Tag Archives: Teaching

“When am I ever going to use this?”


As an educator, there are some questions from students that should just not be answered. “When am I ever going to use this?” is one of those questions.  Sadly, many teachers make the mistake of trying to give an answer, (note image of the poster above from a classroom in my school) and in doing so they undermine the very notion of education itself.

“When am I ever going to use this?” contains a dangerous premise about the nature of education. It implies that in life, various situations will arise in which a particular skill or a particular piece of knowledge will come in handy, and it is the job of education to provide you with that knowledge or skill ahead of time when you are young, so you will be ready when the need arises as an adult.

The tiniest bit of reflection upon this idea will either cause disbelief in the premise, or a belief in the utter uselessness in the idea of education itself.  Sadly, I think most people today default to the latter.

Let’s reflect upon the data in our own minds to illustrate this point. Suppose you are a relatively successful, forty-something adult. What percentage of facts learned in high school have you used to date? The difference between meiosis and mitosis? The symbolism in “The Minister’s Black Veil”? The significance of The Battle of Hastings? Ok. Maybe not so many particular facts, but what about particular skills? How to measure a flagpole using only its shadow and trigonometry? Factoring trinomials? Determining the momentum of a moving object? Formatting a works cited page and parenthetical citations? Depending on your interests, you could have used some of these, but for each skill used, most of us can think of dozens not used. So then, what’s the point of education? Is most of it just useless knowledge and skills, never used, and justifiably forgotten?

Benjamin Franklin tells a story that helps illuminate the nature of education. He tells of a time when the state of Virginia offered to educate six young men from six Native American tribes. The tribal leaders said thanks, but no thanks. In explanation, they told of a previous time when some of their young men were taught at universities in another colony. These young men came back poor hunters, poor warriors, unable to survive in the forest, and unable to speak the language properly. In short, they were considered useless, uneducated. Summing up his story, Franklin says that in the colonies, education was for developing the intellect, while for the natives, education was for survival.

In short, the “When am I ever going to use this?” mentality is using the natives’ “survival” view of education. According to this view, there are a certain number of tasks a person must be able to accomplish in life in order to survive, and education is to provide the knowledge and skills necessary to accomplish them. But there is an alternative to this mentality, the colonists’ “developing the intellect” view. Detailing what “developing the intellect” consists of is a topic for another post, but the advantageous results of developing the intellect are easy to see. I live in Texas, and while driving across the state this week I observed large fields of trees and grass, seemingly untouched by man. Now imagine standing in the middle of that field, and using just the materials present, creating a cell phone, or an air-conditioned car, or even the fancy thermos that somehow keeps my ice water cold for over 24 hours. The list could go on. How do you look out at the field of grass, cactus, weeds, trees, dirt, and rock, and develop paper and ink, plastic containers, rubber tires, centrifuges, airplanes, watches, and laser pointers? For most of these things, I don’t particularly know; but I do fundamentally know that it is done with an intellect developed a certain way, and not with an intellect taught only things that answer the question “When am I ever going to use this?”

Glenn Gould and Course Customization

Glenn+Gould+gould02Canadian Pianist Glenn Gould surely ranks as “great” because he is so passionately loved by much of the serious music listening community while so passionately hated by the rest. (I’m on the passionately love side for what it is worth.) He is also, as far as I know, the first classical pianist to write extensively on the recording process.

In his article titled “The Prospects of Recording” from 1966 Gould speaks of a “new kind of listener.” One who is “more participant in the musical experience.” He supposes the listener will become even more participant in the future and envisions a new kind of product from the recording industry. He imagines a packaging of a work, say Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, that includes many different performances and the ability for the listener to cut and splice the parts of each performance  together such that in the end he has his own performance of the 5th with all his favorite interpretations in one piece. (For instance, you may enjoy Bernstein’s exposition, but  Solti’s development, and Barenboim’s recapitulation.)

I forget when I first read Gould’s article, but I do remember that CDs were relatively new and most of my music was on cassette tapes. Over the decades, as far as I can tell, Gould’s vision has not materialized even though I’m quite sure the technology to achieve it has been available for some time. Sadly (because I would love to have it), I now think it will probably never happen. Why not?

Quite simply, I think people just aren’t that interested. They are not interested in being such an active participant in their musical experience. They just don’t love the music to the point that they wish to pay that kind of minute attention to its production. After all, that is spending a lot of highly focused time with Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

Where I teach we use a curriculum software package, Odysseyware, that has wonderful customization features. The teacher can easily click and drag lessons from other courses or units to build a better course, and more importantly, the teacher can write his own lessons within the platform and easily format them so that they flow with the rest of the course. This second feature I’ve used repeatedly such that now in my 5th year, over half of the lessons my students experience (roughly 600) are written by me specially for them.

The benefits to this kind of system are obvious. The teacher is much more participant in the educational process. He can better make the course fit the needs of his students. His personality is stamped on the course, making it a unique experience for the student that the teacher can stand behind 100% because it is the manifestation of the teacher’s vision of what the educational experience should be.

And yet, I’m repeatedly told that I’m the exception when it comes to taking advantage of this technological feature, other teachers using course customization tools rarely if at all.  Why so? At the risk of becoming extremely unpopular with other teachers, I think the reason is the same reason Gould’s music customization idea never took hold. That kind of active participation, that kind of responsibility for the educational experience, that kind of passion for the end product being a part of your soul, just isn’t wanted enough.

With Responsibility Comes Love: The Joy that is Teaching


(Note: This was intended as an article for an education and technology publisher, but it didn’t have a strong enough technology focus for them.) 

It is often said that teachers teach because they love their work (the pay not being much of a draw). Yet for all the talk of teachers loving what they do, studies consistently show that teacher turnaround is higher than most professions. I’m convinced a reason for this turnover is because when teachers are asked about why they love their work, their explanations are vague. Common are statements like, “I love it that I’m making a difference.” Left out is a good explanation of how they make a difference. Left out is why this difference is so important. Since a joy only superficially understood is easily toppled, a deeper exploration of the joy that comes from teaching is key for educators.

Of course, teaching isn’t the only profession with members who love their work. Regardless of profession I think people who experience joy at work do so because they not only enjoy the activities of their job, but because they recognize the value in what they are doing. At a time when technological advancements in a year outshine centuries of advancements in the past, the lover of his work today can tangibly see himself as a part of the progress of humanity. That’s job fulfillment. I, as a teacher, however, enjoy my job because the products I provide are the reason and knowledge that underlie all progress.

Reason as an explicit pedagogical goal can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks about 2,400 years ago. However, the importance of reason wasn’t fully realized until the Enlightenment and the Enlightenment’s application, the world’s first technological boom, the industrial revolution. Since then, man’s comforts have skyrocketed, his life expectancy has doubled, and his population has grown well past what anyone previously thought supportable. Today’s technological boom has the potential to be a New Enlightenment with another round of previously unforeseen benefits to mankind. Additionally, the technological boom spilling over to education gives educators new and better tools to lay the intellectual foundation required for further growth. I enjoy my job because my successes are the foundation of man’s continued progress.

But doesn’t our modern age have problems of its own? It surely does, but I’m inspired by the great educational theorist, Horace Mann, who saw education and the training of the intellect as the cure to even our modern ills. “Now, what can save us from endless contention, but the love of truth? What can save us, and our children after us, from eternal, implacable, universal war, but the greatest of all human powers,–the power of impartial thought?” I enjoy my job because if a future peace in our world is to be achieved, I will have helped create it by instilling in future adults the love of reason and knowledge.

But isn’t part of teaching drilling and testing of students over facts? Isn’t this just an academic exercise? Certainly, but let’s look at a smartphone. Every tiny component’s location, material, design, shape, function, relationship to the other components is an answer to the question, right or wrong? And since the designers were well-versed in determining facts, every answer was right. Now we have what would seem to anyone in the history of mankind, a magical tool, a tool of the gods. I enjoy my work because I teach the skills that make the tools of the gods.

You may think I’m engaging in hyperbole. Not everyone creates cutting edge technology. Maybe teaching should be geared toward training average folks so they can get a job with a livable wage. Perhaps you believe that civilization is propelled by a tiny fraction of the populace and the rest just go along for the ride. This may have been true, but seeing that it must continue to be true is selling today’s students short. The great educational theorist Shinichi Suzuki’s great breakthrough was realizing all Japanese children speak fluent Japanese! An obvious fact, but Suzuki, recognizing the enormous complexity involved in mastering a language, determined that children must be further capable of equally complex tasks and set his expectations for every child accordingly. People are capable of more than we think. I enjoy teaching because I see potential for greatness in every student and work to actualize it.

Finally, in today’s age we are flooded with technological opportunities (all products of the reasoning mind) unavailable to the great teachers of past generations. With the entirety of the public domain at my fingertips for free, being the scholar my students need to see has never been easier. With customizable software that allows me to both compose courses that match my vision of the subject as well as meet the individual needs of my students, being a teacher has the potential to be more effective and more creative. I enjoy teaching because it prompts me to be a scholar and an artist.

I love my job for all these reasons. Why do you love yours?

The Missing Element in Technology Integration: The Teacher

The advent of the car in American culture was a great boon. People could easily go places in relative comfort that were previously impossible or impractical. But while cars allowed people to go places more quickly and easily, they didn’t tell people where they should go. The technology was good in that it created the possibility for more value-producing actions, but the car didn’t say what those value-producing actions were. The technology available for education is similar. The entire public domain (tens of thousands of titles) is now available in an instant for free online. If that weren’t enough, a dizzying number of apps, software, and websites are specifically designed for educators and learners. In essence, educators now have a nice fast car, but how do they decide where they should go?

Currently technology is being gobbled up by schools at a mind-numbing rate. Much of the purpose for technology relies on the idea that the curriculum for any given subject is a static body of knowledge and we must find a way to make it engaging by changing the form of our delivery. Why? Because we believe on its own, schoolwork is boring. So we find an app that delivers the lesson as a video game, we look up videos on youtube, we have the students use Twitter or Surveymonkey to turn in answers, etc. We buy into the quote by Isocrates, “The root of education is bitter, but sweet are its fruits”, and we try to add a little sugar to the bitterness. But my suspicion is that when students seem engaged by these new forms they are really enjoying the forms, not the subject matter. (At least, that’s what my students usually tell me.)

Now almost everyone has a class or two that has a special place in his or her memory from school. I haven’t done a poll, but I would bet that nine times out of ten that special class wasn’t special or effective because of the technology; it was special or effective because of the teacher. That’s because of the simple fact that teachers teach, and whatever technology they use to teach (a chalkboard, an online curriculum, or the latest software) is a tool they use to help them teach. (I don’t mean to get all warm and fuzzy about teachers in general. On the contrary, that most adults only mention one or two teachers that resonated with them is pretty damning.)

My memory of those special teachers is that they knew their subject, were passionate about it, and showed their passion through life-long study of their subject and its importance. They didn’t see “the curriculum” as a static body of knowledge that they needed to make palatable. They saw it as a vibrant, living, important story to be passionately told. They were scholars and their courses were compositions. Their courses were integrated products from the mind of a competent composer designed such that at the end, the student understood a single unit. The student “got” literature, “got” math, “got” science, “got” history.

So, when assessing technology options, this special teacher should be considered. What technology will best help him more thoroughly bring his unique qualified vision to reality? What technology will help him adjust his vision quickly and easily to fit the needs of his particular students? What technology will allow him to present a course that has the appearance of an integrated whole? (And not the appearance of a patchwork of supplementary materials from disparate sources) And if he isn’t that special teacher, what technology will help him become one? What educational technology will help the teacher become the passionate, life-long learning scholar he needs to be to make his subject come alive?

Currently there are wonderful technologies that help the dynamic, passionate, teacher present a better educational product, and I happily use many myself. Sadly, there are many other educational technologies that instead sacrifice the matter of education to the form of education. Remembering the importance of the role of the teacher in teaching is an easy way to tell the difference between the two.