My good friends and colleagues Tzvi Pittinsky (@TechRav) and Tikvah Wiener (@TikvahWiener and @RealSchool1) had a blogversation the other day about project-based learning and student-centered learning in general. Tzvi's post, while generally in favor of such approaches, highlighted as well the role of the teacher in preparing such learning experiences for students and favored the need for teachers to continue to shine guiding lights for their students.
Tikvah, who directs the Real School club in the Frisch School (where Tzvi teaches as well), wrote about some of the various projects that her students are undertaking, ranging from art projects to surveys to cooking meals for the class. While acknowledging the role that teachers are playing, Tikvah stressed the freedom given to the students to design their own projects, both in form as well as in content. Towards the end of her post, Tikvah cites several articles and sources that imagine a world, or at least a school, where the students would be able to decide on pretty much their entire course of study.
My first reaction to that imagined world is that it already exists - it is called college. Other than some basic core requirements, students are able to pretty much choose every class that they take in college, or at least can choose the area that they want to study, within which they may have some required courses. The innovative idea expressed in Tikvah's post is that one would attempt to do this writ large in a high school setting for most of the curriculum (and not just electives or clubs). While this could be seen as simply moving up the goalposts, I believe that there is a qualitative, and not just a quantitative, issue at play here.
Let's begin at the poles. I think that most people would agree that, however one thinks it should be done, students at the youngest ages need to learn how to read and how to do basic mathematics. At the other end of one's educational spectrum, i.e. college and beyond, most people would probably agree that an individual should be allowed to choose what he or she is going to study, both for their own intellectual inquiry as well as for future professional purposes. The question, therefore, is what needs to be studied in between. For argument's sake, let's propose that we are arguing about 4th through 12th grades - what should a student learn in that time? Is there a reason for students to go through two rounds of hard sciences? Is civics necessary? How much "classic" literature should students be forced to read?
I have no doubt that devotees of each subject can come up with wonderful reasons for why their discipline is necessary to be studied at least through the end of high school before freeing students to choose their own paths. To my mind, there are two broad rationales which seem to be under fire in the "let's make everything optional" mindset. First is the notion that students need exposure to a wide range of material in order to really get a sense of what they might gravitate towards and/or be good at. If a student were to have a good math experience in 5th grade and only want to do math from that point on, he might develop as a math genius, but perhaps his abilities in that area are actually limited and meanwhile a natural constitutional scholar would never have the chance to emerge. More important to my mind is the idea of creating a well-rounded student. Unpopular as it may be in our multicultural age, I believe that certain strands of the curriculum that have been with us for generations (and, yes, I know it is far more complex than that) have stood the test of time because they have what to teach us about the world around us, be it about the historical origins and philosophical foundations of our society, the subtleties of the human character as portrayed through literature, or a deeper understanding of the physical realia of the universe. I am open to the notion that there is plenty of new material that can be added to the old "Western Canon", but the criteria would be similar - a well-rounded curriculum should exist to create not only well-rounded students but well-rounded citizens and humans.
And so back to Tzvi's position - are our students ready in high school to start learning only those things that they want to learn, or is the purpose of the Middle and High School years to expose them to a wide range of ideas and works so that they can start making intelligent and informed choices about the directions that they want to proceed in during the course of their future learning? Given that High School is a time of intellectual ferment and maturing, I believe that it behooves us to provide our students with this core learning at a time when they can think critically about it before we hand over to them full discretion to choose their courses.
Of course, this question gets raised to another level when we are discussing Judaic Studies, but perhaps that should be left for a separate post.