36. Subject Area Mastery — An Amalgam of Skills for 21st Century Challenges

Elementary teachers in self-contained classrooms are often acceptant of interdisciplinary configurations. If resources and textbooks are written that way.

Typically NOT true for those teaching in middle or high school. Teaching their favorite subject is now a pleasure.

Some SAC members find it difficult to coalesce around a broad curricular theme. A theme not limited to their own narrow discipline.

Betty, the secondary math teacher liaison on the language arts SAC, has that problem.

Ken’s response may have confused Betty. To her, society has elevated mathematics to premier status. Genius is often equated with proficiency in math.

Why should schools let math be absorbed by other intellectual pursuits?

Jennifer, the district’s technology specialist, answers, “Emphasize the 21st Century’s dependence on technology.”

Jennifer makes a good point. Technology is more than mathematics alone. Real life has always been more than mathematics. Or any other one skill or knowledge area.

In fact, real life includes many behaviors and understandings not even found in a school curriculum.     

The new learning infrastructure’s challenge is to make schools more like everyday life.

Everyday life cannot break five or six hours into reading, then mathematics, then science, and so on. Even our workdays are an amalgam of skills. We use both interchangeably and productively.

Barbara and the Growth of the Collaborative

Decision-Making Conversation – Part 11

I watched Jennifer, the technology specialist, almost fall out of her chair. She leaned forward to respond to Mary’s invitation to speak. Ken’s remarks about engineers using language and numbers interactively to imagine possible answers clearly struck a chord.

“Technology is really nothing new,” Jennifer said. “Human beings have been discovering ways to make life healthier and more convenient for centuries.”

The definition to focus on in this district is the knowledge of how our universe works put to practical use. Too many people believe technology is something electronic, magical, and mysterious.

“But that way of thinking minimizes technology’s real importance to us both historically and sociologically. Does this sound strange coming from your district’s 21st Century technology specialist? We need to paint technology with a much broader brush.

“Let me explain by sharing this definition I found in an internet search:

‘The word technology refers to the making, modification, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems, and methods of organization, in order to solve a problem, improve a preexisting solution to a problem, achieve a goal, handle an applied input/output relation or perform a specific function. It can also refer to the collection of such tools, including machinery, modifications, arrangements and procedures.’ Source: WordLift

“See, that definition does not say anything about computers, electronics, robotics, or any other gee whiz stuff. If we break that broad definition down, the key idea has to do with using our brains and resources to invent tools. These tools help us solve problems, improve something, meet goals, and improve functions. Period.”

Jennifer looked at Ken. “I was only partially aware of the district’s strong interest in project teaching and learning. Technology curricula have long been based on that approach.

“But some of our teachers feel academically inferior to those teaching in the subject disciplines. It might have something to do with traditional definitions of accountability — how student learning is measured using high stakes tests.

“Not long ago I talked with a retired professor who once taught a course titled Foundations of Education.

“The professor told me his course was philosophical. Various theories were studied and discussed. Theories about learning and how teaching should be conducted to make it happen. He and his students dove into the beliefs of educational leaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

Jennifer looked around at the group. “That retired professor was discouraged by what happened after World War Two. He was convinced war changed our nation’s priorities. Americans became more focused on practicalities and making money. 

“Technical, economic, and social progress was good in many ways. But it also promoted cause and effect thinking as being more important than reflection on the meaning of life.”  

Myra, the elementary school principal and Joan, special education coordinator, looked at each other and smiled. Both were members of the same church. Clearly ready to jump into the conversation about cause and effect versus the meaning of life.

Joan asked, “Are you suggesting that cause and effect, probably the basis on which we make most of our daily decisions, is a wrong way of thinking and acting? If so, where does that leave science? How does that influence the importance of data in managing our individual and corporate lives?”

Before Jennifer could respond, Myra said, “I think Jennifer is saying that reflection on anything, especially the meaning of life, depends on more than data analysis.

“And I’m not suggesting a converse situation related to ignorance, superstition, or religious belief systems. That they should somehow replace scientific knowledge or its acquisition.

“Reflection helps us put data and reality into a more human context, which includes emotions and subliminal perspectives. Rationality is more than developing and testing hypotheses. It has much to do with intuitive thought processes.”

My friend Mary, the middle school science teacher, could not resist speaking. “Yes, Myra, what many people do not understand is that even building a hypothesis involves a powerful imagination.

“Many scientific effects we readily accept today, originally came from conjuring up a string of ‘what ifs.’ Notions that sounded looney to other scientists and researchers.

“In the context of their reality at the time, reinforced by each other’s professional approval, such proposals were considered implausible or even silly.”

Jennifer said, “Our world is more than right and wrong, black and white, and even cause and effect.

“At the root of technology is imagination, which makes past assumptions about calculations and operating principles only part of the picture. I am invigorated by the district’s emphasis on project teaching and learning. Not in just one discipline or subject, but in all subjects and combinations of subjects.”

We were close to taking a lunch break, so I suggested our post-lunch conversation focus on the primary mission of our subject area committee — language arts. Incorporating the additional points discussed.

I summarized our discussion and created a lead-in for the next conversation.

“Many ideas have been presented. Let’s see if we can carry away from this phase of our discussion a few points of general agreement. Here is a multi-point proposal:

The district is moving toward emphasizing project teaching and learning. That approach may require:

  1. more instructional planning including multiple teaching methods and group interactions.
  2. teacher imagination.
  3. acceptance of interdisciplinary considerations.
  4. real-life applications.
  5. a mindset that accepts creative language as a medium for incorporating other disciplines.
  6. skills associated with storytelling to frame complementary ideas and actions.
  7. creating scenarios that teach probable outcomes as well as alternate possibilities.”

I was not sure I was on a suitable track. But committee members said they were willing to enter my whimsical world.

After lunch, we would see where it took us.

©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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