Monday, January 30, 2012

What should every citizen know? My Answer.

What should every citizen know? That was the topic of a conversation that passionate educators were grappling with at this year’s Educon. Educators got to work quickly to make their case for what they felt must absolutely, positively be included (visit this link to see some of the thinking). Some educators went as far as to outline when each person should acquire the knowledge they believed was most important.

  • A math educator shared…
    math students would need to know to think critically. They need this math just to function in the world and do things like balance their checkbook, cook, and tell time.
  • A history teacher shared…
    what every citizen should know is American history and how it relates to that of other countries as well as have an understanding of the political system and how issues become law.
  • The English teachers explained…
    why their subject was the most important if citizens wanted to be able to understand, communicate, and share ideas.
  • There were science teachers who told us…
    science was of utmost importance because we would never know how our world and universe works without an understanding of science
  • There was also discussion around topics like empathy and compassion…
    because we need to ensure there was a good dose of that mixed in too. But how since it’s not a subject? Maybe modeling.
  • That prompted a conversation about the importance of knowing religion and the bible…
    which is the foundation of much of what made America the country it is today. 
  • Then, was an educator who shared that we shouldn’t be teaching the subjects in isolation…
    We need to teach thematically!
There was a lot of head nodding in response.

This moment reaffirmed for me that my beliefs about learning often make me feel like I’m in a foreign land.

How is it that other people should have the right to decide what everyone should know? Why does everyone need to know all the same things? Do people really think we need to know all these things to be successful? When we have so many (too many) things is it any wonder we've forced teachers to teach to the test? Do we really believe a free and democratic society has the right to tell others what they need to know or should such a society provide the “opportunity to choose to learn?”

It came as no surprise to those who know me (thank you to the wonderful conversation orchestrator, Dan Callahan) that I was given the go ahead to blurt out: 

“’WE’ don’t all need to know all these things and anyone could be perfectly fine, and even successful, without them.”

“Not true!” someone said and he explained why he thought a citizen must know each of these things. 

It was at that point I shared something that many educators are afraid to reveal…


I expected the response I got when I revealed this.  While there were some that understood, and even agreed with where I was coming from, there were others whose answers, understandably, helped justify their existence and their jobs.

I was told, “No! That’s not true.  You know things. You just don’t realize you know them.” I appreciate their belief in me, but the truth is… I do not. I used to be embarrassed by this. I mean, I spent more than a dozen years in the school system and I excelled! I was an honors student who started college at age 15, while I was in high school, and graduated college at the top of my class when I was 19…but the truth is, during that time, I learned nothing that was important for success in my life. Wasted years lost to a system that could have been spent with more meaningful pursuits.

Instead, I was forced to take classes from teachers who used the "sit n git," "memorize n regurgitate (onto a test or into an essay or project meant for the class, not the world)" method of learning. As a result I don’t know the science, math, history, or the religious foundation everyone said was necessary for an informed citizenry.  In fact, I have no doubt I would fail the standardized high school tests given in my state on each of those topics today. I do happen to be a proficient reader, writer, and user of technology, but that is despite, not because of, school.

I pushed further asking, “What about all the people who, like me, don’t learn from teachers talking, textbooks, or tests?   

Some of the responses to that were predictable. We need to expose students to these things or they will never know about them. My response: “Schools don’t expose. They impose.” It is one thing to expose people to a variety of wonderful possible choices. But that is not what we’re really doing. Instead, there is a curriculum that students are forced complete in a standard and often boring way at a time that doesn’t honor the student’s readiness, interests or include any of the elements that lead to effective learning for many of us. What’s more, there is often little to no explicit connection made to their real worlds


I realized I was sort of derailing the conversation and felt thankful that I was in an environment where this was okay and even welcomed. Sadly, though when we discuss what an informed citizenry should know, even innovative educators often revert to the familiar content areas and carry on about why the one they are responsible for (or passionate about) is of utmost importance. This mindset is supported in our current climate.

We have Common Core
We have become a society that is quick to follow orders of a government that imposes their agenda into families dictating how all our children must be raised. Teachers and parents are going along with this, even though many realize what they do is hurting children.  The government imposes force in the form of "do what we say (such as teach to and take the tests) or we’ll cut off funding" and the sheep are forced to follow.  We’ve become a top down nation where our president wants to force young people tostay in school until they’re 18. This makes a nice sound bite for the na├»ve, but the informed know that he is not addressing the problem. Most young people leave school because it has little to no relevance to their lives. Students are seen as numbers and data, not human beings . If school is so wonderful, why make it compulsory? Why must we force people to go there rather than ensure it is a wonderful place that people want to attend? 

We now have the common core standards designed to push EVERY child down the same narrow path to college, even though it is necessary only for few, and the mentality has cost us to lose due respect for many. This decision however will result in huge profits to the government via the student loan scheme (our next bubble to burst). It’s ironic when many of our nation’s founding fathers, our nation’s leaders, and our most successful businessmen never graduated college themselves.

The conversation came to an end with the usual, well, there’s a lot more to figure out and discuss and we won’t be able to come up with all the answers in one workshop.

I disagree. This is not a new conversation. The answers are right in front of us. It’s just that many of us are not ready or willing to see them.

People are not widgets and no one should try to coerce individuals to become part of a Stepford citizenry. Our students are rebelling with dropout rates at 33% nationally and around 50% in large cities like Las Vegas, New York and Chicago.  Our teachers are sick and tired of being forced to engage in a test-based curriculum that lines the pockets of publishers while killing the passion and creativity of students. Many of the good ones have left or are leaving.

An informed citizenry is made up of many people. Every person does not have to hold all the knowledge that a group of strangers thinks is important for their success in moving through the conveyor belt at the same rate and exiting on the same date.

We need to stop with the force, coercion and imposition of knowledge upon others. We must give people the freedom and trust to pursue the learning that “they” value as important. We need to spend some time learning more from the unschooling community and Democratic schooling environments where we’ll find out that when given choice and provided with necessary resources, along with a supportive and caring environment, people will discover and learn what they need to know for "their personal success."  This all comes without force, coercion or even traditional teachers, tests, textbooks or classrooms.

We need to stop trying to figure out what everyone needs to know and let our nation’s young people take ownership and make decisions about what they want to know. 

We must move away from the industrial model of testing for the standardization of students when they get off the end of the school conveyor belt and move toward customization of what each individual chooses for their own personal success.

The role of the educators in a building must move from imposing knowledge to inviting curiosity, discovery, and providing support in helping young people determine an individualized plan for success.

Personal success does not mean participating in a system that creates a bunch of standardized cogs who meet the manufacturer’s specs.   

It means we must realize one-size-fits-all really only fits some and strips the uniqueness and creativity from most. We want more than turning our children into processed and manufactured cogs in a system that sees them simply as uniform producers of data to be analyzed and tested in ways that reap huge profits for those providing and measuring a one-size-fits few solution to an informed citizenry.   

It means providing environments where the mechanics, farmers, game designers, home builders, stunt people, Olympic snowboarders, artists, adventure travel operators, soldiers, football coaches, television directors, winemakers, talk show hosts, poets, firemen, chefs, restaurant owners, wildlife conservationists and more (note college degree not required for any of the aforementioned) can have the freedom to discover and explore a customized learning experience that honors and respects them as the successful individuals that they have the potential to become. It’s time we stop trying to produce graduates that all look the same and are prepared to follow the herd and start empowering young people to discover, choose, and pursue their own paths.


  1. Lisa, if you and I feel exactly the same way about this there must be others! This is a huge roadblock to education change! I like so much of what you say, especially that we don't expose, we impose. If I was in that room with you, there'd be 2 bald spots on either side of my head.

  2. BTW, I firmly believe every citizen should know how to make a decent Haiku. 5-7-5, people, come on!

  3. Lisa, if you get the time, could you share your thoughts on a problem I'm struggling with at this post I just wrote:

    I would appreciate your insight.

  4. Lisa, You touched on so many of the things I think about regarding the education system on a daily basis. I left teaching 10 years ago and still I think about the changes that are needed; sweeping changes not the annual tweaking that goes on within districts and among policy makers. I am constantly wondering how to best help these changes along.

    We extol the virtues of diversity and innovation in our society and our schools, but in practice we insist upon conformity and standardization. We mandate a singular core of necessary skills and knowledge. We teach about freedom from the founding of our country to the women's suffrage and civil rights movements and yet we give our youngest citizens no real voice. We not only tell them where they must be for 180 days every year from the age of 6 to 18, but also what they must learn and know and value from day to day and year to year. We define their worth and determine their worthiness of funding by their performance on a singular test each year. Standardized tests which tell nothing of students' potential (other than their potential to do well on tests); this includes those who do well on the tests. And we keep doing these things. Where to begin?

  5. Regarding bullet point #4, empathy and compassion.

    Those are subjects, they're a part of the counseling and guidance curriculum that should be a part of your school. They either need to be taught or supported by your counselor, and are an important part of an ASCA national model program.

  6. You rock, Lisa. I know all those things all those teachers said we should and I'm certainly no more successful than you no matter how one measures success.

    There once was a time when an educated person could know almost everything there was to know in the world. Now it is impossible to know everything there is to know about any one discipline.

    What any one person needs to know is whatever that individual needs to survive and possibly thrive in the particular environment one is in. For me that means knowing a lot of stuff about learning and teaching, some stuff about politics, the rights and responsibilities detailed in my contract, how to pay for stuff and more.

    For many of my students it is how to survive walking the streets of their neighborhood and how to avoid interactions with the police. It is only once they can master those skills that all the other stuff discussed in that session takes any precedence.

    When our society cannot assure that the basic needs of its citizens for housing, food, healthcare and safety are met, it is arrogant for those of us who do not have to worry about some of those basic needs, who have the mental and physical energy to learn literature or develop investment literacy, to even discuss the notion that others are somehow incomplete because they don't share the same knowledge.

  7. Lisa, I agree and I disagree with you. I have recently become deeply concerned that people who do not know their history, can easily have it re-written for them.

    That said, I strongly feel that the mostly important thing that students should learn is how to teach themselves. The answers to the tests are going to change. Even what we know about history changes. We new our students graduating living a learning lifestyle.

    My struggle is that I believe that there are some things, a very narrow layer of content that we all need to know, simply to be able to communicate with each others, to work together, to share dreams and passions, and help each other achievement. But where that narrow layer ends and the self-teaching begins, I'm still struggling with.

    One term that kept coming up in our conversation was "experience." We should say less about what children should learn, and more about what they should "experience." I'm not sure I would agree that everyone must know how to write a Haiku. But I think that every child should have experienced writing a Haiku, deconstructed a Shakespeare sonnet, or balanced a chemical formula. If our work is the help students have authentic and valuable experiences, then they may be more likely to develop passions.

    Here's the low down of our list:

    • Context - Know enough content to understand who they are, where they are, when they are, how they are, and who they live with.

    • Literacy - The basic skills required to learn what you need to know, to do what you need to do.

    • Compassionate Responsibility

    • Grounding in Human Rights

    • Need to have Experienced Passionate Learning

    • Need to have accomplished something that their community cares about

    Seems a little thin considering everything we talked about...

    Thanks for writing!

  8. I agree that there isn't one list of facts that every adult should know, let alone that Every Fourth Grader Should Know, and I totally agree that much or most of what we learn is actually learned through experience and meaningful activities, rather than through assignments and test prep in formal school sittings.

    However, I would like to add to the conversation that certainly all children everywhere know something about math, language, history and science. When kids are babies and toddlers, they develop not just language skills but also theories of number, of physics, and of living things. They begin to build their own personal history as they remember things that have happened to them, and as they discuss those events and look at pictures. From early childhood on, they glom onto facts and evidence that can flesh out these mental models and theories and histories. Caring, involved parents, grandparents, relations, friends, teachers, and others can help kids expand and further develop all these areas. Kids can vastly expand their mental models through, not just testing against reality, but also through TV, computers, reading, being read to, etc.

    Hopefully many of them will eventually get to the point in which exposure to knowledgeable people and to culture will help them outgrow their "primitive," almost intuitive assumptions, such as that insects and snails have intentions and motivations similar to those of humans (anthropomorphism), or that solid matter is made up of particles squished so close together that nothing else can get in between (rather than the truth that solid matter is mostly empty space but that electrical forces prevent solids from falling through each other). Hopefully many people will "glom onto" ideas in history from long ago and far away, and will begin to understand today's world with perspective of what happened in the past. Hopefully many will absorb enough numeracy that they develop the ability to analyze statistical information. Hopefully they will learn to be skeptical and to ask for evidence when presented with new ideas. All of us adults can help the children in our lives to go from what they already know and do to just a little more, broader, deeper knowledge and abilities.

  9. Right on, Lisa! This is the same message I have been trying to convey, which puts me in an interesting position as the developer of a charter school (albeit a school with an alternative, child-centered philosophy that emphasizes peace, global understanding, and compassion). Many, many people are in agreement with you. Few are brave enough to say it out loud. Not only may you be jeopardizing your job for speaking out but you did so to a room full of people whose jobs depend on compulsory instruction in all subject areas. Kudos to you!

  10. John Taylor Gatto for President!!!