Educational Idea of the Day: July 27, 2020

Education: An Idea

After teaching fourth and fifth grade for over twenty years at excellent schools with excellent colleagues I have some ideas about what quality education should look like. The short answer is this: Children will thrive in an educational environment in which the work that they do is relevant, important, and practical. 

An historical example: When I was in high school I took trigonometry. I had a thoughtful and compassionate teacher who I remember fondly. However, I never understood what trigonometry was for. The subject, as presented, was not relevant to anything in my life. There was no question that I was concerned about that trigonometry helped me answer. The only reason the math class was important was that I needed to pass it. Getting a grade was not important enough to me to stimulate my learning. Finally, it seemed to me that trigonometry was all about memorizing facts. So, the practice of trigonometry was all about memorization of irrelevant material which wasn’t really important. This is a fairly accurate description of much of our current educational practice.

Several years later, I found myself teaching fourth and fifth grade math. In learning how to do measurements we encountered trees. How tall were they? All of a sudden trigonometry was relevant. We could use some trigonometric ideas to discover the height of trees. This was an important idea. If we wanted to see if a tree might fall on the school, we needed to know its height—an important question that needed to be solved.  Finally, I helped the kids design a practical device for measuring the angle from the ground to the top of the tree. Each kid had one. Each child became a surveyor as we went outside on a journey of discovery. Every tree and building became something to be learned about.

I know this idea—Make it relevant, important, and practical!—works because I saw it work over the course of two decades with a wide variety of children. I believe it works in every subject. More to come!

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