Recently I was talking to a group of friends, not high achievers in the conventional sense but well educated. Okay they were teachers. Somehow the conversation got around to the most pointless things we had ever learned at school.
Universally it was Math at secondary school. We could all remember the words: sin, cosine and the quadratic… erm… thingy etc. but no one could recall the purpose or, well, anything really. There are those that say we should seek knowledge as a “thing in itself” however it seems to me that knowledge gets it’s essential meaning, , in relation to other knowledge. Its purpose in the world.
I think what education needs is powerful knowledge not just subject specific knowledge. Powerful knowledge is the knowledge, which transforms everyday knowing into pedagogic knowledge. We all know that if you drop a ball, it will fall to the floor. It is the everyday knowing of the experienced world but knowledge of the laws of gravity turns it into pedagogic knowledge. We can answer the “why” question: a ball drops to the floor because……!
The argument I want to put forward is that every subject has a discourse of the everyday. A conversation that makes the everyday more meaningful. If it doesn’t then I wonder about its worth in 11 – 16 secondary education. After secondary education the discourse becomes more abstract, that of the singular or the knowledge of the academic subject, but at secondary school the object should be to teach the knowledge that creates powerful discourse.
For example, Newton’s Laws are part of the physics curriculum they are also part of everyday conversation. People who are not physicists know and discuss Newton’s Law’s when talking about science, philosophy or religion.
Let me be clear I distinguish between powerful knowledge and simply co-opting young people into cultural traditions or the “best that has been thought and said”. One is not the same as the other. Powerful knowledge is not the knowledge of the powerful. Newton’s laws have the power of explanation regardless of cultural tradition.
So why base teaching on the everyday? It is a pragmatist, progressive idea but that’s not enough of a reason. The simple fact is that the everyday re-enforces learning. The more a teacher can infuse theoretical propositions into everyday events the more likely that those theoretical propositions will be recalled and contextualised. A child may ask why a ball drops to the floor in general conversation they are less likely to ask about the laws of gravity.
I would suggest that the best thinkers restlessly frame and re-frame how the world is viewed, within an on-going conversation of mind and society. It is how vocabulary is maintained and then developed. It also provides useful conceptual tools.
Of course there are pitfalls. You could frame the discourse of a subject or other on Hip Hop street culture. Why not? I suppose one reason not to do it is that the student learns more about Hip Hop than whatever it is that is being taught.
Those who seek to leverage memory do so by associating a new object to be learned with some pre-existing and accessible memorised object and then create a relationship between the two. Hop Hop is as good as anything else as long as the the learning itself transcends the subject of Hip Hop
So three questions to ask at the start of a new academic year:
1) why does my subject matter
2) what is the discourse of the subject
3) how can it transcend the knowledge of the everyday?
That way when old friends meet over a beer many years after leaving your classroom they will have a better chance of remembering whatever it is that you taught them.