Remember the age-old question, “Why do I need to know this?” Kids are still waiting for the answer. The problem is, often, they don’t need to know it.
The model we use for education, both public and private, is still primarily based on the model we began with in 1840 – teacher centric. Students mostly listen while teachers pass on their wisdom and give notes. We have evolved somewhat to classrooms that incorporate more modern aides such as video, audio, computers, search engines, power point and projects, but we still lack the most critical element of all – how this lesson applies to the student’s world or interests. Yet, when there is an obvious purpose that is real and needed, the students can fully engage. But I’ll get back to that in a minute.
For public schools that have long ruled the roost, the evolution of charters and private school with free public vouchers have created something that has gone even beyond the competition for students and funding. They’ve created a new sense of intolerance by some students and parents because they have an out. For the past decade many public-school supporters – like myself, have focused on trying to fight this evolutionary development. But we are fighting the wrong cause. These choices were developed, in part, to create competition. (And maybe so some folks could make a lot of money). But it is high time public schools take on the competition challenge because by doing so we can do what we ultimately really want to do – improve student performance, greatly increase student interest, cut down on absenteeism, reduce bad behavior and better prepare our young generation for a successful future. So here is where I get back to what I alluded to above, engaging students and providing real purpose. I call it Application Education and it is already being done successfully all over the place. We just need to make it available to everyone throughout all our curriculum. In its simplest form it is seen as vocational education or career academies. In New York it’s modeled well in the BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services) schools. It sometimes comes in the form of “magnets”. However, not all magnets or centers are successful in this mission. Some have a fancy name, get the best students applying and show high performance results, but only because of the type of student accepted. In reality, the main subjects are structured the old fashion way and similar to an honors level course. The courses often operate independent of each other with little or no joint projects. That is not a magnet program, it’s a program for high performing students.
Application education is very much like project-based education except it uses real world project solving as the vehicle to teach what the students need to complete the project. For example, when I taught video editing, I didn’t show the students how to edit. I instead gave them a project that they would want to complete. I sold them on the idea that this video would make their parent(s) cry. I told them about previous videos and the reaction they produced. I told them about the secret power they could achieve once they mastered the powerful impact of video being matched with music and then I got them started. As they needed to know the next step, I showed them and as the next student needed to know, I told them to ask the previous student. In the process they all instantly learned. Once they had the “need to know” something they sought it out so they could move forward. You see, Application education works under the premise that learning is on a need-to-know basis. Once the student realizes they need to know something, they learn it. Nobody ever asks why they need to know it. There are many ways to apply this in virtually every subject. Years ago, when I taught 10th grade English I had to teach students how to write a letter with a call to action. Instead of writing to ABC Button Company (real example) about why they were unhappy with the buttons, I had them do some cursory research into problems in other countries and then write to world leaders with suggestions. The result was numerous personal letters received from Presidents and other prominent leaders including Nelson Mandela (from prison) and President Botha of South Africa.
On a large scale, Application education requires a revamp of the curriculum to make it more directly related to preparing students to be better prepared for the workforce. Ideally it would be hundreds of academies wrapped around students’ current interests. Math can be taught so effectively if a student likes to build things and they realize they need to understand the formulas to solve construction problems. Think what students learn in the process of robotics and how important the competitive element is. On a smaller scale, classroom teachers should look to community projects that engage the students’ interests. It is rarely a one project fits all. But if educators focus on what they teach and how it relates to areas the students find interesting instead of just delivering instruction, school would be a place students may actually want to be. It’s a long road especially for teachers already overburdened, but we can’t just continue doing it the way we’ve always done it.