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Leadership and Activism

Asking the right questions

|Kelly Tenkely|

Today’s #edchat topic for discussion on Twitter was: In a time of cut backs in education for the sake of the economy, should sports and extra curricular clubs take a back seat?

Those “extras” we are referring to: the arts and physical activities (sports).  For me, this #edchat topic succinctly summarizes what is wrong in education today.

There is something wrong with a system that considers the arts and physical activities as expendable.  Being “educated” has come to mean one thing: having a critical mass of a certain kind of knowledge so that one can perform well on a test.  What type of knowledge have we deemed important?  Literacy, math, science (and in some cases engineering and tech to round out the STEM initiatives).  Aren’t we more than this?  I like to think that I am more complex and “whole” than the sum of these few subjects.  Isn’t there more complexity to life than just literacy and STEM?

Who has determined that these tests accurately measure all there is to know about being successful, being human?  I would like to meet those who create these tests. If what shows up on the tests is reflective of who they are as “whole” people, I think that they must be very one-dimensional and dull.

Want to know a secret? I don’t think I want my students to be “successful” if a test is the only measure of success.  I want my students to be thinkers and problem solvers, to discover their gifts and talents and use those to shape a better world. I want my students to be creative and innovative. I want my students to be whole.  If we truly believe that students are more than just the sum of the subjects taught in school, how can we think of cutting out the programs that make them more whole?

The problem with the conversation is that it has become an either/or scenario.  Either we cut the “extras” or we have massive debt. Either we cut the “extras” or we have to cut one of the “more important” subjects. This isn’t an either/or conversation.  Those “extras” are part of learning.  The “extras” are part of what makes us uniquely human.  Those “extras” are not special and separate, they are a part of that wonderful tapestry that makes us human.  To cut them out and treat them as expendable is to treat students as a machine whose sole purpose is to have a single outcome: perform well on a test.

I think the problem goes even deeper.  When you ask students, parents, or most teachers why we want them to do well in school, the focus is usually on graduation.  We want them to graduate…with honors.  Why?  Because, then they can go into debt to pay for college (of course!).  Is anyone else looking at this problem with jaw on the floor?  What happens after college? We search for a job where we can follow directions and earn a paycheck that we can use to pay off our college debt.

College used to make sense.  In a world that wasn’t well-connected, where you couldn’t flip on your computer and be connected to an expert for free, we relied on college to be a place to go and learn to think from the best.  Learning isn’t reliant on institutions any more.  Learning happens in-spite of the institutions.  I seriously struggle with the why of a university experience in the year 2011 (I struggle with the why of schools the way they look right now too).  When I think back to my university experience, what I remember is those few (3) professors that I had that made a difference in my life. I still have all of my lecture notes and correspondences from those professors. They were exceptional for what I needed.  Outside of those 3 professors the biggest impact was my life outside of academics. The rest of the experience: worked through so I could have the piece of paper that said I did it.

Back to the #edchat topic: should we cut the extras in light of a struggling economy?  This is the wrong question to ask. The question should be: In light of a struggling economy, how can we adjust our budgets and priorities (priorities being those things we spend money on) to include the “extras” as part of an education that meets the needs of the whole child?

We try to keep answering these questions with the same unimaginative thinking that dug us into this hole.

Just for a moment let’s stop and think about the arts and physical activities.  How many math and physics problems in textbooks use sports as a story problem?

Can you see where I am going with this?  Why are we teaching math and physics through artificial story problems out of an antiquated textbook?  Why aren’t we saying, “let’s go test this out with a game of baseball”?

We aren’t thinking creatively enough about how to solve these problems. We try to segment, and rank importance, and test. Instead we should be looking at how to solve the problem in new ways.  Life is complex.  When you look at nature it doesn’t segment itself off into subjects that are done separately.  Nature is art, science, math, language, engineering, physical all in one. It happens together seamlessly.

Watch a baby, or any young animal, as they figure out life. So much is happening simultaneously that involves language, math, science, physical activity, engineering, and art.  This is how we learn to walk, talk, engage others, and keep ourselves safe. This is the way that life happens and it is the way we learn.  The real problem is, as soon as we enter school, we stop life from happening and try to erect artificial boundaries and understandings to get a single outcome.  We strip away “extras” that teach life skills like pride, respect, collaboration, teamwork, and citizenship. We reduce students to the sum of 5 subjects.  Is it any wonder that depression levels are at an all time high? Is it any wonder that we have a population that is obese?  Is it any wonder that every advertisement we see promises us a better life?

We need to be more creative, we need a paradigm shift in the way that education is done. Our thinking has to shift away from one where certain subjects are more important than others. We have to reconsider priorities and how money is spent.

Think about how dollars are spent in your school-most likely a large amount is spent on:

  • Boxed curriculum (heavy emphasis on those 5 subjects, heavy emphasis on one result, heavy emphasis on meeting one type of students needs.) The boxed curriculum is purchased and taught so that students will do well on the standardized tests.
  • Standardized (or other forms) of testing
  • Copy budgets (anyone know someone who prints off EVERY email that lands in their inbox?)
  • Textbooks (out of date as soon as they are published)

In my mind this isn’t rocket science.  Adjust your priorities and the money will be there.  The real problem is that right now our priorities are all out of whack.

I propose a new question:

In light of a struggling economy, how can we adjust our budgets and priorities (priorities being those things we spend money on) to include the “extras” as part of an education that meets the needs of the whole child?

If we can think of new ways to answer that question, the original question will be a non-issue.


About ktenkely

Specializing in instructional technology Professional development. Consulting. Teaching.


7 thoughts on “Asking the right questions

  1. Great post. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Posted by mjruden | January 11, 2011, 4:20 pm
  2. Kelly,

    Thank you for this post.

    I think many of the answers are evident in what you and others have said. Obviously, the challenge is at decision-making levels beyond our influence – at the moment.

    The arts, outdoor education and the like were severely cut back in Ontario in the mid-nineties. Unfortunately, I believe this (along with other social funding cuts) has led to major expenses in supporting young adults who are lost in the ‘real world’ after being unsuccessful in school and life.

    So. We pay in the end. I dare say a greater amount of money and in human capital. Sad.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts so eloquently.


    Posted by peter skillen | January 11, 2011, 4:34 pm
  3. Kelly, I agree 100%. We often need to remember that the right questions lead to solutions, where as some questions just lead to endless debate.

    “Should we cut X instead of Y?” implies that either X or Y is expendable. Instead we need to reframe: “How can we keep X and Y?” which leads to possible solutions.

    Creative solutions to problems can only exist in a framework where the question itself invites discussion & solutions, rather than framing “the” solution as a question.

    Posted by dwees | January 11, 2011, 4:39 pm
  4. I agree with both Kelly and David that re-framing the question can lead to a solution … some ideas that come to mind: find ways and use the school as a hub for activities once the last bell rings … there may be non-profits interested in having arts & sports (and not limited to those) programs offered to the kids in this period … many kids stay in out-of-school centres anyway and this could be done with their cooperation … enthusiastic teachers could donate time too … principles have the power to bend the rules and even invite some such programs during the regular hours … presumably cutting on sports will not be replaced with extra hours of math 😉 … so the learning from those programs is intertwined with the rest … and so on

    Posted by kima | January 11, 2011, 7:31 pm
  5. Right there with you.

    So, in your mind, how does this look in one of those sectioned classrooms until the walls are broken down? On a hall? In a building? A division?

    Thank you for your post, Kelly –

    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 11, 2011, 10:59 pm


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