurable, observable and most of all repeatable results.
    But I am glad to see others doing the same stuff somewhere else.
    We are now looking higher order thinking skills and what it takes to explicitly teach them. Not easy. Making tons of mistakes but there is something to this…

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