The Purpose of Learning Content

Carl Bereiter tells us that the real function of formal instruction is to give young people enough knowledge that they can build their own comprehensive and coherent understanding of the world. This is worth rolling around in our mind. It is decidedly a constructivist view of education. There are many implications here; one is that mastering the content of the curriculum is NOT the real end goal of instruction. There is a higher, supervening goal, one not controlled by the teacher. Learning subject matter is an indirect consequence of trying to understand, really understand, how the world works.


A caring and educationally-minded parent somehow hears of your magic list (see prior post) and asks what, as a parent, they should look for in the instruction of their child’s teachers. What is something specific and easy to grasp that they can be on the lookout for, as an unmistakable sign that their child is on the right track for overall academic success? You answer that the big goal is better thinking, but that this is impossible without better reading; that for the foreseeable future success in school and beyond is indistinguishable from the ability to rapidly parse and infer long passages of text. This skill in turn, except for the lucky few, can only be acquired by a patient and detailed regime of teaching reading strategies. Therefore the best indicator of effective teaching is the presence of high-quality reading comprehension activities. (With some adjustments, this is true even for mathematics instruction.)

Teaching the Insistent Now

Schools have traditionally been far too focused on the past. Alfred North Whitehead referred to the “insistent present”, and he reminded us that the present world we are living in is all that exists. The primary purpose of school is to prepare young people to live in the current age and the near future, which they will have to survive in. This does not mean that history or classic literature are not valuable; they are.  But they derive their fundamental worth from how they prepare us to understand and thrive in the modern world. Educators, including those responsible for creating educational policy as well as administrators, have not sufficiently understood this fundamental truth. All students should be afforded the opportunity to study current events, global challenges such as the climate crisis and socioeconomic inequality, and modern movements and societal and technological trends such as AI and automation that promise to profoundly impact their lives in the very near future. To reiterate: this should be considered a basic human and generational right of young people, not to be infringed upon for any reason.


What Should We Teach First?

Schools should work on instilling values and character first, which leads to positive dispositions and attitudes, which produce good learning habits, which in turn result in the desired knowledge and skills. To begin later in the process is to skip the deepest, most generative aspect of schooling. Both moral and intellectual character traits must be fostered. By intellectual character is meant such qualities as integrity, curiosity, open mindedness, intellectual courage, persistence, belief in reason, etc.


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Super book….

On the Dual Mission of Schools

The fundamental mission of schools is twofold: to allow civilization perpetuate itself, and to maximize the life chances of every young individual who darkens a school door. These two aims are not always perfectly in alignment, and the former goal has often been emphasized at the expense of the latter.


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