Help Wanted: Existential Teaching Dilema

This evening, everyone in my critical friends group is sharing an “existential” dilema we’re struggling with about our practice. Here’s mine:

This is the question I’ve struggled with since I began planning my Government/Economics course last summer: How do I choose/balance between the following modes of praxis in a course where I’m not concerned with a massive amount of content for a state exam?

  1. Teaching through inquiry, which best develops students’ ability to think critically and to learn how to learn. In true open inquiry, learning a specific body of knowledge is limited or sacrificed.
  2. Teaching through extensive reading, watching, and research to gain the necessary cultural literacy to enter adult society and assume the responsibilities of citizenship. Given the tremendous amount of information students need, this limits the emphasis on skill development.
  3. Teaching students to do authentic intellectual work (which often, but not always, is through Project Based Assessments), which emphasizes the practical skills of communication and production, as well as have students engage with specific content.

Some notes towards an answer:

I recently re-read Horace’s Compromise, where Ted Sizer writes that schools should only really focus on four things:

  1. Helping students develop understanding, which is done by questioning.
  2. Helping students to gain knowledge, which is done by telling.
  3. Helping students develop skills, which is done through coaching.
  4. Helping students obtain decency

There seems to be a strong correlation between Sizer’s first three duties of an “essential” school and the three modes of praxis I struggle to balance. At the school level, I think there is a clear need to balance all three, along with ensuring all students are decent people (and given that most of my thinking right now is about macro-curriculum planning for the school I’m helping to open next fall, having that clarity is a huge help). My feeling is that a thoughtfully and intentionally structured school would be filled with classes that allow students and teachers to primarily focus on one of the three areas, to make sure that the course’s transfer goals are clear, and to decrease the cognitive load on students, allowing for maximum development.

In the overwhelming majority of schools though, there is little attention to how the entire curriculum works together. At best, there is some alignment vertically within subject areas, or horizontally across grades. It then falls to the thoughtful teacher to make an independent decision on how to address these three goals…

I’m very curious to hear how teachers, parents, and students would respond to this question.


One thought on “Help Wanted: Existential Teaching Dilema

  1. I really enjoy reading your posts. As far as the question is concerned, I would fall on the side of a blend of the methods you wrote about. I think I would focus on the inquiry based and coaching of skills so that the students get the skills while maintaining their interests. Keep in mind that this is only my third year teaching and still have a lot to learn. I learn a great deal by reading your blog so keep up the good work!


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