What’s Worth Knowing?

I just finished reading the classic Teaching as a Subversive Activity.  Much like my first time meeting Horace, I found myself energized and inspired by the authors’ commentary on the necessity for making significant changes in the way we educate young people in this country (and not a little incredulous that this book came out in 1969 and is still so relevant and applicable today).

In Chapter 5, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner pose the question, “What’s worth knowing?”  The gist is that instead of learning curriculum for curriculum’s sake, schools should focus their learning efforts around certain universal, essential questions.  Some of the sample questions they offer are:

What do you worry about most?
What are the cause of your worries?
Can any of your worries be eliminated?

What bothers you most about adults?
How do you want to be similar to or different from adults you know when you become an adult?

How can you tell ‘good guys’ from ‘bad guys’?
How can ‘good’ be distinguished from ‘evil’?

When you hear or read or observe something, how do you know what it means?
Where does meaning ‘come from’?
What does ‘meaning’ mean?

What’s a ‘good idea’?
Which of man’s ideas would we be better off forgetting?  How do you decide?

What is ‘progress’?

What’s worth knowing?  How do you decide?  What are some ways to go about getting to know what’s worth knowing?

(Postman & Weingartner, 1969, pp. 62-65)

This list is not meant to be conclusive; rather, the authors argue that these are just samples of types of questions we should be asking to promote learning instead of “trivia” questions such as “What year was the Magna Carta signed?” and “What is the average rainfall in the Amazon basin?”  (You’d think it’d be easy to find a Far Side comic to link to here, but no such luck)

Whatever questions you come up with to promote learning in your classroom, Postman & Weingartner suggest the following guiding principles as you develop them:

Will your questions increase the learner’s will as well as his capacity to learn?
Will they help to give him a sense of joy in learning?
Will they help to provide the learner with confidence in his ability to learn?
Does each question allow for alternative answers (which implies alternative modes of inquiry)?
Will the answers help the learner to sense and understand the universals in the human condition and so enhance his ability to draw closer to other people?

(Postman & Weingartner, 1969, p. 66)

With these in mind, what’s worth knowing in your classroom, and how do your students go about learning those worthwhile things?


Postman, N., & Weingartner, C.  (1969).  Teaching as a subversive activity. New York: Delacorte.


  • I think that whats worth knowing depends on who you ask. I’m going to ask my grade 9 learning strategies class that question tomorrow and see what they have to day. I really don’t know what 14 year old kids think worth knowing. Perhaps we can expand our choices by discussing the question. I may be surprised. Perhaps we can convince one another to expand our choices about what is worth knowing. I think I will share those answers in my next blog post.

  • Great idea, Elona; I’d love to hear what your students come up with. Many of the sample questions the authors provided (I didn’t list all of them from the chapter, just a few for illustrative purposes) were taken from students in the late ’60s (and taking curricular cues from students in general was a major overarching theme of the book), so I’d be interested to hear what your 9th graders have to say today.

  • I’ll share these with you. I’ll ask both my grade nine classes tomorrow. It will be interesting to see if and what the changes are from the 60’s.
    elona hartjes´s last blog post ..Some students who are misdiagnosed with ADHD are really just young for the class

  • Well, I’ve asked my students what’s worth knowing and here are some responses.

    The knowledge of knowing something that will benefit you. The more you know the more power you will have, so you can decide what you want.

    You cant really say what worth knowing unless you really want to know.

    Whats going to happen in your life is worth knowing.

    I think that what’s worth knowing is different for everyone because everyone thinks that different things are important its up to them not to anyone else.
    elona hartjes´s last blog post ..The excuses I get when students are caught plagiarizing LOL

  • […] state or country (not that those are without merit), but rather teaching kids to use these tools to pursue whatever it is they feel is worth knowing by connecting with other “real live” people around the neighborhood, state, or world, […]

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