Just Another Race to Know-Where?

Did you get a chance to read my recent post on creating a culture of "doing" instead of "knowing" in schools?  It has sparked a ton of interest and a bunch of great thinking — both here on the Radical and in the other spaces that I mentally wrestle in. 

The strand that challenges me the most, however, was best articulated by John Spencer, who wrote: 

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.

John's point is a simple one:  "Instead" thinking is often unhealthy when it creeps its way into schools — and to suggest that knowing is fundamentally unimportant would be foolish.

In fact, it would be nearly impossible to successfully take action without a foundational understanding of the content behind the issues and ideas that you care the most about. 

Bradley Zakarin shared similar thinking in Twitter when he wrote:


Long story short: Balance matters, right?

Here's the thing, though – There IS no balance in schools today.  Curriculum writers and politicians have slapped together courses of study that leave NO ROOM for doing. 

Take the North Carolina sixth grade science curriculum as an example.

We tackle everything from a study of the layers of the earth and the formation of minerals to the way that light, sound and heat transfer energy.  We look at why humans should protect soil, how space exploration has benefited mankind, and how species adapt to their habitats. 

We talk about the differences between the planets.  We look at earthquake and volcano patterns.  We learn about convection and conduction.  We wrestle with symbiosis, mutualism and parasitism.  We examine food chains.  We study the parts of waves — both transverse and longitudinal.  We look at convex and concave lenses.

We study the parts of the eye and ear.  We discuss the Law of Conservation of Energy. We explore the differences between potential and kinetic energy.  We learn about how the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon influence the earth.

Are you starting to get a sense for just HOW massive the knowing part of our curriculum really is?

The results are really quite simple:  There's not a whole heck of a lot of time for doing in classrooms.

Here's a tangible example of how this changes the instructional decisions made by teachers:  Marsha Ratzel — a buddy of mine teaching science in Kansas — introduced me to the Science for Citizens website yesterday. 

She describes it like this:

Science for Citizens offers regular folks like me (if I'm regular I guess) the chance to participate in science projects from right where we live, doing pretty normal stuff and then sending in what we learn to the principal investigators.

Can't get much more "doing" than that, can you? 

But here's the hitch:  While I LOVE the idea of getting my kids involved in projects that would give them a chance to be a part of a much larger community of practicing scientists — a lesson I think is pretty darn important for them to learn — I literally WORRY about incorporating any of the projects into my classroom because I'm already  a month behind in my curriculum. 

The moral of the story is that I believe in balance too.  We can't throw the content baby out with the bathwater.  "Instead" thinking really isn't any healthier for schools than "Yeah, But" thinking.

But let's not pretend that what we have in schools now is a finely balanced knowing-doing experience. 

From my point of view, we're not "doing" much more than sprinting our way to know-where.

Any of this make sense?  Do y'all feel that the knowing-doing balance is out of whack in your worlds too, or do your kids have plenty of chances to take an action-stance towards their content — and more importantly, their communities?


Related Radical Reads:

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

Stuffing Kids with Content

Brainpop and the Overloaded Curriculum

Skills Matter More than Tools




9 thoughts on “Just Another Race to Know-Where?

  1. optometrist santa barabara

    Lake Erie Speedway has seen an influx in women racers over their 11 seasons, with a high of 15 this year. Those ladies aren’t just out there trying to run with the boys – they’re finding success. Four of the drivers are in the top 10 in their respective classes including one points leader. All that success is earning the women much deserved respect amongst their male peers.

  2. Mike Matheson

    I like to believe that “doing” is a much more productive and effective method of developing knowledge and skills. Effective “doing” projects or experiences are designed to address identified content knowledge and skills with intentionality. Simply an effective teaching and learning strategy that engages students in exciting work that allows them to put the knowledge into context and relevant personal experiences.

  3. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Ginny,
    Just a quick note to say it was great to see you in this space tonight!
    No time to talk — Im trying to churn out a chapter for another book.

  4. Ginnyp

    Bill, I’m right behind you on the Canadian train. They have high expectations (I had a student from Ontario who was floored – as were her parents – when she scored 100% on a quiz. That is unknown there) and curriculum that’s manageable or so it seems. They had a whole curriculum for media literacy years ago. With writing papers in sixth grade, we don’t have time to investigate and research the worldwide knowledge we’re supposed to expose these kids to… uh oh. I’m on a rant here. As you’d say,
    Rock on.

  5. Bill Ferriter

    You know, Derek, so much of what Canada does is right in education that it makes me want to pack my bags and start heading north. Ive read a ton of Canadian curriculum guides of the years and not only are they more approachable, they almost always include doing planks that I can really embrace. The Greater Victoria schools even have a social justice theme in their work.
    Thats cool. And its something we never get right in the States.
    Rock on,

  6. Hatchderek

    Hi Bill,
    I can certainly appreciate your frustration with the journey to KNOW where. You made me think about what my own kids are learning in school…they are in grades 3 and 5 and they seem to be doing lots of projects and activities. I went on-line to look at the curriculae and it is written to provide teachers with some flexibility to explore. I thought you might be interested in this document about the development of our provincial curriculum. http://www.education.alberta.ca/media/824183/curric_dev.pdf
    I also thought this was a cool document…the entire grade 6 curriculum ON ONE PAGE.
    In talking to Div 2 (grade 4-6) teachers, many of the curricular outcomes fit nicely together and teachers will develop projects and activities that cover cross-curricular outcomes.
    Does this interest you?

  7. Marsha

    Oh Bill…..
    In the end, I always think about what I would want MY daughter’s science teacher to do. Do you want your kids to love science and know how to use scientific practices? I know you do.
    How can that be wrong?
    If you’re already a month behind, what’s another week!!!!! Take the plunge and pick a small project.
    Your buddy is probably more than a month behind but I just don’t look. I just keep going as fast as they can go and making sure we smell the roses (or Mastodon matrix) along the way!!!

  8. Scott McLeod

    Here’s the rebuttal, Bill:
    “Maybe your kids would ‘know’ science better if it were embedded within more authentic, real world learning experiences. Students in schools that have moved to more problem-based learning paradigms seem to do just fine on standardized tests. In other words, just because your kids have to know a bunch of stuff at one end of Bloom’s for state assessment purposes doesn’t mean that you have to live down there instructionally. Instead, maybe you’re the one holding your students back from learning at higher levels because you’re afraid to move your teaching to a different place, one in which students retain the material better because it is embedded in more holistic, relevant, and empowering activities.”

  9. Peter Wilson

    If education is to be meaningful, then it must be authentic. Do basketball coaches assign their players to read a chapter about dribbling, give a lecture about passing, and then evaluate the players with a multiple choice test? How long would that basketball program survive in your school? Would we teach a seven-year-old to ride a bike by showing her an instructional video? Why do we think learning an academic discipline is any different? Can we get excellent results from a science classroom where students are told about science but they don’t actually create scientific knowledge by performing experiments? Or a history class where they are told about history but they don’t actually create historical knowledge by interpreting primary sources? Or a Spanish language class where they are told about the Spanish language but they don’t actually get to speak it? “Doing” the discipline builds sound intellectual habits, encodes information in long-term memory, develops skills necessary for independent and life-long learning, and allows for positive, collaborative social interactions that build a foundation for mature participation in a democratic society.
    The metaphor of the student as an empty vessel is as dead as the world that created it.

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