Make Time For Current Events — it leads to interdisciplinary learning

Why don’t middle and high school students today discuss the news during school?

Simple answer, actually — it’s not part of the curriculum. And because the curriculum is so jam-packed (driven by end of course exams or AP exams), when something significant — such as Occupy Wall Street, or the Arab Spring — pops up in the news, there’s maybe time for a quick mention, but then it’s back to business as usual.

As Karl Schaefer pointed out in his comment on my last blog post, we have a tendency to mention important things in passing, but then instead of having a thoughtful conversation, we say “now turn to page 231 of your soon to be forgotten textbook.”

In speaking with a parent of a sixth grader recently, she told me that her child’s history class mentioned Occupy Wall Street for the first time a few days ago. Why? Because they were ahead of the other class (which was following the same curriculum) and so they took time to “do current events” for the day. Her son was fascinated for the first time all year. Sadly, that was a one-day event. They’re now back to their regularly scheduled lockstep program…

Knowing what’s going on in the world today is important, and middle school students who have not been following the news (why would they?  it’s not on the test…) can’t understand the world with only a cursory exposure. It’s not enough to do a day here or a day there. Learning about the world has to become a habit for it to be meaningful. And it should be an inter-disciplinary learning event.

Students at the school I plan to open in August 2013 will spend most mornings the way responsible global citizens spend the morning — reading and thinking about the news.

Below is a screen capture of the start of an article from the New York Times a few days ago that caught my eye because I’ve found that students are interested in the the Three Gorges Dam.

Whether it should have been built raises the question about how much we should be messing with nature.

If you build the dam, you generate lots of power and get to control the flooding (if all goes well) on the largest river in China — the Yangtze.

On the con side, the dam displaced millions of people and flooded ancestral grave sites — a particularly big deal for people in a culture that cares a lot about its ancestors. Also, it’s great if it works — but if it breaks, that would be really really really bad.

This article looks at the issue of whether the dam is also creating environmental problems:

This would be a great article to read to explore whether the Three Gorges Dam (TGD) is really changing the environment in China in a significant way. It would be a fascinating lesson for students to read the Chinese government’s official report and then contrast that report with other reports, such as this one from Scientific American in 2008, titled China’s Three Gorges Dam: An Environmental Catastrophe?

For most middle school students, before we even got into the debates about the environmental impact, we’d have to start with the basics. First, where is the TGD? We will make extensive use of Google Earth in my school, and each time we read an article, we will create a place mark on Google Earth to link to the article.

We do this for two main reasons: First, it helps students develop a sense of global geography when they create a record of every article they read. If each student reads 10 articles per week and creates 10 place marks per week, that means that after 30+ weeks of school, they will have created 300+ place marks per year. After three years, that’s more than a thousand place marks all over the world. Imagine developing the habit of taking the opportunity to convert each article you read into a world geography lesson. That’s valuable context to bring to high school, college, and beyond.

Second, it creates a sense of empathy with the world outside the United States. By looking around and seeing how massive the dam is, you can start to better empathize with the people in China whose lives were disrupted when the dam was built.

Here’s a quick (3-minute) video showing how a student might use Google Earth to locate the TGD:

Now, here’s where the inter-disciplinary approach comes into play: — the TGD debate is not just about the environment. It’s about basic science (how does a dam generate power?) and it’s about politics (where on the Yangtze River will the dam be located?) and it’s about math (later in the article it discusses “trillions” of gallons of water — how much is that? By comparison, how much water does an average US household use per day?)

The world is a complex place. We do students a disservice by presenting it in neat compartments called “science,” “math,” and “English.”

I had an email conversation with a professor at UNC recently, and he noted that:

One of my primary critiques of the current education system is the unnecessary compartmentalization of subject matter. The deeper you dive into a subject matter, the more you realize that there are no dividing lines, only levels of abstraction.

I could not agree more…

Getting back to the TGD for a moment, the power generated by the dam in China is roughly equivalent to 16 nuclear power plants. That broadens our inquiry to use the TGD as a launching point to look at the larger question of how the developing world — especially India and China — will get energy to support their rapidly industrializing cities. After all, who doesn’t want a washer dryer and a refrigerator?

(click the link above to hear Hans Rosling’s powerful 9-minute TED talk about how a washing machine provides time so that women can be freed from the task of cleaning clothing so that they can get an education)

As we broaden the inquiry, we see that the TGD is not alone.  A serendipitous search I conducted for other news articles about the Three Gorges Dam led me to learn about the proposed Grand Inga dam on the Congo River in Africa.

I located that project on Google Earth, and then, when I replicated my search again today, I found yet another dam that is being proposed on the Amazon river in Brazil. Here’s the search I ran — this is not rocket science:

And here’s the result if you could scroll down the page to see the whole thing — along with my thoughts written in on the search results:

If we’re confined to a curriculum, we don’t have time to step back, think, and have moments of exploration like this.

And what will students remember years from now? They might remember some details about the Three Gorges Dam, because they would blog about it at the end of our morning news session.

But more importantly, they would have developed the skills of research and critical thinking and writing — and when we discussed the topic, they would learn listening and speaking skills.

This is the sort of learning that should be taking place on a daily basis.  But it’s not — because it’s not part of the curriculum and it does not fit neatly into any of the traditional disciplines.

We need to make time to look thoughtfully at current events so that our young people can become engaged, empathetic global citizens.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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One Response to Make Time For Current Events — it leads to interdisciplinary learning

  1. Pingback: Bringing the news to life using Google Earth | What I Learned Today

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