Are You Forgetting to Give the ‘Why’ Behind the ‘What?’

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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A few weeks ago I had the privilege of presenting at the 35th annual Tri Association Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico on personalized learning.

I also had an opportunity to sit in on Zoe Weil and Mike Johnston’s joint keynote on raising students to be solutionaries — students feeling empowered to tackle complex problems based on curriculum opportunities inspired by the Sustainability Compass:

sustainable development goals

The curriculum implications are, of course, right up my alley. I’m working right now on a manuscript with Mike Fisher and Marie Alcock on the design of quests — the Sustainable Development Goals fit as a prime example.

Sustainable Development Goals are …

  • Genuinely perplexing to the learner. There is a compelling need or reason to figure it out.
  • Honors a diversity of perspectives. There are multiple ways of framing an idea, approaches to a challenge, and/or points of view that are respected and a respectful starting place.
  • Inherently interdisciplinary. There are natural through-lines in multiple subject areas — the concept of “phenomenon-based learning” where students makes sense of a topic or challenge by leveraging relevant content and skills regardless of what subject territory it is in to make the learning compelling.

An Unexpected Twist

What tipped my wheels a bit off their axis was a simple idea from Mike Johnston (paraphrasing his eloquence): “I imagine a world where teachers stop saying, ‘I teach math to students,’ and instead say, ‘I teach students to create a better world.'”

That is the heart of the problem. As educators of students in a contemporary world, we confuse means and ends. The end is not solely proficiency in a subject area, but how students are applying their knowledge to go after broader, more interdisciplinary, aims.

We don’t simply want scientists, engineers, mathematicians, policy makers, and activists to know facts, we want them to carry the ability to:

  • Clarify the nature of the problem
  • Apply appropriate tools/strategies
  • Evaluate reasonableness of solution
  • Communicates solution/process using precise language

These professionals won’t just know the content, they will leverage the content, whether it is systems of equations or extreme weather. If we are going to make a dent in the idea of subject areas as silos (especially in secondary schools) we need to get goal clarity on these aims that are inspired by the discipline, but that have interdisciplinary threads in the pursuit of the problem, challenge, or idea.

All this requires is a shift in mindset, because the content won’t change. Approaching our curriculum with a why-focused mentality will help students understand the purpose behind the material while inspiring them to make a difference.


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