Winter 2020

When The Answer is Both

Should schools prepare students for college and careers or to be good citizens?
Do we want students to get good grades or love learning?
When it comes to teaching Math, should we focus on procedures or problem solving?
Should learning be fun or hard?
Do we want students to consume content or create content?
Should we be using ebooks or printed books?

All of these questions and dozens more are discussed pretty regularly and by many different folks. I’m sure as you’re reading these, your instinct is to anser them and my guess is you’re going to answer  “both” to most if not all of these questions. If we’re given any opportunity to add additional context, we often we add “it’s about balance”.

It’s hard to argue that and generally, I agree. But for me, it’s not so much about balance as it is about emphasis and what we lead with.

When Arnold Palmer was learning to play golf, his father told him “Learn to hit the ball as hard as you can and worry about accuracy later” If you know anything about golf you know you want to hit it long AND straight. But in this case, it was about what to focus on and in what order.

Should learning be fun or hard? While I personally question whether learning should be hard, this question is about what we emphasise. I think starting and leading with fun puts you in a much better position to handle the hard. Emphasizing that learning is hard, certainly sets a tone and maybe it’s the tone you want. But what you emphasize and lead with matters. At the same time, I know many who speak incessantly about “rigor” (a word which I’ve personally come to abhor, just for fun, look up the definition sometime) and pride themselves in the difficulty, structure and discipline required to be successful in their school or classrooms. On the surface these two approaches do not have to be mutually exclusive. Except as much as we as school and classroom leaders may understand this, there’s no doubt that our students rarely see the balance we may be seeking. They will be influenced and driven by the dominant language and attitudes we project. To that end, I’m very sceptical of our abilities to truly be balanced.

Should schools prepare students for college and careers or to be good citizens? 

Almost an age old question that are seems to waver depending on the time and global and local political climates. I’m guessing many if not most people would argue the answer is both but not only is this a hugely ambitious request, it once again speaks to culture and greatly impacts what happens in classrooms.

One of the great moments I’ve had as an educator and parent is giving the only father/daughter talk in TEDx history. My daughter shares a powerful lesson she learned about how beauty can lead to empathy. In a supporting role providing an educational context, I posed this question relating to the purpose of school.

With regards to vocation and citizenship, I said,

I think it’s worth noting that passion and vocation are different things. I don’t know if Martha will find employment through this passion but that doesn’t matter. I worry that students are being told to find jobs they are passionate about. Having a job that is your passion is nice not necessary. Being a good citizen is every bit as important as finding employment. As schools we should help them do both. But I’d say I’d much rather have them leave schools prepared to be good citizens than ready to find a job. Certainly these are related but I think it’s important what we emphasize and what we lead with. Instead of asking our kids “What do you want to be?” We should ask them, “How do you want to live?”  I think that’s a question that can better help the make the key decisions in their lives. Saying it’s “both” or “we need to have balance” is the kind of thing we say to please everyone. It may be partially true but it can also be an unsatisfying answer and one that lacks direction. So the next time you want to answer “both” to one of these kind of questions, think about providing a bit more nuance and clarity and what you think should be the focus. This doesn’t mean you’re choosing one idea over the other. But “both” sometimes sends a watered down or even convoluted message. You can always remind people that you want both and choosing a path or focus doesn’t exclude the other but gives you a much better chance of creating a culture and momentum to do good work.

Dean Shareski is an author, speaker and recognized educational leader. He brings 30 years experience from classroom teacher to community builder. He was the 2010 International Society of Technology Education’s Outstanding Leader. You can read more of his writing at

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