Thursday, November 22, 2012

Covering content and other games of Trivial Pursuit

Some years ago I was at my mother's house and we were watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire? on TV.  One question was which way does the River Nile flow? with the options being North, South, East or West and I can remember the contestant struggling over this.  To me this was a very simple question.  I thought that everyone knows that rivers flow towards the sea, everyone knows that the Nile is in Egypt and that Egypt is south of the Mediterranean Sea, and therefore everyone must know that the Nile flows north.  I must have said something along these lines, about how I was surprised to see someone struggling over such an easy answer, and was surprised by my brother's response:  "The answer's always easy when you know it."

I was thinking about this last week as I was re-reading the Grant Wigging article "The Futility of Trying to Teach Everything of Importance" which was one of the readings for last week's module of an online workshop that I'm facilitating.  This article has certainly provoked some interesting discussions among the participants and has prompted me to go back yet again and re-read it from other's perspectives.

Wiggins refers to us facing a Sisyphusian problem:  the boulder of "essential content" can only come thundering down the (growing) hill of knowledge, and his article is about how "the problem of student ignorance is thus really about adult ignorance as to how thoughtful and long-lasting understanding is achieved".  As the expression goes, you don't know what you don't know!  However what Wiggins advocates is enabling students to learn about their ignorance, take pleasure in this learning and be able to take control of the resources that will help them know more.  This is what he refers to as developing habits of mind.

Wiggins calls for a move away from scopes and sequences that assume a logical progression through knowledge, he argues we must move away from covering content that simply "reduces essential knowledge to Trivial Pursuit"  and instead we should concentrate on developing a "thirst for inquiry" and a "perpetual need to think".

Although some of the participants in my online workshop have criticized parts of this article (which is good of course, as it promotes discussion), I think Wiggins does stress the importance of inquiry and going where the questions lead.  He writes:
One learns the power of the questions only by seeing, for oneself, that important "facts" were once myths, arguments and questions .... Since it is impossible to teach everything we know to be of value, we must equip students with the ability to keep questioning.
Another take away I had from this article relates directly to what we are doing this year in ASB with Independent Studies and the Curiosity Project  (where students pursue something of interest to themselves) and with our goals of personalized learning.  Wiggins writes:
The deep acceptance of the painful realization that there are far more important ideas than we can ever know leads to a liberating curricular postulate:  all students need not learn the same things.
I think that this is true and something that we will need to accept if we are really to walk the talk of personalizing learning.

Photo Credit:  Trivia Caught by Stephen Train, 2007 AttributionNoncommercial

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