Monday, February 20, 2012

Knowledge of what and for what?

Recently, I had a conversation with a science teacher in which we were discussing the meaning of "scientific literacy." According to him, most teachers emphasize "knowledge of" their disciplines--in fact, it seems to me that this approach is highly emphasized through state standards and tests. For instance, you might seek for students to develop a knowledge of how to divide fractions; a knowledge of how to write a moving narrative; a knowledge of the different components of physical fitness; and much more.

What does learning look like when you envision learning as "knowledge for"? And what is knowledge for, anyway? In science education, some international frameworks talk about using science concepts and scientific reasoning FOR making informed decisions in everyday life. I think the same concept can be applied to most disciplines: using physical education FOR making healthy decisions in regards to diet and exercise; using art FOR analyzing the implicit messages in the visual texts that surround us daily, and so forth.

But is the only purpose of our disciplines for students to make better, more informed personal decisions in their everyday lives? Some people also think that KNOWLEDGE FOR should also encompass KNOWLEDGE FOR promoting social change and KNOWLEDGE FOR a better world. What would mathematics instruction look like if "knowledge of" statistics became "knowledge for" social change? For instance, what if students collected and analyzed statistics about a problem in their communities, and then presented graphical, numerical, and written information to their city council people and used the data to advocate for a solution to the problem?

It seems to me that every teacher implicitly enacts her or his idea of "knowledge for," whether it's "knowledge for" passing the test, "knowledge for" making informed personal decisions, "knowledge for" making the community a better place, and so forth. I think that, by articulating for ourselves "what is my discipline for?," we can structure our learning experiences so that they are more tailored to meet the goals that really matter most to us and those goals that will really matter most to our students.