Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Getting students to appreciate what's taught in school

Photo by [a]clark
One of my favorite questions a student can ask is "why are we doing this?" If students aren't shown the practical value in what they're learning, many of them will tune out. We can have the most organized curriculum, gather fascinating resources, and create an optimal learning atmosphere, but if students don't value what's going on in the classroom, it's all for nothing. That's the problem that Jere Brophy addressed in his 2008 article.

Brophy railed against curriculm that is mile-wide but inch-deep, and rightly pointed out that a lot of students aren't engaged because much of school learning doesn't have "significant life application value." Brophy notes that John Dewey saw it coming long ago – that "most K-12 content originated as practical knowledge derived through situational problem solving, but as it got systematized within what became the disciplines, it got formulated more abstractly and separated from its situated origins." Therefore, although teachers may see the value in what we do in K-12, it's not always so obvious to our students.

Brophy goes on: "If a curriculum strand has significant value for learners, it will be because its content network is structured around big ideas that provide a basis for authentic applications to life outside of school." Similarly, in How to Get – and Keep – Someone's Attention, a 7/25/12 Time magazine article, Annie Murphy Paul advises us to bring our ideas down to earth by "explaining how they connect to your listeners' lives" if we want people to listen. The same holds true for the classroom.

When students are autonomously motivated to engage with K-12 content, they do so voluntarily because they see good reasons for doing so and then activate schema networks for valued purposes. Brophy makes a point of saying that it's not just simply a matter of connecting with students' interests. Instead, he believes that the valuing of school learning begins with curricular aims, an articulation of the knowledge, skills, values, dispositions, and appreciations of what it is being learned. He argues that our curriculum shouldn't just about the what and how, but about why anybody ought to learn it.

The kinds of qualities he emphasizes: absorption, satisfaction, recognition, making meaning, self-expression, self-realization, making connections, achieving insights, and aesthetic appreciation.

Whether it's the subjects I teach or the rewards learners receive, I'm taking a critical look at my own intended outcomes to make sure (in addition to knowledge, skills, attitudes, and dispositions) that I'm including appreciations of why what is being taught is worth learning.

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