Who Says Content is Boring

One of the most frustrating things about current pedagogical debates is the unspoken assumption on the part of many so-called “progressives” that the world is inherently boring and dull, and thus has to be dressed up with frenetic activities or somehow made “relevant” before anyone could be expected to take any interest in it.

Sewall brilliantly exposes this fundamentally anti-intellectual attitude:

In a 1996 report on how teachers try to stimulate interest in learning, John A. Zahorik at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee defined these hands-on activities very broadly, including lessons in which the “student is an active participant rather than a passive listener. The term includes the use of manipulatives such as pattern blocks in mathematics; playing games of all kinds; participating in simulations, role playing and drama; engaging in projects.
. . . .

Zahorik’s report, entitled “Elementary and Secondary Teachers’ Reports of How They Make Learning Interesting,” reached the following conclusion based on an extensive survey of 65 teachers: “Hands-on activities are the primary way of establishing interest, although teachers also reported creating interest through the use of personalized content, student trust, and group tasks, and in other ways. Teachers reported that they rarely used content facts and concepts as a means to establish interest ” [italics added].

All of the teachers except two secondary teachers identified sedentary activities” as “producing disinterest and, often, causing antagonism.” Of sedentary activities, Zahorik explained, “the behaviors and tasks that teachers saw as harmful to interest were lecturing, explaining, giving directions, reviewing, taking tests, reading textbooks, doing workbooks, and taking notes.”

What has happened here? How did the humanities and sciences get declared a turnoff? This view is inert to the beauty and use of knowledge. The magic of Pythagoras and the value of the hypotenuse in navigating everyday life; the digestive system of mollusks and mammals; how cutting a sentence by half can sometimes double its power; the influence of Palladio on world architecture; the world as seen by Copernicus and Galileo; the building of the canals in China during the Ming dynasty and the transcontinental railroad in 19th century America; the story of the boy from hardscrabble Kentucky who became a president who preserved the Union and freed the slaves, Abraham Lincoln. The list of subjects that can move and instruct is endless. This content needs no dressing up or excuses. It stands on its own.

From Gilbert Sewall, “Lost In Action: Are time-consuming, trivializing activities displacing the cultivation of active minds?,” American Educator (Summer 2000).

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