“It’s a fun unit, but it’s not really necessary.”

A colleague of mine made this statement to me a few weeks ago, and it’s been rolling around in my head ever since. In many ways, this summarizes so much of the system right now, both that is good and that is bad, depending on how you read this statement. And that’s just it, there are different ways to understand what she was saying when she made this statement. In the course of this discussion, my colleague was describing a unit that she was going to do that was about shopping and decimals, and that while the unit was ‘fun’, the work that was related to decimals (the content standard that she was going to teach), was not really that necessary. After all, no one gets out paper and adds up decimals at the grocery store as they are shopping. Her comment, then, was that while she thought the context of the unit was fun, the actual point of it was not really that necessary. And isn’t this true of so much of what we do? We plan units and activities around learning that is not really that necessary or relevant any longer, because it’s what’s we’ve always done, or we need to have them take a test on something, or the textbook says they should learn this skill. How much of the planning that we do is actually for things that are not necessary? And do we even have the right to deem something not necessary? I mean, we are employed by, ultimately, our districts, and/or our ministries of education. They are paying us to teach the curriculum. Do I have the right to determine what parts of the curriculum I teach and what parts that I don’t?

Of course, there is another side to this statement. One can argue for cases where we are engaging our students in learning that is just that, engaging and empowering, and yet, potentially unnecessary. One might look at a period spent learning how to do do KenKen or Yoharu or Wordle as being fun, but unnecessary. But, perhaps it is those things that ARE necessary….more so that some of the other content standards our textbooks or curriculum documents seem to dictate. This is the challenge that we face often times — what’s necessary isn’t fun, what’s fun isn’t necessary…..and I mean, is fun really the point? I don’t actually think it is. Fun isn’t our goal. Empowering is our goal; fun might be a side effect of that.

I see both sides of this statement. When she first uttered it, I said to her: You’ve just summarized the state of the whole education system right there. While I now see the second side, I’m stuck ruminating about the first side of this statement. I believe much of what we are doing in school is irrelevant. There. I said it. Most of the content that I spend my time teaching? Do I really need to? I think that the honest answer to “When am I going to use this?” is never. Most of the time the answer is that, this content? you’re not. School has to move away from being about the content. Students can access content at any time now. It’s not about that content anymore; it’s got to be about what to do WITH that content, with that information, with that problem, that challenge, that unknown. That is what we need to be spending our time focused on. I’m not sure if that is the fun side or the necessary side, or maybe it’s neither. I think we need to be on the empowering side, and that means letting go of so many things. Even those lovely binders of page-protected lesson plans so carefully curated. Even those.

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