Connections > Content

Shifting the focus of education from content coverage to "connection fluency"

Photo of Elsa Fridman Randolph
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I was really struck by these "Nameless Paints" designed by Ima Moteki, which represent colors without labels. The idea behind the Nameless Paints, as reported in My Modern Met: 

Instead of giving each shade a specific name, various circles represent primary colors that were blended to make the color at hand. The size of the circle also portrays the specific proportions that were used. “By not assigning names to the colors we want to expand the definition of what a color can be, and the various shades they can create by mixing them,” explains Yusuke Imai, who makes up half the design team with Ayami Moteki. 


If you're reading this month's Teachers Guild Book Club read--Tony Wagner & Ted Dintersmith's Most Likely to Succeed--along with us, you know that the tension between content coverage vs. teaching 21st century skills such as curiosity, creativity and collaboration is a central focus of the book. In the course of a discussion about the book, Lisa Yokana made this very poignant comment: In an age of nearly universal ubiquitous Internet access, when knowledge is at our fingertips, what is it we should be teaching and learning? This is a central contemporary area of concern as stakeholders across the system try to rethink and redesign our education system to better prepare students for the demands of the 21st century. 

These redesigned paint tubes prompted me to reflect on the importance of connection across all "21st century skills" -wondering about and exploring existing and potential connections (Curiosity); playing around with old/known connections and creating new connections (Creativity) connecting in authentic and impactful ways (Collaboration).

So this idea is more of a question, but I wonder how we might shift the focus of our education to focus more on "connection fluency" --being comfortable and knowledgeable about how to seek, question, explore, create, foster, nurture, and adapt connections in myriad situations occurring throughout one's life--at school, work and home. 

How does this idea help to spark student curiosity?

Framing knowledge & experience as a dynamic network of shifting connections would spark student curiosity by creating and nurturing in them a mental habit of wondering what lies beyond the obvious, or the known. Labeling a paint "green" has a certain discrete finality to it, whereas if students first learn about green as a proportion of blue & yellow, it will prompt them to wonder about other combinations. Think of the potential if we could extend this more broadly to all learning experiences.

What grade level is this idea most appropriate for?

  • All of the above


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Photo of Mark Carlucci

The first thing is made me think of is how we give people things and tell them what they are/do. In the case of paints, you can just buy a can of green paint, you don't need to know that it is a mix of blue and yellow.

Many times we limit the uses of an item by giving it a name. Take coffee filters, they are for filtering coffee, right? But what about using them for disposable snack bowls, or for a taco shell wrap to help prevent spilling the contents. These are considered "unusual uses," because it's called a coffee filter. The majority of people will never go beyond using a coffee filter as a tool to filter coffee because that is what they are told it is for, both in name and the description on the package.

What if, whenever possible, we didn't tell students what something does? We just give them the tools and let them discover uses for it. The "unusual uses" they discover wouldn't be unusual, they would just be uses.

By getting away from using the word unusual, it would encourage students to be curious to experiment and discover without their ideas being labelled as not normal.

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