Uncover the material

Retired teacher Marion Brady has been campaigning against rote teaching for many years. In a summary of interesting magazine articles posted here earlier this month, we mentioned his recent Educational Leadership essay “Cover the Material — Or Teach Students to Think?” in passing. Since then the piece has stirred some good conversation in the Teacher Leaders Network discussion group, so we thought we’d give it some additional attention.

Brady argues that “To move beyond rote memorization and use a full range of thinking skills, students need to tackle issues straight out of the complex world in which they live.” He begins his essay with an example of students wrestling with a deep “what if” question. The teacher begins:

“So here’s today’s project, kids. Get in small groups and put together flowcharts tracing the possible long-range consequences of a new state energy conservation law that says you can’t use any kind of motorized vehicle to travel less than one mile.”

“What about emergencies?”

“Hmmm. Let’s say that if you were caught using a motorized vehicle on a short trip and you weren’t bleeding and headed to the hospital, you’d be fined $200.”

“How about electric scooters or skateboards?”

“They’re motorized. It takes energy to charge their batteries. So, no.”

“Is being late for work, school, or a doctor’s appointment an emergency?”

“Nope. You’ll just need to start sooner. Any more questions? OK, then get on with it. As usual, when you think you’ve done all you can do, we’ll combine your work to get as complete a picture of this kind of policy-driven social change as we can.”

Brady tells us: “This is a reasonable and intellectually stimulating educational activity. It deals with a matter of fundamental importance in everyday life—the dynamics of social change. Working on it doesn’t require a specialized vocabulary, mastery of new ideas, or even the ability to read.”

Brady’s implication that teachers don’t have to wait until students are “on grade level” before they focus on higher order thinking skills is so important. And it’s not hard to imagine how the particular project he describes here could be “digitally infused” through the use of online collaboration tools, web research activities, etc.

The same goes for several other ideas Brady reels off —

Generating similar questions isn’t difficult: What if consumption of fresh water were limited to two gallons per person per day? What if everyone, no exceptions, had to serve one year of public service after high school? What if a reliable pocket-size voice stress analyzer indicating when someone isn’t telling the truth cost just $10? What if global warming raised the average temperature in the area in which you live by 4°F?

Brady then asks the key question:

These kinds of questions make students think. Why, then, aren’t such questions routinely asked in school? Why is such an important aim—to help students think more clearly and productively—so hard to put into operation?

His ensuing discussion recognizes the challenges teachers face as they struggle to “cover the material” but argues that we simply can’t settle for that. You might want to print this one out and stick it in a few mailboxes. It’s certainly worthy of discussion in a teacher study group. You have those, right?

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