Are we sure we know why we teach what we teach?

A recent article in the New York Times:

“MEMPHIS — Jack London was the subject in Daterrius Hamilton’s online English 3 course. In a high school classroom packed with computers, he read a brief biography of London with single-paragraph excerpts from the author’s works. But the curriculum did not require him, as it had generations of English students, to wade through a tattered copy of “Call of the Wild” or “To Build a Fire.”

“Mr. Hamilton, who had failed English 3 in a conventional classroom and was hoping to earn credit online to graduate, was asked a question about the meaning of social Darwinism. He pasted the question into Google and read a summary of a Wikipedia entry. He copied the language, spell-checked it and e-mailed it to his teacher.”

 The first thing that should come to mind is the obvious fact that Daterrius, the student here, is committing plagiarism. But that is just the beginning:

2. Why is Daterrius studying Jack London? Is that really the most relevant literature for him to study? Do you or I feel benefitted by a knowledge of Jack London? (I read “To Build a Fire” but I don’t know how it benefitted me. I also had to study “Masters of Deceit: The story of Communism in America and how to fight it” by J.Edgar Hoover but I’m not sure that helped me either.)

3. What kind of job is Daterrius likely to get? Is knowledge of Jack London going to help Daterrius in this job? Perhaps it will help to develop him in a cultural way. Is Jack London the best way to develop him culturally?

4. Is there no better way for Daterrius to spend his time in school? Considering that time in school is not infinite, that it is a limited resource, of all the things to study is Jack London the most important thing?

5. If Jack London is not really relevant to Daterrius cultural needs, professional needs and thus a waste of time, isn’t Daterrius rather clever to plagiarize and save time?

Which leads us to the most significant question. Have we done a needs analysis of our students? Do we know exactly what they will need to know for their careers? More importantly, do we know what knowledge they will need for their first couple of jobs out of college because if we teach them things for 5-10 years from now it is likely they will forget them before they use them? Do we actually know what they need professionally? culturally?

Or are we just teaching “Jack London” type of stuff because that is the tradition, because that is what others do, because that is what we always do, because that is what we were taught, because we can’t think of anything better to teach?

And when they plagiarize and cheat on our assignments and exams do we chastise them for dishonesty or congratulate them on a time and energy efficient lateral-thinking strategy to unnecessary learning?

I suggest that it is the duty of teachers to thoroughly investigate the needs of students, research what the students do with the skills they acquire from us, investigate the usefulness of those skills, discover what we teach that the students do not need and what we do not teach that they do need, and then thoroughly sell the students on why they are being taught what they are being taught. I suggest that it is not as important to know how to teach as it is to know how students learn.

I am trying to answer those questions for myself through Project 400 but I think every teacher has to answer that in their own way.

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