For generations, one of the questions teachers must contemplate and answer for themselves is “What do I want my students to be able to do with the lessons I teach them?” As I have answered that question, I have come to view my answers along a continuum.
My continuum of goals I have for students is grounded in the degree to which students can use and apply the information, skills, and habits I teach. Two of the uses and applications are goals that I have for all of my students; the third is a goal that I have for my students, but I recognize it requires a decision by my students. My background is in the fields collectively called STEM, but I maintain the same model can be used to understand teaching in all fields.
Informed consumer—The world is an information (and misinformation) rich place. The flood of information has been described by many, and it is clear that healthy and productive participation in our society depends on individuals’ (and our collective) ability to be critical consumers of information. As a science teacher, I want all students to be able to evaluate the rationale and conclusions of those who make claims about how the world works and to reject those that are illogical and not supported by observation. As an IT teacher, I want students to be able to decide which tools have positive effects on their lives.
Utilitarian user—We face problems and situations in which me must take actions. We make better decisions if we use the information and skills we learn in school. As a math teacher, I know my students are more interested in problems they perceive to be “real-world” and I understand the importance of ensuring students can make financial decisions (for example) that are based on accurate understanding of mathematics.
Contributor—When students assume the role of contributor, they are creating products that those who work in the field would recognize as valuable. As a science teacher, I assigned my students to be contributors when they participated in science fair projects. In retrospect, there are ways we could make science fair projects more similar to science than they traditionally are, but in general, they are assuming the role of scientist and undertaking the work of a scientist.
Early in students’ educational careers, they should be exposed to age-appropriate assignments in which they can be a consumer of information, a user of information, and contribute to the field they study. When I used to work with young students to create Scratch projects, I was helping them to contribute to the field as they created works used by others. Of course, they were also utilitarian users, and –when we discussed what made an appropriate game—becoming consumers.
Later ins students’ careers they are likely to have begun to develop their own interests. As this occurs, education should focus less on forcing students to become contributors. Consider chemistry which is a field in which being a consumer and user of information helps knowledge and experience can prepare one to make decisions that lead to safer and healthier lives.
In many cases, the type of education that leads to informed consumers and users has the adjective “applied” added to the course titles, so one can take “applied statistics” which is supposed to somehow be a lesser course that statistics. We do a terrific disservice to students when we conform to this practice. Applied courses are those that help students understand and connect to the curriculum. We do avoid, in some cases, having students become contributors to the fields, but I do not see this as the vilification of the courses that many do.
I think about many of the advanced mathematics courses that students study. For many students, the concepts and methods even in advanced high school math courses are sufficiently disconnected from their interests that they are irrelevant. While I am not arguing that students should not be challenged, but I do trust a young adult who tells me they are not interested in advanced math that they probably do not belong in those classes.
As one who will be living in society with the young adult who opts out of math, I would far prefer we teach them to be a consumer of mathematics and a use of mathematics, even if they avoid knowledge of advanced topics. Who knows, they may even connect to math when they are given greater chance to apply it, and they may return to advanced math later.
In many ways, the comprehensive high school has become an institution in which the curriculum treats students as professionals in training. As schools reinvent themselves (which I believe is looming), I argue we become less focused on teaching students what professions in the field know and more on applying they knowledge. They will be better for it and we will too.