Teach Less

I taught “Computers 8.”

I think that’s what it actually said on the students’ schedules. The precision in the course name betrayed the hand-waving that was happening behind the scenes. “We know this techy computer stuff is important, and we should tech kids more of that.” I was starting my third year in the classroom, and this was a new job in a new school.

I met with my predecessor, who had moved up to the high school. She explained that she spent the first half of the course teaching keyboarding, and then she moved on to programming in BASIC. There was no actual course of study. There was no list of prerequisites the students needed for future classes. And, of course, there were no state tests or standardized measures of student achievement. I had a clean slate. I could do whatever I wanted.

And I did. I cut the keyboarding from four weeks to one week that first year, and then eliminated it entirely. There was a whole keyboarding class that had been introduced in seventh grade. If students hadn’t learned to type after two months banging away at A-S-D-F in that class, there wasn’t anything I was going to be able to do to fix it. As far as BASIC programming goes, I removed it entirely. Nobody uses BASIC for anything but learning BASIC.

TAM Students building a City of the Future,
by Fabrice Florin on Flickr.

I thought the most useful approach would be to teach students how to use technology to make their academic lives easier. I focused on productivity tools. We spent some time on word processing, drawing tools, and newsletter programs. We dabbled in spreadsheets. Eventually, we spent a lot of time on this new Internet stuff, but we were limited in what we could do without actual Internet access.

By the fourth year, the class was entirely project-based. Students selected a topic, researched it online (citing sources and evaluating them), made an outline, and then used that outline to create a presentation, write an essay, and build a web page. They left the class with a solid familiarity with productivity tools, some skills in online research and information literacy, and a basic understanding of how the Internet works.

Nobody ever complained that they didn’t know BASIC.

Years later, working in another district, the topic would occasionally come up. “You know, there’s not really a course of study for that middle school tech class.” “Yeah. I know. We should probably write one.” We never did. I never wanted to. I always liked the idea that the teacher could adapt the class more quickly, and keep it more relevant, than a curriculum writing process could. In my current school, it has come up a couple times, too. “We’re not really sure what they do in that class.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What if we looked at our classes with a critical eye and just kept the things that students absolutely need? What do people who aren’t social studies teachers need to remember from 7th grade social studies? What do you remember from your Sophomore English class? I’m sure I learned important things in those classes. I had good teachers. They did important things. But I didn’t learn everything they taught, and everything I learned wasn’t useful.

What if we focused on teaching students rather than teaching content? What if we looked at our courses and made some room to allow our students to more deeply engage in the subject without the constant fear of “covering everything?” If we removed some content, maybe they could do a project that connects an aspect of the class to the wider world. Maybe there’s a project, or a tough question they’re working on. Maybe collaborating with others to design or build something. Maybe the students can find ways to connect your class to their world.

The problem with trying to be innovative as educators is that we don’t really know what innovation looks like. There’s no list of step-by-step instructions for innovation. We want to do better things instead of doing things better. But we aren’t sure what the better things are. I think innovation is more about opening up spaces and schedules and expectations to give it room to happen organically. It’s about asking “what if?” and “why not?” and then trying those things and finding the worst implications of our best ideas. Sometimes, we’ll find out that there are really good answers to “why not?” So we’ll change it. We’ll try something else. And along the way, we’ll model the life-long learning that we say is so important for our students.

If we want competent, empathetic students who embody a learner’s mindset while engaging with purpose, we have to get some of the content out of the way so we can work on those things. And we have to give teachers the support and freedom to do that, too.