Thoughts on ‘The Elephant in the Room’

Education Week has a blog post up about the ‘Elephant in the Room’ as it relates to content that might not be all that relevant to students in today’s world.

I’d like to offer some thoughts about a few quotes from the article (which is well worth the read, in my opinon.

1. “All to the good, but there is an “elephant in the room,” a big conspicuous but largely undiscussed problem: What should we do with tired content?”

Response: Guilty as charged (sort of). I definitely think I teach some tired content. In my MYP Chemistry classes, I taught some of the same things I’ve taught for 17 years. Atomic structure, electron arrangement, chemical bonding, balancing chemical equations, and so on. Tired? Not to me. I’m a chemist. But does a so-called ’21st century student’ need to know that the simple electron arrangement of sulfur is 2, 8, 6? Maybe given the earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan our time would have been better spent on the dangers of nuclear radiation, so the students could figure out how bad (or how not so bad) radiation leaks might be from a nuclear power plant. Or given the proliferation of medicines, maybe instead of simple Lewis Structures for water and carbon tetrachloride, I could delve into more complex structures like drugs and how small changes in functional groups might be big changes in activity on the body. This thought both excites me and scares me. How will I prepare for such a change in my teaching? But how cool would it be to actually follow through on some of this? In my MYP Physics classes, I’ve been inspired by a colleague (the person who developed the curriculum I’m using) to create more meaningful connections. For example, instead of plain old motion and forces, the unit relates to car safety as a real application of physics ideas. I have many places where I can still improve on this, but it’s a start!

2.”If only we could shrink some topics, we could expand others that offer much more. For instance, basic statistics and probability generally get little attention compared to quadratic equations and multiple linear equations, but they come up constantly in public policy, economic reports and forecasts, health and insurance decisions, investing, and gambling.”

Response: I LOVE this idea. I’ve often thought statistics was underappreciated as an important topic for students. How many times will the media give us interpretations of statistics that really don’t make any sense? And how many times will the media use the word ‘prove’ when we don’t ever really prove things in science. We simply offer evidence to support or refute a conclusion. I’ve even thought I should include some simple statistics in my classes where it is relevant.

3.  “Well, but we have to do something! Radical restructuring or incremental change?… I don’t know! Perhaps a way can be found to shove the elephant out of the room. Or perhaps we should simply establish momentum in the deep teaching of a range of plainly worthwhile ideas and skills, which in turn would encourage incremental decisions to nudge this or that foot of the elephant back. One way or another, we have to acknowledge the elephant for what it is – huge and gray and testy (pun intended).”

Response: This is the concluding paragraph of the post. It reminded me of a saying from work I did while in the U.S. trying to reform our school. One of our reform coaches told us we needed to “move far enough, fast enough that we can’t go back.” That seems appropriate in this case. Push forward with curriculum (content) changes that are big enough and happen fast enough that there’s no turning back to the old ways.

And lastly, this post makes me reflect on the way I teach. I’ve been contemplating moving to the flipped class model (#flipclass on Twitter) for quite some time. This model might allow me to spend more time in class on the application of the content. Now it’s time to get to work.

Cheers.
Lowell

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