Not long ago, I was just finishing up a consultation in our college’s writing center when one of my former students, Noah, turned from a computer screen and greeted me. Noah was a dedicated student in my class, and from what I have observed, he is in college for the right reasons and truly wants to learn and grow. In the center, he and a friend were working on adjacent computers, and both were now engaged in conversation with me. After the standard rigamarole of segueing into a discussion, Noah turned to his friend with arms stretched out toward me and said, “He doesn’t teach English; he teaches us about life.” Wow. I was quite blown away and responded with something like “But we can learn to think like writers through life. Can’t we?”
This scenario with Noah is exactly why I’m constantly revising what and how I teach and looking for ways to turn the switch on for students. The more school curricula focus on rote memorization and information transfer, the less I can just jump into writing skills. So many of my students have no idea how to think for themselves that I find it much more important to teach them how to think, to ask real questions, and to negotiate and navigate the complexities of life and our modern communication systems. There is one glaring truth that I always come back to: if you can’t think, you can’t write.
Why does school curricula focus on what the policy makers deem “required skills?”
As a father of two young boys, 6 and 4, I am woefully concerned about where current education is leading. I experience it every day of my life. I see the downfalls of the factory model and the lack of skills and, more importantly, the lack of care and investment in students’ own learning. They just want quick answers, so they can get it done (usually passing a test) and move onto what they deem as “more important things.” But what is more important than learning? And this is where my mind resides. I have to ask: What is learning? Is learning memorizing something for Friday’s test only to forget it by Monday? Is learning punching a few key strokes on a mobile device and finding the “answer?” Or is learning to look inside and find a passion for what our world has to offer and then seeking to understand? It seems the latter has, or is, all but gone from our current model of education.
Perspective Shift (Theory vs. Application)
Do I want my kids (and/or my students) to be able to memorize a poem and recite it on some random day of the week or do I want to instill a love for literature and what it can show us about our worlds?
Do I want my kids (and/or my students) to be able to solve artificially constructed math problems or to solve life problems on their own through understanding common mathematical applications?
Applied Scenario (It is not if but when)
In the not too distant future when my boys are no longer under our roof, what happens if one of them is on a road trip across the country or abroad, and his vehicle breaks down out in the middle of nowhere? (Insert your own scenario if you want. The creative possibilities are endless.) At this location, there is no cell service and/or his phone has no charge. It is the middle of the night, getting colder by the minute, and nobody is coming to the rescue anytime soon.
In this situation, what knowledge and skills do I want my kids to possess? Do I want them to be able to find a way to keep warm and safe and not panic or do I want them to be able to perform well on next week’s standardized test?
Are life skills, such as the ones needed in this admittedly hypothetical situation, something kids would be more willing to learn? Would this type of learning help them see the value of teaching and learning? Would this reduce apathy and increase personal investment and concern?
A few of the skills needed in such a situation are creativity, problem solving and improvising. These skills can be taught, and once such as skill-set is strong, it can be applied to an endless variety of situations in academia and life in general.
In my hypothetical situation, the vehicle’s gas won’t last forever, so a person can’t just sit idly with the engine running all night to keep warm, but on the side of the road will be all kinds of things that can be used to build a fire, and if it is raining or snowing, a shelter may be needed as well. Ask: Will his eighth-grade vocabulary test help here? The answer is quite obvious. Who knows what we will encounter as we navigate such a complex and unpredictable world. To me, this is where improvisation is so key. We all need to be able to find creative solutions for problems and situations without preplanning. We need to practice relevant and vital skills, so that when we are faced with something unexpected, we won’t panic; instead, we will survive the ordeal and come out the other side stronger.
To me, this is what education should provide. Whether it is writing a paper for a Composition course when the format is not specified; whether it is finding solutions to hypothetical social problems in a Sociology course; whether it is looking through the pile of stuff you have stored all over your house and finding new uses for it instead of buying more stuff; whether it is repurposing those leftovers in the refrigerator and creating a tasty new dish; whether it is taking the ideas of several people, mixing them, and creating something new; or whether it is finding a way to use a stick or something else on the trail to fix your bike and get you back to the trailhead, we all need to learn to improvise, and factory education is not helping.
Last Question to End
Do I want my kids to be dependent on others or some mobile machine or do I want them to be self-reliant, creative, improvisers who can learn and solve problems on their own?