If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

What Do You Know?

In my first post, I proposed starting to design a school by imagining what an ideal graduate of that school would be like in terms of knowledge, skills and character. In the next few posts, I want to take each area individually, and discuss it in general terms, saving more specific ideas for later posts. Let's start with knowledge.

There is at the moment what politicians might call a 'national dialogue' taking place on the value of teaching specific knowledge at a time when information is so readily accessible. If the Internet knows the melting point of mercury, why do I need to keep that information in my head? If my cell phone knows my brother's phone number, why should I bother memorizing it? Instead of teaching facts that can be acquired quickly and easily at almost any time, school should focus on teaching how to use those facts in productive and interesting ways.

In general, I agree with this philosophy. If we have limited classroom time, we should be more focused on teaching how to find and use good information than on forcing the students to memorize it. The knowledge can be attained as needed. But then again, check out this video that my friend Eric passed on to me the other day.

Clearly there is some knowledge that we expect educated members of our society to have. That France is indeed a country, and that there are other languages besides French spoken on the continent of Europe being among the things that, as a Spanish teacher, I would like my students to know before I send them off into the world. See also this post at The Education Optimists about American Idol helping the people of 'Africa'.

So, if that is true, if we have certain cultural expectations about what one ought to know, what are those things? That's the question I leave you with for now, and I'll come back with my own answers as we move on through this project. What should students know when they graduate from high school?

1 comment:

Eric B said...

The link about Idol helping "Africa" was interesting. Just to help out with the geography lesson, there are 54 countries in Africa. (I probably could have named 10-15 if I put my mind to it, and I currently live in Africa. Who knows? I like to think I could have come up with more than that, but I guess I'm not much better than most Americans.)

As for the question of the day: What should our kids know when they leave high school? As a language teacher myself, I would like to think that they would have at least a functional ability in one language other than English, though a functiional ability in English would also be a good start (watch any 3-minute clip of our President for reasons why). I agree with Jeff in that skill and attitudes are more important than concrete knowledge. But since, as Jeff said, there are some things we expect our citizens to know, I suggest, as a starting point, a book I picked up years ago called "The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy" (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988) which has in it things like Mythology and Folklore, Literaure (World and American), Philosophy & Religion, Politics (again, World and American), Geography (and it even mentions that France is a country), Science, Medicine, and others. I don't suggest that this book be all we teach our kids, of course. But as a baseline, it seems like a good place to start.