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Learning at its Best

We Need to Teach So that Kids Will Care

Someone I respect says we shouldn’t teach kids stuff they don’t care about.

It sounds appealing. On some level this seems to make sense.

It is also patently absurd.

We have to teach kids things they don’t care about for all kinds of reasons.

The first reason is because we don’t have to teach them the things they do care about. They learn those things with or without us.

Dinosaur Exhibition Beijing

You know this if you have spent any time at all with boys between the ages of three and six and wondered how they know all they know about dinosaurs. You know this if you have ever talked to a teenager about their music.

We have to teach kids things they don’t care about so that they will care about things they don’t know about yet. Like genocides, or famines, or global warming.

Or how to use a chain saw.

Man using a chainsaw with all recommended safe...

Image via Wikipedia

I wish someone had taught me how to use a chainsaw. I didn’t care about it when I lived in Manhattan, it wasn’t important then. I could really use that knowledge now that I have a backyard with trees down in it.

As I see it, the question is not whether we should or should not teach kids things they don’t care about. The question is what it is that they don’t care about that we do need to teach them about.

This is not really something anyone I know can determine. I know I can’t.

I have problems just dividing knowledge into those things we academics call subjects. I have a very hard time figuring out where math ends and science begins, how people can think that what we call social studies doesn’t overlap them both and that it is all blanketed by English.

Kowledge is holisitc. It is all one giant fuzzy rapidly expanding blob with no beginning, no end, no edges at all. It cannot be created and cannot be destroyed; it can only be uncovered or revealed. And it is our job to reveal it, as much of it as we can.

I don’t think it matters much what order we teach things. Jerome Bruner says anything can be taught to anyone at any time. The only thing that changes is the level of complexity. He contends that anything can be, should be, retaught repeatedly at increasing levels of complexity.

I just know that it is absolutely essential that we teach kids one very, very important thing, something we all know but don’t focus on. We need them to know it and to focus on it, to make it the driving force in their life.

The other side of the globe.

We have to teach kids that the world has not always been the way it is now and it will not always be the way it is.

We have to teach them that they have the power to change the ways things are.

And we have to remember that so do we.

This is reposted from my blog Educationontheplate

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About Deven Black

I'm a highly curious middle school teacher-librarian for the NYC Department of Education. My other major pleasure is being a husband and the father of a teenager. I've done lots of other things (news reporter, restaurant manager, food writer, etc.) that will show up in my writing from time-to-time. I have strong opinions but I try to keep an open mind. I'm always ready to learn something new.


3 thoughts on “We Need to Teach So that Kids Will Care

  1. Chainsaws for everyone? 🙂

    Posted by Nance Confer | November 14, 2011, 8:38 pm
  2. Thanks for this Deven.

    In my opinion we don’t make kids “care about” topics by simply exposing them. I believe that we nurture the capacity for caring by modeling and engaging in caring relationships. We demonstrate what caring looks like and feels like by authentically caring for kids and for living subjects about which we are passionate. Kids do need to learn to passionately and attentively care and to be gratefully and gracefully cared for. Caring relationships should be the nexus of as well as the fundamental unit of education, the very atom out of which education evolves, and the foundation upon which it rests.

    Caring relationships should be at the heart of what we do when we educate. These caring relationships should include caring for self, caring for other people, caring for the earth, caring for all life, caring for inanimate objects and most radically, caring for ideas and the living subjects with which we engage in school daily.

    These of course are not my original ideas, they are taken from the powerful and transformational work of Nel Noddings. Her books, Caring, as well as The Challenge to Care in School describe an ontology and pedagogy, respectively, built upon the foundation of caring relationships. She is working towards cultivating an “ethic of care.” Please, everyone, check out these important books! In embracing this approach, we’ll need to carefully re-define what we mean by care. I think it is much deeper than “to have an interest in.” Caring is about a deep embrace of “other.” It is about holding something or someone with reverence, with humility, with wonder and with love.

    In short we develop kids’ capacity for caring not by simply exposing them to new curriculum or material, even cool stuff like chainsaws (though I think this one in particular is an odd exemplar, Deven, as it is a tool that has enabled humans to realize so much environmental and ecological devastation – wasn’t sure if you were joking about this one) but rather we teach kids to care by engaging with them in a myriad of caring relationships.

    Here’s to building education upon an ethic of care.


    Posted by holisticdancingmonkeygmonkey | November 15, 2011, 12:11 am
  3. Devon,

    I would rephrase your respected associate’s statement to suggest that one Cannot teach kids something they do not care about. Extending this thought, one should not bother trying to teach kids something until they do come to care about it.

    It has been suggested that, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Experientially, this seems to be accurate, but just because a teacher is present does not mean the student is ready to learn.

    Following Paul’s line of thought, teaching seems to be more a matter of modeling so that students, at some point, might emulate the teacher whose primary interest may be in mathematics, biology, physics, history, government, etc.

    Some of the professional teachers in my life significantly affected me, whether positive or negative. The effects of those teachers, however significant, were miniscule in comparison to those brought about by the sheer mass of the other teachers in my daily-life. The many teachers in my life, most of them never giving thought to working as a professional teacher, ‘taught’ me a great deal throughout K-12, undergrad, professional school and graduate schooling.

    I am unable to perceive that teachers are responsible for the outcome(s) of their efforts in an education system involving dictates over which power brokers have control. Perhaps your ‘real’ students are not the kids at all – your students may be their parents, the taxpayers or tuition payers, and greater society. One can only hope that those students are ready…


    Posted by Brent Snavely | November 16, 2011, 9:08 am

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