It’s interesting when you ask the question, “What’s the point of this?” to a group of students when tackling a new issue or a particularly taxing problem that might result in some anxiety or frustration. “Why are we doing this?” or “How might you use what you are learning in the real world?” are always good questions to ask your students, because if they can’t answer the question, surely you can, right?
Recently I asked this question to a group of grade 12 students studying Hamlet. I mean, we’re talking about Hamlet here! The top dog, the ‘World Series’ of Shakespeare, right? Clearly this group of well-rounded, private school students would need little convincing that Hamlet was in their best interest.
Well, as I discovered in our class Blog, students have plenty to say about Hamlet and Shakespeare in general. The great thing about having students use blogs to discuss a particular topic is that they must engage with eachother — negotiating different points of view, commenting through agreement or disagreement, learning how to write in a public forum. On this day, when asked, “What’s the point of reading Shakespeare?” in a high school classroom, responses ranged from extremely blunt to a balancing act, trying to appease what they know is good for them from what they knew they find hard.
What’s the point of teaching 16th century English to students in the 21st century? How can we make the story of Hamlet applicable to their lives and help them better understand the world in which they live? These are important questions, but what must not be lost is the reality that much of my students’ disapproval for the ancient Bard had to do with one simple fact: it’s really hard to understand what William Shakespeare is saying! It’s tough, difficult, a pain in the butt, not easy, vraiment difficile, and only improves with incredible dedication, diligence, and access to YouTube and Sparknotes.
Maybe that’s the point! Students need to be challenged, to face a task that is not immediately understood and applicable, and the resiliency they build over time as a result of that challenge is like a new layer of skin that protects them from the daily hazards of the real world. Students may not need to know the intricacies of “To Be or Not To Be”, but they should be able to make connections, understand diction, and explore the importance of expressing the great challenges of understanding one’s place in the world as they get older. Who cares about remembering quotes or themes or motifs if ten years from now none of it will stay with the student as they travel the winding road of the real world?
The recent PISA results indicate that a greater divide is starting to grow between the “have’s” and “have nots” in terms of pedagogical philosophy. One side of the chasm is an emphasis on standardized testing, on spending lots of money per student but not getting real results versus inquiry based learning where educational standards for teachers are increased, but so too is salary and professional development. The United States finds itself falling behind not only traditional strong holds like South Korea, Finland, and Japan, but they are also struggling to achieve higher results than countries like Poland and Vietnam — new entrants to the international standardized testing stage. Put simply, these PISA tests claim to test for skills that are “essential for full participation in modern society,” as well as their ability to apply what they have learned in new situations. “This approach reflects the fact that modern economies reward individuals not for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know,” the [PISA]report said.
So… what’s the point? A standardized test called PISA apparently says that it’s about ensuring students are rewarded for what they can actually do with their knowledge, rather than simply just rewarding them for remembering dates, facts, and definitions. I tend to agree. I don’t remember much from my grade 12 experience with Hamlet except this: it was hard… I mean, really really hard, and when it was over, I felt like I had conquered the world… I felt really good about myself and my success in facing the demon-child of Elsinore and coming out the victor on the other side. And that, my friends, is all we can hope for our own students; that, I guess, really is the point of the whole damn thing.