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Schools: What's the Real Problem?

"The achievement gap asks, "Are students achieving X?" whereas the relevance gap asks, "Is X going to matter to the lives learners are likely to live?" - David Perkins

During a recent leadership meeting, a respected, but frequently vocal colleague began venting his frustration about a few of the problems he perceived in our school; apathetic students, lack of consistency, lack of respect, and poor achievement. I looked around at the faces in the conference room wondering if others agreed with this assessment, or were they holding their tongues to avoid confrontation. While most would agree that it's our professional obligation to strive for improvement, I found myself asking, "What is the real problem?"

My question comes in the context of reading David Perkins timely and interesting book, Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World. Perkins general question is "what is worth learning in school?" Lifeworthy learning, a term coined by Perkins, describes knowledge and skills students think with, not merely about. Perkins wants educators to make lifeworthy learning a priority. What are the "big understandings" that will matter to learners now, and in their future? When students find the learning to be relevant, what Perkins calls "lifeready" learning, there is a far greater likelihood of engagement and satisfaction with school. 

In his recent post, Scott McLeod uses Gallup survey results to support his argument the biggest indictment of schools is not the failure to raise test scores; it's the steady decline in the percentage of students engaged in school from kindergarten to twelfth grade. McLeod says the real problem in schools is, "our children are bored, disengaged, and disempowered." (Engagement Today - Ready for Tomorrow, Gallup 2015)

In one of my favorite posts, author Will Richardson suggests the real problem with schools is the long established pattern of reinforcing a culture of teaching (efficiency) instead of cultivating a culture of learning (effectiveness).

"Given our devotion to an overstuffed curriculum, standardized tests, “college and career readiness” and more, about the only way we can see our students navigating the school experience is to “teach” it, to organize it, pace it, and assess it in some way that allows us to confer the adjective “educated” to each student." - Will Richardson 

The real problem is traditional schools, for the most part, are not offering a relevant education to students. We teach too much, and most of the content will be forgotten within weeks of summative assessment. A majority of students have expressed their disinterest in the forced curriculum. Perkins asks educators, "What did you learn during your first twelve years of education that matters in your life today?

The key to providing learning that matters lies in "big questions" and "big understandings"; content and skills that provide learners with meaningful insight, motivate their actions, shape their ethical thought, and offer opportunities for real-world application. Perkins suggests too much emphasis on achievement, information, and expertise can interfere with the development of a lifeworthy, relevant education. While researchers continue to study issues like the relationship between race, income, and the achievement gap, a documented, real problem in schools is the relevancy gap.

What needs to be done to close the relevancy gap in schools?

References and Related Reading


Future Wise Review - Learning and the Brain, Rebecca Gotlieb

The Biggest Indictment of Schools... - Dangerously Irrelevant, Scott McLeod

We're Trying to do the Wrong Thing Right in Schools - Will Richardson

The Politics of Engagement - Benjamin Doxtdator

Comments

Aaron Davis said…
Great post Bob.
Sometimes I wonder if big understandings is the problem. Maybe it is whose big understandings it is.
Just wondering.
Thanks again Aaron,
I agree with Perkins explanation of "big understandings". These come from learner inquiry and the development of deep understanding is personalized to the learner. He says the key indicators of big understandings are personal insight, ethical perspective, call for action, and application. In other words, we actually use what we learn.
Bob
Unknown said…
Bob,
Some great points brought up here. Engagement, I feel, is a very important word that is being used too loosely. People preach that we need more if it in education, but what is IT exactly? I wrote a post a little while back where I try to define a more specific form of engagement: cognitive engagement. What love to hear if you agree or disagree with my attempt to create a common definition and even a formula. https://bormannbytes.com/2015/02/02/what-does-engagement-mean-in-the-classroom-edchat/
Keep bringing the great content. Love getting your posts delivered to my email.
Hello Jarod,
Thanks for reading and commenting. I reviewed your post and agree that engagement is a personal construct that is difficult to assess. Personally, I prefer the term "empowerment" over "engagement" for ensuring greater learner agency. Will Richardson quotes Seymour Sarason when describing productive learning, “which engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more.”
This is engagement - activating mind, body, and spirit to learn more.
Bob

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