educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

The relevance of school?

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As I wrote recently, I’m fascinated by what influences people to be who/what they are. Perhaps in the same vein, I’m also curious about how what we learn transfers to other situations. There is a robust body of research studying learning transfer; it’s elusive to pin down how what we learn in one situation can be applied to another.

I’m a teacher, a writing teacher, and coach, so learning transfer is perhaps a natural interest, but I also have thought about such transfer in my role as a parent. Think about the number of things you do with your children in the hopes that such things will help them later. I mean, do we need them to say “Please pass the peas” to us, or do we mainly want them not be jerks when they go to a restaurant?

This idea of transfer helped frame my online first-year writing course this past winter. I owe thanks to University of Washington professor Anis Bawarshi, who came to Philly for the fall meeting of the Philadelphia Writing Program Administrators at Penn and talked about genre and knowledge transfer. I can’t do justice to his ideas here, but he discussed with us how people use genres to take knowledge from one setting and apply/use it in another setting. I asked my students to tackle this problem throughout the course, including completing this challenging assignment:

This will be an open-ended, exploratory project through which you will assemble various components of what you know (and perhaps who you are), examine and analyze those influences/resources, and then argue that you have been successfully building through them the background, knowledge, and experience you will need for your future – or that you think you have a long way to go yet.

In some way, you will be creating a project that shows how you are solving/confronting issues and challenges about transferring your learning and experiences in high school, college, and other parts of your life. This project could turn into an argument about how you do not understand how the things you are doing right now in college – both in class and beyond – are building toward your desired future.

The project should be no shorter than 1,500 words. This is a writing class, and I’m happy to read as much writing as you would like to compose – please write as long as you like.

 As a stage of the project, I asked them to create a 12-source annotated bibliography of these “components of what [they] know.”

 Annotated bibliography of your own knowledge and experience. You will write an annotated bibliography of your own knowledge and experience. You will think about what you know and how you know those things, and then you will compile a list of at least 12 items, works, people, or things that contribute to your learning. Each of these entries should be cited as best you can and will follow this three-sentence annotation structure:

  • One sentence describing the resource in general.
  • One sentence describing when and how you encountered it.
  • One sentence describing its relevance as a component of your own knowledge/learning.

The annotated bibliography is its own assignment.

I received 134 sources from these students, a smart, motivated bunch who in general thrived in the robust writing environment of our online course. When I read their bibs, I noticed how few mentioned anything about school, so I started counting. I was surprised to find that only eight of their sources had to do with experiences or people at school: less than 6%.

In short, when these solid students were asked to identify significant “sources” in the ongoing development of their lives, school rarely made the list. Instead, they described family members, notable experiences, jobs. They did include books and movies, but in most cases even these were encountered outside of school.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. My personal list would include school-centered things like reading Gravity’s Rainbow or having Mr. Stead in eighth grade, but, hey, I did get into education.

But, because I am in education, I find this all the more sobering. I not only believe in the educational experiences of students, but I believe in the power of teachers and what they do every day.

Is it the way I framed the question? You see how I did that above. What are the things they’ve done and how will those things add up to who they will/want to be? Overwhelming, school was not in those memories.

I don’t know what to do with this information. Part of me doesn’t want to talk about it. But this sliver of data has got me thinking. What do we count as significant in our life experiences? And where are those lessons being learned?

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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3 Responses to “The relevance of school?”

  1. Scott, Maybe these students were undergrads–freshpeople, even? That means school has been in their lives for 12-14 of their 17-19 years, and possibly not in their summers. When you get to be my age, and I have been a sexagenarian for a couple of years now, school has taken up an increasingly larger part of my existence, including teaching every summer. While maybe these young people have spent a larger percentage of their time in “the real world” because of the abovementioned factors, school has increasingly become “the real world” for me, with my paycheck, late nights, weekends, etc. taking place in relation to school.

    That’s one thread. Another is that people we realize now have been inspirational for us have emerged in our awareness later, often as a result of further school. At my 40th high school reunion several years ago, I saw Mr. Gallagher, who was my math teacher in 11th and 12th grades, and who taught a non-credit pass-fail philosophy course my senior year. 35 years ago I would not have been able to tell him how important his introduction to the Pre-Socratics had been to me as a grad student and a professor, nor his basic first introduction to me of the notion of “paradigm shift” (though he didn’t use that term), but after things he had first presented in class had turned out over the decades to stay with me and indeed have founded many of my subsequent ideas and further studies–including his classroom manner, which took me years to integrate into my own–I could truly tell him how deeply influential he had turned out to be, and give particular examples.

    What I’m saying is that perhaps your students, at least some of them, have not grown into the stage where all of their truly significant influences have become obvious to them.

  2. I am very curious about the role that being part of a sports team played, as well. Or academic clubs. Did you take notice of them (or lack thereof) as you read the bibs?

    Really cool assignment!
    I think Don, above, has a good point. But getting anyone at any age to really stop and analyze their own lives… Good stuff!

  3. Hi Scott. Very interesting assignment you described. As I read it, I thought briefly about what I might include. Formal education itself never entered my mind – although the dynamics of dealing with school and the “drama” along with it was a major factor. But when you mentioned school in the end, I wondered how I could have overlooked that? I decided that it’s either too obvious of an answer, or that I didn’t “experience” education – it was just part of the growth process, much like acquiring a taste for spinach or getting in your wisdom teeth. But anyway, I love the transfer of knowledge to solve new issues. What’s really cool is when the next problem that knowledge goes to solve is used… BY YOUR KIDS. Leading by example is truly underrated.

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