I recently made a video during my lunch break picking apart four random “inspirational teacher quotes.” It's a kind of video I've wanted to make for a while because… honestly, I guess I just think it's funny to approach inspo-memes from a dry, analytical angle.
If you're curious, the video is here. But if you're not, I did want to share my take today on this idea that “teaching students to count” (academics) is not as important as “teaching them what counts.”
Here's the original line, as attributed to my fellow Michigander, Bob Talbert.
Teaching kids to count is fine, but teaching them what counts is best.Bob Talbert
Is this idea true?
Basically, it starts here: schools exist to promote the long-term flourishing of young people by teaching them toward mastery of disciplines* that they otherwise would be unlikely to master.
This, I argue, is the purpose of schools. It's the implicit trust that parents and guardians have when sending their children to us each day.
Now, can and should school also help children develop strong values, reliable inner compasses, deep wisdom, strong empathy, enduring virtue? In other words: should schools also try to teach children “what counts?” Of course. But when schools start thinking that this is their primary objective, they run the risk of deeply failing their students and all the while patting themselves on the back for doing so.
But why, Dave? Isn't it a better service to students to make sure they all learn “what counts” than to pursue mastery in disciplines and arts most of them won't use in adult life anyways?
Well, first of all, this idea that we don't “use” what we learn in school isn't very scientific. Cognitive scientists have basically settled the fact that the mind doesn't use knowledge as grist for the mill; instead, knowledge is the mill. We don't just think about what we know, we think with what we know. I get into this in Strategy 5 of my new book and in Chapter 3 of its prequel, so I won't sidetrack any further into the cognitive science now. But just suffice it to say that the idea of learning things in school that you'll never use is poppycock. As a human being, in many ways you don't just use what you learn, you are what you learn.
And basically, that's why schools have to make sure growth toward mastery is something they are knocking out of the park for each and every child on the roster. If you don't, then students from homes where the disciplines and arts are valued will gain a significant advantage over students from homes where they are not. And, by the way, I do not believe that every home in America needs to value an education in the disciplines and the arts. I believe part of what it means to live in a pluralistic society is that your values can differ from mine.
But schools? These places MUST value an education in the disciplines and the arts. This is their unique role in society. We need to be relentless about communicating and demonstrating this value.
Lots of people — all people — wish to teach children what counts in life, wish to guide them toward flourishing and toward social and emotional maturity. Everyone with a heart wants that for children and advances it in ways big and small all through the life of a given child.
But as school people, we are the ones uniquely tasked with also teaching children how to count. Teaching children to count — teaching them toward mastery of disciplines in school — is way better than fine.
It's a sacred (and joyful) duty.
*Whenever I say “disciplines,” I mean everything taught in our elementary and secondary schools. There are the classic academic disciplines – things like math and literature and science and social studies. There are the artistic disciplines – things like painting and drawing and sculpture and theatre and music. And there are the practical disciplines – things like home technologies and personal finance and computer applications and construction. In short, we all teach disciplines – ways of seeing, ways of being in the world – and they are all good, weighty, and important.