I had a great, short conversation with a few colleagues last week about this idea that has been circulating both in the general discussion on education and around my school campus. We are of a certain age, which is to say, an age that remembers when it wasn't so unusual for great schools (or even just ok ones) to have lots of course offerings in practical subjects like cooking, sewing, wood and metal shop and so forth. And we were wondering what happened to these offerings and why their demise across the country is a very bad thing. When did it become old-fashioned to go to school to learn how to do things?
We discussed how much we got out of these practical courses when we did them. Cooking and Woodshop both require a student to be able to read and understand complex instructions and to execute those instructions correctly to transform ingredients into either coffee cakes or bookshelves. I don't know about you, but following a recipe in a contemporary cookbook is not the easiest thing in the world. Without the cooking class I did in middle school, it certainly wouldn't be easier. Perhaps more importantly, we agreed, was the sense of completion we got from doing these courses. Simply put, when you finished a project, you had something. If you did your work correctly, you got a sublime coffee cake. If you didn't you got a flooring tile. In short, when you were done doing whatever you were doing, you had done something that you could see, touch or taste and you knew whether you had done it correctly. Ample and sustained educational research throughout the 20th century strongly endorses this perspective and organization of learning.
We got away from valuing this kind of learning when budget cuts in the 70s and 80s forced schools to contract their educational vision and then in the 2000s when the assessment and measurement philosophy of No Child Left Behind fetishized just one or two skills to the exclusion of all others.
And we got further away still because of the changes in American society wrought by Information Technology and the extensive economic, social and cultural changes that mark the transition of American society from America 2.0 (Industrialism) to America 3.0 (Informationism). As new educators and educational leaders entered the profession (myself among them), we placed more and more value on content for its own sake and got further and further away from the beauty of doing. It didn't help that for many of us, the connection between the doing we did in Cooking or in Woodshop didn't seem to speak in any clear way to the kinds of doing that students in 2012 should be focused on.
But I am ever more convinced that focusing on doing is ever more what we should be doing in education in 2012. I am less interested, for example, in whether a student can tell me a specific fact than in what a student can do with a particular fact. I am more interested in whether a student can search competently than I am in whether that student can memorize what I've told them in a class lecture and then tell me what I told them.
In short, I think the time has come for us to think about how we use our classroom time differently, focusing much more of our attention on how we want students to engage the world. Can schools become places of doing and not just knowing? If there's to be any future for America's youth, I hope so.