The Pointless Pachyderms of Pedagogy
July 1, 2020
I’m a sucker for puns that are, like wet paper towels, incredibly terrible. The title of this post refers to one of my favorites — a pun I was able to make on a regular basis as a teacher: what do you call a pachyderm that doesn’t matter?
When I taught second graders, I had a pachydermal puppet named Mr. Irrelaphant. He dutifully served as our class focus finder; whenever our conversations flew too far afield, Mr. Irrelephant would firmly but politely remind us to steer our flights of fancy back on track. Some years, Mr. Irrelephant stayed excessively busy. Second grade, after all, is the year when humans reach their peak powers of non sequitur, and when our ability to focus dips to its nadir.
Don’t Be Hawkward
It is charming, of course, when you ask the class a question about Corduroy and a child’s eyes light up, and he wiggles his hand until you call on him, and he tells you a story about how his cat smells. However, we owe it to young minds to help them take steps down the long road toward knowing what in the world is going on around them.
But irrelephance cuts both ways. When children are very young, almost everything we teach them is blatantly useful. When you learn to count, all of a sudden you can tell how many there are, of anything. Learn to read and you open a whole world of words. Kindergarten teachers, with their strange alchemical concoctions of care and structure and silliness, conjure into students a suite of superpowers.
By the time students advance to second grade, we start to shove them into esoterica. It’s important for American citizens to understand the structures and functions of government. But it’s awfully, awfully easy to teach the topic in a way that doesn’t improve a student’s life in the least. Seed dispersal is a fascinating topic that involves the word “poop,” but rare is the child who finds immediate application.
It’s perfectly appropriate that some learning merely lays the foundation for later application. However, when most of a child’s day is spent learning things that will help them learn things that will eventually help them learn things they’ll use? That’s a recipe for making school feel like a pointless and particularly painful game.
The Necessary Koalaifications
As educators, we combat irrelevance daily. One of our most powerful tools is project-based learning. When students apply academic content to help them complete challenges — especially challenges filled with purpose in which they have an immediate impact on their world — they see relevance in action.
Another incredibly important ingredient in the recipe of relevance is choice. People are remarkably good at knowing what we ourselves find relevant, so providing options allows us to capitalize on that remarkable capability. As someone who works in teacher professional development, I see firsthand how deeply teachers are invested in their own growth when schools have the chance to customize PD pathways to their needs, and when teachers have the chance to choose which topics to explore. In class, we can leverage the power of choice by giving students options for how to practice and demonstrate their learning, paying special attention to providing outlets that show application to the world outside the classroom.
Make Learning Bearable
Finally, to connect our content to students’ lives, we need to understand those lives deeply. Unless we go beyond simply knowing a child’s likes and dislikes — unless we’re incorporating PBL to build a sense of identity about their life — how can we know what to connect learning to?
By incorporating PBL, by offering students choice, and by working to understand the stories of our students’ lives, we keep Mr. Irrelephant at bay and help our students find meaning in our classrooms.