Of Lists and Learning

Educators (parents, teachers, activists) spend a lot of time trying to figure out just what it is they are up to. At the end of the day, what makes a person educated?

Teachers in the classroom are continually confronted with lists, some of them mandated, of things that their students should be able to know and do as a result of their time in the classroom. In most U.S. school systems since the late 1990’s, every week’s lesson plan must be adorned with the specific list item numbers that justify the students’ activities in terms of the state education standards. Thus the Illinois Learning Standards charts tell us that Illinois Mathematics Goal 6, Standard B, Level 3b will be satisfied by an activity in which students “Apply primes, factors, divisors, multiples, common factors and common multiples in solving problems,” and that to meet Social Science Goal 14.C.4 beginning high-school students must “Describe the meaning of participatory citizenship (e.g., volunteerism, voting) at all levels of government and society in the United States.”

And these lists become the common language and required justification of educational activity in other settings as well. The Chicago Children’s Museum can tell you exactly which Illinois Standards and Goals are met by their water play table, and an Archery Camp sponsored by a local Chamber of Commerce in Wisconsin lists 18 separate standards to be met by their event in the standard school-subjects of Science, English/Language Arts, Mathematics, and Physical Education.

Of course, organizing education around lists begs the question, “How many items must a student acquire in order to be educated, and which ones?” Standard lists have been criticized for micromanaging the content of the curriculum, or for promoting “teaching-to-the-test,” but they are not intended to put a straitjacket on learning. And over the years, we’ve gotten better at writing educational standards, shifting focus from content-based to skill-based lists and adding new fields of study.

At their best, the lists are intended to be guiding abstractions of something deeper and much more complex than any list: the collected wisdom and practice of a whole community, whether of mathematicians, writers, historians, or scientists. That knowledge is fully present only in the community itself, and distilling it into a list is a deeply self-reflective exercise for practitioners in any field of human activity. So building a list of what we should know and be able to do in life helps us see ourselves in relation to our various communities, and judge how fully we participate in each one. Of course, this applies not only to actual communities of biologists, literary critics, mathematicians, PHP developers, or what have you, but to the potential “community” of human beings as well.

William Cronon, writing a chapter for Proud Traditions and Future Challenges: The University of Wisconsin-Madison Celebrates 150 Years, asks, “What does it mean to be a great university, and what does a university’s greatness, often associated with brilliant, cutting edge research, have to do with undergraduate [read, raw beginner] education and teaching?” By way of answering this, he develops a list of “deeper lessons about life and the world” that made my jaw drop. In the course of “a rigorous encounter with . . . . a particular body of knowledge and inquiry” (such as the standard lists are supposed to guide us toward), Cronon says that students should also learn:

  • How to care passionately about ideas, both one’s own and those of other people;
  • How to follow and make logical arguments;
  • How to recognize rigor, probing always to test for false assumptions and biases;
  • How to write;
  • How to talk;
  • How to navigate the world of numbers;
  • How to watch and learn from the world as scientists and poets do;
  • How to gain from other people’s diverse experiences, talents, and passions;
  • How to make friends who are very different from oneself;
  • How to practice tolerance while still articulating and defending one’s own beliefs;
  • How to dream adult dreams, imagining and working toward the goal of a fulfilled adult life;
  • How to empower oneself and one’s community;
  • How to get things done and make a difference in the world.

That pretty much sums up what I want to learn, and what I want for my children. I know I’ve only just begun.



  1. @akamrt Living community of practice decides. Standards aren't constraints, but distillations of learning (e.g. http://tinyurl.com/y9s3q87 )

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