March 22, 2012 by k. liz
I was trying to change the batteries in a speaker this last weekend, and as I opened the little door and got ready to put the batteries in place, I berated myself for not actually knowing instinctively which end went which way. And then I thought about it. I know precisely why I don’t know which end goes which way. You see, I have never once opened a battery door that did not tell me explicitly, by matching symbols on the battery in my hand, which way the batteries were to go. Voila. Why clutter up my mind knowing this piece of information that I would never ever have to recall?
Then I thought about this in terms of the things that we as teachers require our students to know. I’ve been studying things like “teaching learning strategies” and “secondary discourse” recently. Combined with my revelation about the battery, I think that it is crucial that we as teachers examine what we expect of our students.
Some things jump to my mind. When I was little, we had spelling tests every week. Is spelling necessary? If I am writing with a pen on paper, then yes. It is enormously necessary!! If I am typing in Microsoft Word is it necessary? Not so much.
What about alphabetization? I mean, in my opinion, I think that should be a fairly simple skill to master, but nevertheless, it was taught quite explicitly to me when I was in elementary school. Was it important? Yes!! I had to look up words in the dictionary, organize my dad’s work files, and find books in the library according to alphabetical rules. Is it important today? Well, when I want to know the definition of a word, I type it in to a search box. When I want a book from the library, I type the title of the book, and it tells me a reference number, or better yet, it sends it automatically to my Kindle.
And math? Knowing conversion rates, or multiplication tables, or how to do percentages? (I admit, here I wish that I were better with such things!) But are they necessary? Not really. If you don’t have a mobile device that can very quickly and easily perform these functions for you, then the person next to you probably does. Or, better yet, just look at the little chart on all of Kohl’s sale items. It does all of the math for you!
So . . . where am I going with all of this? I’m not advocating for doing away with all of those basics that we have always taught in the past. Rather, I’m asking for a reconsideration of how and why we teach them. I thoroughly enjoy being able to do percentages in my head when I am shopping. It gives me a better idea of what that item I want actually costs. It is a real life situation that I actually use that information in. We need to make our material real and relevant to our students. I know that this has been a mantra of teachers for many years, so I realize that it isn’t a new thought. But here’s where the second part of my reconsideration comes in – we need to teach students how to use the tools that are so readily available to them. If a student honestly never needs to be able to correctly spell the word “beautiful” on his own because it will always be corrected for him by his computer or mobile device, he shouldn’t be made to feel stupid over that fact. I am not going to feel stupid because I don’t know which way the batteries go – I don’t need to know. But, I want to know where I should go and how I should find out the answers when I really do need to know.
I think our focus needs to be a little less on what students are capable of storing in their heads and a little more on the competency they can demonstrate in completing real life tasks.