Education: More than preparatory

Bob Trettin

My second year at Lawrence University has just begun, and lately I have been in a reflective mood when it comes to thinking about my education. Perhaps this contemplative type of thinking stems from an Educational Studies class I took last year, which required me to complete a 20-hour practicum at a local area Elementary school.

After observing a fantastic group of 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th grade students twice a week for a few hours, I began to notice a curious teaching trend that I believe to be problematic. The issue to which I am referring may not sound like an issue at first, but it’s my job to convince you that it is. I am concerned that all education is merely preparatory.

During my practicum I can recall that whenever one of the students would begin to complain about an assignment and ask why they needed to learn about that particular subject, the teacher would give an intriguing response.

Her answer came in various forms, but for the most part it sounded something like this: “You need to know this for next year.” This somewhat dismissive reply came for the 5th through 7th grade classes, and the 8th grade was told that they were being prepared for high school.

I was even used as an example for what high school prepares students to become: a college student. The teacher refrained from explaining how the skills she was teaching these students would pay off or be useful presently or in real life situations; she simply told them that they needed to know the information for their continued education in the following year, and for the most part, the kids were satisfied with the answer.

In the National Research Council’s book How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School (2000), the idea of teaching for transfer is defined as “the ability to extend what has been learned in one context to new contexts.”

The important thing to note here is that it mentions contexts in the plural form. If the only context to which learning is being extended is from year to year, then educators are restricting this idea of transfer and restricting the education of their students.

In order to successfully teach for the purpose of transfer, educators must target a broader range of contexts. The subjects being taught should be taught so that they may be applied to a number of different contexts, including: school to home, year to year, one area in school to another, school to work and school to everyday life.

In this way, what is being taught in school becomes relevant. Students learn how to make connections between the things they learn in school and the experiences they have outside of it.

In order to do this, educators must approach the material not only as a stepping stone for the next year in school, but additionally, as a starting point for a web of possible connections to other areas of school and life.

Learning cannot simply become a chain of preparation from one year to the next without any immediate return. This sounds like the inadvertent shirking of responsibility on behalf of our educators.

The question of the solution to this problem still remains: how do we teach for successful transfer into a variety of contexts and not simply for preparation?

Clear explanations of how the subject being taught applies to other areas of school and everyday life are crucial in order to achieve dependable retention.

It is also important to alter the conditions under which the students are learning, so that instead of simply storing the information for next year, the information is explained in a way that it becomes useful for the present in addition to the future.

As college students, we are being prepared for the “real world.” I think that for higher education, the sole purpose should be preparation. In grade school and high school, we needed explanations on how learning can be beneficial for the present as well as the future, but now it should be up to us to make those connections on our own.

Our formal education is nearing an end, and the most important thing to gain now is preparation for transferring our knowledge to our future occupation, and if your future occupation is a grade school or high school teacher, make sure to have more than a preparatory mindset when teaching.