What’s the Point of School?

While most members of Radical Nation are probably familiar with Tony Sinanis — Principal of Cantiague Elementary School and the mind behind the Leading Motivated Learners blog — they may be less familiar with Tony’s brilliant son Paul.

Paul is heading to middle school this year and in a recent conversation with his dad, Paul dropped some words of wisdom about schooling:

Slide - The Point of School

Paul’s words matter, y’allThey are a tangible reminder that it is OUR fault when kids think school is pointless.

That doesn’t mean that we need to ditch everything in our required curricula.  There ARE things that we want every child to learn — and our students may not automatically see the value in that content.  Exploring things like the commutative and distributive properties of multiplication or the origins of democracy might seem pretty darn pointless to a middle schooler — but I wouldn’t want kids to graduate without knowing that stuff.

But it DOES mean that we have to do a better job helping students to see the value in the work that we are doing in our classrooms. It ALSO means that we have to do a better job connecting the work that we are doing in our classrooms to the interests and motivations that our kids pursue outside of schools.

The simple truth is that engaging learners means helping students to see the value — to themselves, to their communities, to the world — in every single lesson.



Related Radical Reads:

Should We be Engaging or Empowering Learners?

How Engaged are YOUR Students?

Engagement isn’t Something You do TO Students

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  • BillIvey

    Okay, I have a case study for us to consider!

    Your statement, “The simple truth is that engaging learners means helping students to see the value — to themselves, to their communities, to the world — in every single lesson.” – something with which I agree 100% – seems to be a useful frame for my reflections.

    You mention wanting students to graduate knowing the origins of democracy. That touches a nerve, because of course I don’t have any required content in my Humanities 7 class and I have no idea whether my kids will graduate knowing the origins of democracy. And I care deeply about them and don’t want to be underserving them. So I’m fighting the impulse to get all defensive.

    But you know, right now my kids are involved in a long and involved and passionate discussion about a proposal they want to develop on modifying our school’s dress code. They were doing this in student government anyway (which involves the entire 7th grade and thus my entire Humanities 7 class), and the first unit they designed was themed “cultural principles,” so it all fit nicely together. So they’re discussing purposes of dress codes and discovering that gets down to community values (i.e. cultural principles) and trying to figure out what their common beliefs are. I’m expecting them to settle on a list of core values that will undergird the purpose and rationale for a dress code they will then design. After that, they can get into specific rules, keeping in mind both intention and perception (a concept they brought up yesterday) because they’ll have a deeper understanding of the why behind the what. That proposal will go to Student Council for discussion there, subsequent discussion in all Class Meetings, and then re-discussion and vote in Student Council. If it passes there, the 7th grade rep will present the proposal to the full faculty and take questions for clarification. We will then have a private faculty discussion and take our own vote, and if it passes, unless our Head of School pulls out the veto pen (which she has never ever done), it will become part of the Community Handbook.

    There are a billion lessons in democracy there, many of which will be expanded and reinforced as they go through the year and design and implement the remaining units. Yet, as I say, they will probably leave my class with no knowledge of the history of democracy.

    I’m generally among the first to reject binary thinking and “either-or” framings of issues, and I’m absolutely willing to consider the notion that this unit would be much richer if they were also learning the origins of democracy. But I’ll confess, whether or not this is me being defensive and wanting to believe I’m doing right by my kids even if I’m not, for the moment, I honestly believe what they are doing is teaching them more about democracy than studying its history ever could.

    I know you care deeply about your own kids and you are amazingly insightful and able to keep multiple threads in mind and weave the whole thing together skillfully. So I’ll toss this case study and my questions your way, and see what we can learn together. Thanks for bringing up the topic!

    • helenliptak

      History helps

      Bill, It sounds like you are doing incredible things and should be commended.  I agree as well that it’s not an either-or situation. Your class would be even greater if you could point to some of the historical agreements and compromises, or even primary sources like the Declaration of Independence, that have changed the world. It would be cool to have students research how often and how well in history these types of change have been effected.  Discussing ancient laws about clothing and dress throughout history might help bolster your students’ arguments. I see numerous links to historical debate that would not only tie their reallife situation to the study of democracy, but help them understand history’s relevance. I am sure they will remember what they worked on much longer than what year the Olive Branch Petition was sent, but wouldn’t it be amazing if they did both?

      I wish them, and you, every success.