Parents: think back to your own school days.
Can you recall things you were asked or expected to learn but you couldn’t understand why? Perhaps you didn’t think they were important?
Can you remember things you learned or tried to learn because you thought they were important, but to this day you don’t really understand them or are able to explain them?
Were you ever asked to learn things for which you saw no purpose?
Did you ever ask the question, “Why do we have to learn this?”
The answer, in many cases, is “yes” to all of these.
Traditional methods of teaching have long held that education is the process of covering lots of content. Over time, the amount of content that needs to be covered has only increased. Textbooks get bigger and teachers are continuously pressed with the reality, “I have so much to cover.”
These traditional methods rely heavily on filling students’ heads with facts and hoping that they remember them. And even the “successful” student that may be skilled in memorizing and retaining factual information may not be able to understand its relevance or transfer that information to real-life in any meaningful way.
While traditional methods of education seem to be lingering, the rest of the world is moving at a tremendous pace. Much of the world’s information is now available on a handheld device. Life is increasingly unpredictable. Modern education must prepare students for the modern world: what is taught, how it is taught, how it is assessed, and what the target goals of education need to be.
The goal of education cannot continue to be the perfunctory “covering” of content; the goal is what students actually learn and what they can do with what they’ve learned. The ultimate goal of a modern education must be the transfer of learning. That is, students must be prepared to apply their learning to new and even unpredictable situations and circumstances.
The reality is that not all content is created equal—some content is more important than others. Focusing on content that is seen by the learner as relevant, active, and engaging will produce learning that endures and that doesn’t fade away after the test. This involves focusing on the most important ideas and processes in a discipline and providing students with experience in applying their learning in authentic, relevant situations so that they stay engaged.
This type of student understanding must be earned by the learner. There’s no such thing as giving a student a big understanding of anything. The traditional methods of copy and paste (teacher relays information and students copy it down) don’t mean that a student will really grasp the material. Developing understanding involves students having to think about it, try it out, get feedback and try again, and hear different perspectives. The learning process must be an active one, not passive.
There is a dual benefit to an education focused on understanding, relevance, and transfer of learning. One, it keeps students engaged and excited about their learning. They’re more likely to come home and want to talk about what they’re learning at school. That’s a sign of good learning. And two, it results in much deeper, lasting, more meaningful learning. Learning that sticks.
[Editor's Note: This blog post was adapted from a portion of the podcast episode "A Modern Education for the Modern Learner," a conversation with Dr. Jay McTighe. Dr. McTighe is an internationally renowned education consultant and co-author of many books. In the podcast episode, he explains the framework for teaching and learning that he co-authored with Dr. Grant Wiggins known as Understanding by Design that is used in many schools and school systems around the globe.]