Asking the right questions

Today’s #edchat topic for discussion on Twitter was: In a time of cut backs in education for the sake of the economy, should sports and extra curricular clubs take a back seat?

Those “extras” we are referring to: the arts and physical activities (sports).  For me, this #edchat topic succinctly summarizes what is wrong in education today.

There is something wrong with a system that considers the arts and physical activities as expendable.  Being “educated” has come to mean one thing: having a critical mass of a certain kind of knowledge so that one can perform well on a test.  What type of knowledge have we deemed important?  Literacy, math, science (and in some cases engineering and tech to round out the STEM initiatives).  Aren’t we more than this?  I like to think that I am more complex and “whole” than the sum of these few subjects.  Isn’t there more complexity to life than just literacy and STEM?

Who has determined that these tests accurately measure all there is to know about being successful, being human?  I would like to meet those who create these tests. If what shows up on the tests is reflective of who they are as “whole” people, I think that they must be very one-dimensional and dull.

Want to know a secret? I don’t think I want my students to be “successful” if a test is the only measure of success.  I want my students to be thinkers and problem solvers, to discover their gifts and talents and use those to shape a better world. I want my students to be creative and innovative. I want my students to be whole.  If we truly believe that students are more than just the sum of the subjects taught in school, how can we think of cutting out the programs that make them more whole?

The problem with the conversation is that it has become an either/or scenario.  Either we cut the “extras” or we have massive debt. Either we cut the “extras” or we have to cut one of the “more important” subjects. This isn’t an either/or conversation.  Those “extras” are part of learning.  The “extras” are part of what makes us uniquely human.  Those “extras” are not special and separate, they are a part of that wonderful tapestry that makes us human.  To cut them out and treat them as expendable is to treat students as a machine whose sole purpose is to have a single outcome: perform well on a test.

I think the problem goes even deeper.  When you ask students, parents, or most teachers why we want them to do well in school, the focus is usually on graduation.  We want them to graduate…with honors.  Why?  Because, then they can go into debt to pay for college (of course!).  Is anyone else looking at this problem with jaw on the floor?  What happens after college? We search for a job where we can follow directions and earn a paycheck that we can use to pay off our college debt.

College used to make sense.  In a world that wasn’t well-connected, where you couldn’t flip on your computer and be connected to an expert for free, we relied on college to be a place to go and learn to think from the best.  Learning isn’t reliant on institutions any more.  Learning happens in-spite of the institutions.  I seriously struggle with the why of a university experience in the year 2011 (I struggle with the why of schools the way they look right now too).  When I think back to my university experience, what I remember is those few (3) professors that I had that made a difference in my life. I still have all of my lecture notes and correspondences from those professors. They were exceptional for what I needed.  Outside of those 3 professors the biggest impact was my life outside of academics. The rest of the experience: worked through so I could have the piece of paper that said I did it.

Back to the #edchat topic: should we cut the extras in light of a struggling economy?  This is the wrong question to ask. The question should be: In light of a struggling economy, how can we adjust our budgets and priorities (priorities being those things we spend money on) to include the “extras” as part of an education that meets the needs of the whole child?

We try to keep answering these questions with the same unimaginative thinking that dug us into this hole.

Just for a moment let’s stop and think about the arts and physical activities.  How many math and physics problems in textbooks use sports as a story problem?

Can you see where I am going with this?  Why are we teaching math and physics through artificial story problems out of an antiquated textbook?  Why aren’t we saying, “let’s go test this out with a game of baseball”?

We aren’t thinking creatively enough about how to solve these problems. We try to segment, and rank importance, and test. Instead we should be looking at how to solve the problem in new ways.  Life is complex.  When you look at nature it doesn’t segment itself off into subjects that are done separately.  Nature is art, science, math, language, engineering, physical all in one. It happens together seamlessly.

Watch a baby, or any young animal, as they figure out life. So much is happening simultaneously that involves language, math, science, physical activity, engineering, and art.  This is how we learn to walk, talk, engage others, and keep ourselves safe. This is the way that life happens and it is the way we learn.  The real problem is, as soon as we enter school, we stop life from happening and try to erect artificial boundaries and understandings to get a single outcome.  We strip away “extras” that teach life skills like pride, respect, collaboration, teamwork, and citizenship. We reduce students to the sum of 5 subjects.  Is it any wonder that depression levels are at an all time high? Is it any wonder that we have a population that is obese?  Is it any wonder that every advertisement we see promises us a better life?

We need to be more creative, we need a paradigm shift in the way that education is done. Our thinking has to shift away from one where certain subjects are more important than others. We have to reconsider priorities and how money is spent.

Think about how dollars are spent in your school-most likely a large amount is spent on:

  • Boxed curriculum (heavy emphasis on those 5 subjects, heavy emphasis on one result, heavy emphasis on meeting one type of students needs.) The boxed curriculum is purchased and taught so that students will do well on the standardized tests.
  • Standardized (or other forms) of testing
  • Copy budgets (anyone know someone who prints off EVERY email that lands in their inbox?)
  • Textbooks (out of date as soon as they are published)

In my mind this isn’t rocket science.  Adjust your priorities and the money will be there.  The real problem is that right now our priorities are all out of whack.

I propose a new question:

In light of a struggling economy, how can we adjust our budgets and priorities (priorities being those things we spend money on) to include the “extras” as part of an education that meets the needs of the whole child?

If we can think of new ways to answer that question, the original question will be a non-issue.



  1. Outstanding post. Yes, we definitely have to think of the “whole” child when we make decisions about education. By the way the “we” I am referring to are the students, educators and parents not the politicians or other non-ed people who should be making these important policies.

  2. I agree!!! We need to find a way to do both. In fact, they should be integrated with academics – the science and math of sports, art and music. Use technology to save money (no textbooks, no printing or copying, etc). Charge a minimal admission fee to spectators for sports, arts, etc.

    My alma mater, WPI ( stressed the rounded student even though it was a science and engineering school. We had a humanities project and a major project relating tech/science with society. Why can’t schools do something similar?

    This is not an either or, but rather a how can we do both? And we can do both if things are done right.

    1. @David, yes, yes and yes! There are creative ways to approach these problems. Right now I feel like we aren’t willing to step outside of the way things are done mentality to think about the problems in a new way.

  3. Kelly,

    You beat me to a post on this one…I was thinking along the same lines and have a rough draft of a post in the making. I really like how you posed some even more critical questions than the actual question for the #edchat topic. I hope that we can all agree these “extras” are important. The issue is shifting priorities to put our money with our mouth is and you hit the nail in the head in your final paragraph.


  4. Great post! The extras are what motivates students to learn more deeply about other things then science, math, and literacy. How has art, music, physical education contributed to education and society. Are these the subjects that make us well rounded? There are studies that show better student achievement when students are in extra-curricular activities. These extras also give students adult mentors in the forms of advisors and coaches.

  5. So why is it that we expect our schools to provide all the “extra-curricular” curriculum? Why can’t we expect parents to chip in a bit, volunteer to coach a community sport or lead arts, crafts, creative writing workshops for their own kids? I hate to see us expecting the schools to raise our kids. Maybe if we as parents did things like this, we wouldn’t have to require our kids to do community service to graduate-they would learn it from our example…

    1. Julie, I don’t think it is unreasonable for parents to chip in and volunteer. The sad reality is that in many neighborhoods this just isn’t possible. Parents are working 2-3 jobs just to scrape by. We have created a culture where schools are expected to raise our kids. Not ideal at all but that is the reality of where we are now. Where it is possible for parents to be more involved, I certainly hope that this is the case!

  6. What a great post! In my district, we are facing a 3.8 million dollar shortfall for next year and going through a big redesign of our district. I love the questions you pose. I don’t have the answers, but exploring the questions is the right thing to do.

    1. Thank you Jeffrey, wow 3.8 million! Wonder if they have explored how much of that could be saved just by ending standardized testing…not an option they will probably look into unfortunately!

  7. @Kelly… We are like thinkers! I have been in this business for 30 years, and the problem with education is that we keep shooting ourselves. As the parent of a high GT kid, who is a commended scholar base on his PSAT score, but struggles to maintain a 70 average in most classes, I have to ask, “What is going on in classrooms today that is relevant?” Kids are having boxed content shoved down their throats in the name of success on standardized testing success, but no one is teaching them to successfully gather good information and to think for themselves, except maybe the fine arts coaches and athletic coaches. You truly spoke my heart in this!

    1. Thanks Bill, it is sad that we strip kids of what makes them unique and force them to look the same. It is no wonder that we so highly revere people who are innovative, creative, and can think outside the box. We have made them a rare commodity.

  8. i like this discussion.hopefully some changes will be made in the near future on how education should be structures so that it will not only serve as a limited and predictable venue for our kids to grow but also as a wholistic environment for the entire family and community to interact and learn continuosly not bounded by the limited and short sighted education mentality at present

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