Improving Education Through Biographies

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Lately I have been frustated how I see my kids being taught in school. They frequently don’t seem to be engaged with the material. They don’t connect what they learn with the world around them. Most importantly, they don’t seem to be encouraged to make practical applications of their what they learn. Instead, they are taught to pass whatever the next test is and then move on. It would not at all surprise me if, after passing their test, my kids would flush that knowledge from their minds.

I don’t think this is the teachers’ fault: they have guidelines they have to follow, and they have limited resources as it is. I would have a word or two for the people who make those guidelines, but that is a post for another time. Part of my frustration stems from my own education: I was taught to learn things, and I was taught that the things I learned could be applied in the world around me. Kelly says that I was just a weird kid, who happened to have a real interest in the subjects I was learning. I disagree: I was taught in a way that made me interested in those subjects.

It bothers me when people complain about something without offering solutions, and so let me present one possible way that students can be better prepared to learn and to use what they learn in ordinary life, as opposed to just passing a test: teach using biographies. I’ve written about the value of biographies before, but let me enumerate some of the ways I think biopgraphies can help with the overall learning process in a practical way:

  1. Biographies are great for practicing reading. There are biographies for all reading levels. That said, I think kids should be encouraged to stretch their abilities. If they are interested in a book that may be challenging, go for it!
  2. Biopgraphies allow students to sample different career possibilities. Biographies are about people and people do things, whether they are writers, doctors, generals, presidents, actors, football players, teachers, astronauts, scientists, lawyers, entepeneurs, etc. You can see what it was like for someone to live that career. And there are countless biographies so you can get lots of different perspectives.
  3. Biogrphies are great tools for teaching research. How did the author know that particular fact about that person? Was it footnoted? (What is a footnote for that matter?) How can you as reader verify that what the author is saying is true? Biographies usually have notes and citations. Having students track down the source of just one or two facts using those citiations shows how the research process works–in reverse.
  4. Biographies can teach students to be skeptical. Just because it is printed in a book doesn’t mean it is true. This is related to the previous point. It is okay to question assertions made in biographies. The question becomes: how would you confim the assertion — or prove it wrong?
  5. Biographies provide history in context. Instead of just learning names and dates, biographies presents a person’s life in the context of their times. Reading a biography of, say, Franklin Roosevelt will also involve you in the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Second World War. Reading a biography of a scientist like John von Neumann will involve a history of the development of the atomic bomb. I’ve found that by reading a wide variety of biographies over the decades my sense of the flow of history has improved, as well as my sense of the scope–what was happening when, in relation to other things.
  6. Biographies can be used to teach how to take good notes. Do schools even teach how to take notes anymore? I’m hard-pressed to remember if I learned how to take notes in school, with the exception of my 7th grade science teacher, who integrated notetaking into the scientific process. For a while I used the first blank page in the book to jot down a summary of notes that I took away from my reading. I also tried to relate those notes to other things I’ve read.
  7. Biographies can recommend all sorts of tips and tricks that their subjects found useful in their lives and which students might find useful in theirs. Reading a biography of Dwight Eisenhower, I learned how he prioritized tasks: by importance and urgency. The fact that this tool of his was useful to him in such important jobs as General of the Army and President of the United States made a big impression on me. Would such a tool work for me?
  8. Biographies provide a source of information to bring to other subjects. It seems to me that stuff that my kids learn in math and history, or composisiton and science are rarely related to one another. (Why would they be: the test is only going to cover what’s in the chapter, right?1). When learning about the periodic table in science, a biography of Mendeleev, and how he came up with the periodic table in the first place (i.e. why it is periodic) can make understanding the table of elements much easier.
  9. Biographies can be used as teaching tools in any subject. There are biographies of writers, mathematicians, scientists, politicians, musicians, athletes, actors, artists, criminals, saints, you name it. The story of a subject, or a part of subject, can be told through the life of someone who has lived it. The information you get is not just relevant to the subject at hand, but it is the experience of someone involved with the subject. That experience in the context of the subject under study can be invaluable.

Biographies are fascinating and there are many ways they can be used to improve education. I’ve outlined just a few. It is interesting to read biographies of people who were students in ancient Rome, or colonial America. We know more today about science and technology, but I sometimes wonder if they had better methods for teaching and learning.

Written on March 8, 2022.

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  1. Sorry, I’m being overly cynical, but this is one topic that really frustrates me.

One comment

  1. Biographies can in fact be engaging, and my kids in elementary school had to read biographies to do their own biographical reports. (For example, one of my kids did a report and presentation on Nellie Bly and so had to read some books about her to do so.) But full-length book biographies would be hard to add to many of the standard curricula that need to be covered. (Which, as you allude to above, might be one of the issues you find relevant.)

    I do think mini-biographies of people involved in the curriculum would help, as you note.


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