At a recent morning workshop for school leaders at a fairly small New England public school district, about an hour into a conversation focused on what they believed about how kids learn best, an assistant superintendent somewhat surprisingly said aloud what many in the room were no doubt feeling.
“When I really try to square what I believe about how kids learn and what we practice in our classrooms, it unsettles me,” she said. “And it frustrates me.”
As it should.
One of the things I’ve come to realize in my many discussions with educators from around the globe is that there are a number of practices in our current systems of schooling that “unsettle” us, primarily because they don’t comport with what Seymour Papert calls our “stock of intuitive, empathic, common sense knowledge about learning.” But what’s also notable about those practices is that we rarely want to discuss them aloud, content instead to let them hover silently in the background of our work. We know, as I suggested a few weeks ago, that in many cases, these practices are attempting to do “the wrong thing right” rather than “do the right thing” in the first place. But we carry on regardless.
Acknowledging the Elephants
Lately, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with our unwillingness to acknowledge these “elephants in the (class)room,” if you will, because the new contexts for modern learning forged by the networked world in which we now live are creating an imperative for new ways of thinking about our work in schools. I’ve been collecting a list of these “things that we don’t really want to talk about in education” in hopes that it might challenge us to bring those elephants out into the open and ignite some much needed conversation about how to deal with them. Here are nine of them:
1. We know that most of our students will forget most of the content that they “learn” in school. As Matthew Lieberman from UCLA notes, “For more than 75 years, studies have consistently found that only a small fraction of what is learned in the classroom is retained even a year after learning.” That’s primarily because the curriculum and classroom work they experience has little or no relevance to students’ real lives. And we all know this, because we ourselves have forgotten the vast majority of what we supposedly learned in school. Yet we continue to focus our efforts primarily on content knowledge, as is evidenced by the focus of our assessments. If we would acknowledge that true learning is unforgettable, made of the things that we want to learn more about, we’d radically shift our focus in the classroom. (For more on this, I highly recommend The Book of Learning and Forgetting by Frank Smith.)
2. We know that most of our students are bored and disengaged in school. According to a recent Gallup survey, only 32% of high school juniors reported that they were “involved and enthusiastic about school.” Almost worse, only 17% said that they have fun in school, the same number that said they “get to do what they do best” in school. Is anyone ok with that? And, by the way, let’s stop pretending that we can solve the engagement problem by handing kids iPads or other technologies. Hand them more agency over their own learning instead.
3. We know that deep, lasting learning requires conditions that schools and classrooms simply were not built for. When we look at the things that each of us has learned most deeply in our lives, the same certain conditions almost always apply: Among other things, we had an interest and a passion for the topic, we had a real, authentic purpose in learning it, we had agency and choice, deciding what, when, where, and with whom we learned it, and we had fun learning it even if some of it was “hard fun.” We know this. But in the vast majority of curriculum driven schools, however, students sit and wait to be told what to learn, when to learn it, how to learn it, and how they’ll be assessed on it. Rarely do they get to choose, and just as rarely does the learning they do in class have any impact beyond the classroom walls.
4. We know that we’re not assessing many of the things that really matter for future success. The reality in K-12 schooling today is that the majority of what we assess, content, knowledge, and basic skills, is the easiest to assess, not the most important. It’s much more difficult to assess the literacies, skills, and dispositions that are required to succeed and lead a healthy, happy life, especially in a world where answers are everywhere via the technologies we carry in our pockets. In that world, creativity, curiosity, a change mindset, the ability to create, connect, and participate in networks…all of those are now required, yet few of those are currently assessed at all. As Mitch Resnick of the MIT Media Lab writes*,
“Today’s education systems are not designed to help people develop as creative thinkers…It is ironic (and distressing) that at the same time that machines are increasingly taking over workplace tasks that don’t require any uniquely human abilities, our education systems continue to push children to think and to act like machines…We need to stop training students for exams that computers can pass.”
5. We know that grades, not learning, are the outcomes that students and parents are most interested in. On New Year’s Day of this year, high school sophomore Emily Mitchum published an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette where she wrote,
This system…has caused my generation to develop an unhealthy obsession over grades instead of learning, in my opinion. The harsh reality is that we really aren’t learning as much as we could be. We study because we have tests, and the day after the test we forget all of the information we studied.
Whenever I reference Emily’s post to school audiences, most heads nod in acknowledgement. And the same holds true for parent groups. Ask most parents what their child has actually learned as represented by that grade on the report card and you’ll get little if any response. (I’ve tried it.)
6. We know that curriculum is just a guess. The way we talk about “The Curriculum” you would think that it was something delivered on a gold platter from on high. In reality, it was pretty much written by 10 middle-aged white guys (and their primarily white, middle-aged friends) in 1894 called “The Committee of Ten.” They were from some of the most prestigious schools and universities at the time, and they fashioned the structure of much of what we still teach in schools today. But we know that much of what every student in 1894 was supposed to learn isn’t really what every student in 2015 needs to learn. Yet we seem loathe to mess with the recipe. And as Seymour Papert so famously asks, now that we have access to pretty much all there is to know, “what one-billionth of one percent” are we going to choose to teach in school?
7. We know that separating learning into discrete subjects and time blocks is not the best way to prepare kids for the real world. School is the only place in the world where we do math for 45 minutes, and then science for 45 minutes, and then Shakespeare for 45 minutes. That’s an efficiency that serves the system, not the students. To quote Mitch Resnick* again,
“The creative jobs of the future will not fit into boxes as neatly labeled and divided as the professions of today. The positions that involve mastery and the use of powerful technologies will be filled by people who combine a range of different skills from different disciplines. These jobs will require not just interdisciplinary but antidisciplinary thinking and doing.”
Does that come as a shock to anyone? And the same goes for separating kids into age groupings, by the way.
8. We know (I think) that the system of education as currently constructed is not adequately preparing kids for what follows if and when they graduate. Take a look at the recent headlines: NAEP scores are down; SAT scores are flat; Americans rank last in problem solving using technology; kids are Internet illiterate; most professors find high school grads unprepared for college or work; and on and on (not to mention the engagement issues mentioned above.) To be sure, there are many causes for this: poverty, declining budgets, lack of technology in schools, etc. And I know that as long as these are the measures we use to gauge our success (test scores, college acceptance, etc.) real change will be hard to come by. But there is a strong argument building that we have reached “peak education” as we continue to do try to do the wrong thing right and get “wronger” in the process.
9. And finally, we know that learning that sticks is usually learned informally, that explicit knowledge accounts for very little of our success in most professions. Instead, tacit knowledge and the ability to learn from others, in the moment, both face to face and in networks is vastly more important and effective. Most of what we teach kids we teach them “just in case” they may need it some day, primarily because the system is still operating on the belief that explicit knowledge is scarce. With the Web, it’s not. Those that will flourish in the modern world will be those who can learn what they need to learn “just in time” from a variety of networks and sources and experiences.
What other elephants can you name?
Acknowledging these “elephants” should be unsettling. Our current practice and systems in school don’t hew to these truths very much if at all, and that should leave us wondering about how effective our schools actually are at preparing our kids for their real lives. But we can do something about it. We can acknowledge the gaps between what we know to be true about learning and what we do in our classrooms, and be willing to at the very least engage in conversations aimed at bridging those gaps for the sake of our kids. And if we put these unsettling truths front and center in our conversations about education, we might just truly transform the learning experience in schools.
(*Use the password “reviewer” to open the pdf.)
Annemarie Harris says
This is all so true! My son Tommy is in 6th grade & is “studying” to be a magician. Completely outside of school. He watches hours of You Tube videos & then practices his (mostly card) tricks on family and friends. I’ve taken him to our local magic shop where he learned about different tricks from the owner & was able to try things & ask questions (magic tricks are pricey!). A friend of his is also into magic & so Tommy goes to him to learn & try new tricks. Tommy has complete ownership over this process. He’s pursuing out of pure enjoyment. I know that deep learning is going on because he’s connecting learning to his inner self (there’s no extrinsic benefit).
Will Richardson says
Awesomeness. My son is the same way, just about basketball. And I know many scoff at the idea that learning dispositions can be developed deeply through sports, but he has become more focused, persistent, patient, and collaborative (as well as creative and communicative) through the experience. It may not look traditional, but there’s no doubt he’ll be a better learner and a better person for his commitment to playing at the highest level he can achieve. Fun to watch, isn’t it?
Studies have shown a positive correlation between sports and learning. Most students involved in a sport do better in school. Athletes are more organized and focused. I think all kids should be involved in sports. It gives them the down time they don’t always get in school.
Jo Jo says
Now imagine that he learns everything that way and you’ve just described unschooling. 🙂 A radical version of homeschooling which utilizes no formal curriculum. Natural, life learning works.
Right on, Jo Jo! unschooling makes sense, life and learning are supposed to be fun and happy, and it can be.
Humanity must find the courage to discover its humanity and reject programming which was designed to create slaves and feeds the nanny/police state which profits a few at the expense of the many. To change this, it will take people who care enough about their children (and themselves) to raise and love them with honor and respect and to have the courage to do what their hearts tell them, despite being criticized. You can choose to be happy or right. You can not be both. Most never grow up and are capable of looking at their upbringing objectively and then choose something better. Its too painful so they just repeat the same, even though this degenerate path is getting harder and harder to ignore.
i think it really comes down to a belief in either humanity is inherently evil and needs to be controlled and punished, or that humans are inherently divine, and in honoring that divinity, they will bloom like a beautiful flower, a sacred part of All That Is, as are all beings in creation. The puritans practiced the former and unfortunately people today continue to practice this cruel lie, with only a lame, well i turned out ok, but that is a lie; its obvious society is not ok.
Collectivism is an insidious evil that destroys the human spirit.
Deborah Caldwell says
I have friends who have two sons, and one ‘studied’ to be a magician and IS one, professionally, in NYC. So fun. So productive. Carry on.
IPL 2016 says
Hey! This post could not be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my good old room mate!
He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this page
to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!
Sarah Collins says
Elephant number ten.
Exams and assessments done in isolation with no do-overs.
Where in the world of work and life are you expected to sit at a desk for three hours and write down everything you know on a given topic. Where are you expected to hand in a report or paper without the opportunity to improve it with feedback from the person/s you are witing it for before it is ‘graded’
In today’s world you need to work collaboratively, to add your perspective, experience and knowledge to achieve a given task and that task will not be considered finished until it has under gone numerous cycles of feedback and edit by a range of people.
Exams and assessments are uniquely found in schools and educational institutions as a means of labeling how ‘good’ someone is percived to be, yet such artificial circumstances are not a part of the real world.
Unfortunately though such labels (grades) stick and kids will internalise very quickly that they are ‘no good at math’ or ‘suck at writing’ or ‘kick ass at gym’ or are ‘ok at history’ and pretty soon the kids will resign themselves to and only live up to the ‘label’ they are given.
Will Richardson says
Thanks for the comment, Sarah, and I agree that we probably know “the truth” about our assessments and how little they reflect real world outcomes. I was thinking of adding another that talked about extrinsic rewards, and how we know that they don’t really move any of us to longer-term learning.
Jo Jo says
Brilliantly said. I think you would really enjoy the book “Wounded by School” by Kirsten Olson. She says all this and more.
The belief that it is better to teach more at an earlier age. There is a lot of serious learning to be done at 4 and 5 years old, and most of it involves play. Children don’t read better at 11 when they learn at 5 versus when they learn at 7. There is a lot of physical brain development that needs to occur to read, and it happens at different times, just as kids grow at different rates. Yet all children benefit from discovery, questioning, exploration and collaboration; why don’t we focus on those at ages 4-6 instead of randomly picking 4 months into their kindergarten year as the month all children must learn to read, and doing things like eliminating recess and field trips to spend more time and money on early phonics programs? Not all children learn to read in kindergarten but what they do learn is that school is a frustrating place where they hate to be.
Much of the problem is the system. Parents need kids to be somewhere while they work. Doing anything with 33 kids at a time limits what can be done. We know what is broken, but not how to fix it. I would love to hear solutions. We keep talking about it… We know we are not accomplishing what we want, but we have a reality that exists that cannot be ignored. How to we overcome? Kids, parents and teachers are all frustrated. Funding for schools is another big stumbling block. Not trying to be negative Nancy, would love to see systemic change also.
Sarah Collins says
There are many alternative school models out there. Finland for one but also Democratic, Montisoree, Stiener, Waldorf and a significant amount of research that shows how they ‘do school’ better. The answers to your question are out there. We need our policy makers to be brave enough to initiate change.
I agree that there are models that work. Many that you have mentioned are privately funded, hence the success. You are so right about policy makers. They need to value education more and support systemic change with the proper funding.
Aubra Lewis says
I agree Ann. I am an educator who had been in the system for 24 years. I wold love to change, but how?
Elizabeth Moran says
It made me happy to see that some administrators are tackling elephants. I wish more would. Many of my teacher colleagues (parents too) are stuck between a rock and a hard place, knowing what’s best for kids but not having the voice or power (or time) to make changes. We need administrators who will truly listen to us, listen to our kids and students, and read the research and respond appropriately in the best interests of our students (in regard to many policies, i.e. lack of recess/play, obscene amounts of academic standards versus much needed social-emotional learning, etc..) Thank you for this article.
Ginny Stafford says
I love the thinking in this article however, I wonder how colleges are preparing students for the real world. Do they still also offer their coursework in isolated classes, for example journalism, biology, art? If colleges are still delivering instruction in isolated classes, is there a need to prepare students for that in high school? I would love to read an article, and/or research, that addresses what college readiness actually looks like. I agree that the system needs to change, elephants need to be brought to the forefront, and systems beyond k-12 also need to be in on the solution proposals. Thank you for sparking the discussion.
Bill Manchester says
Great article! Another elephant – we as educators know many of the “elephants” but we don’t make the big picture decisions! And of course, in 2 months we get out for the year, so all the students can tend to all their chores on the farm for this seasons harvest! Because that still happens!
This is spot on, Will. We mostly homeschooled our kids and I’m glad for reasons like the above. Still had plenty of interface with the school system, not least when the kids hit college. You’d hope these issues would be gone at the college level, and certainly it’s much improved over K-12, but some of the same issues apply.
Dean Shareski says
I suppose the other elephant that I know you talk about a lot is that we no longer need teachers expertise in the way we used to. For many, this remains a stronghold of identity and purpose. But teacher as expert, is now a nice, but not necessary quality. We need learners, mentors and connectors. For many of our current teachers, these are somewhat elusive.
Will Richardson says
Dean! Totally agree. Very few see that as an opportunity to embrace rather than something to avoid.
Yes! In fact, I would submit that the role of the teacher as learner, mentor, connector…is becoming increasingly more critical! Students need models, examples and support as they learn how to learn, connect, share, bridge and grow their thinking.
Perhaps a related elephant – teachers as learners; those truly willing to model their professional learning, AND learn alongside their students.
Lisa Nocita says
I absolutely agree! Our role is changing and this kind of paradigm shift is frightening for many! It’s one thing that just baffles me! We are (should be) lovers of learning and we should excite that kind of curiosity and excitement in our students by modeling it!
Corey Topf says
Students and parents often publicly deride the current education model; however, when given an actual alternative, they still opt for systems and programs that are recognized by universities. Regardless of how content-based and antiquated they might be, they are also known and safe.
I’ll be more concrete. At the American School of Lima, we created a program that combines three disciplines–English, media and business–into real-world projects. It’s a program for 10th, 11th and 12th graders. Every year we have around 30 students who apply to the program as sophomores, and there’s always a great deal of interest from top students. However, the fear of university acceptances starts to seep in for junior and senior year, so students switch to the IB Diploma and our numbers drop. We’ve had some of our best students in the program tell us that they love the Innovation Academy, and it’s how they learn best, but they’re too worried that universities won’t recognize it like they do the IB.
For private schools like ours that are looking to address the issues above, this is important to keep in mind. It’s not to say we shouldn’t work to fight this mindset, but we need to be aware that creating the programs that truly address these elephants isn’t enough.
Will Richardson says
Thanks for sharing that, Corey. Really interesting. I am constantly wondering how we change the frame for parents so that they understand that colleges are shifting as well and that there are lots of kids out there who don’t have a traditional school experience that do just fine in terms of getting into college. It’s a very deeply ingrained narrative, no doubt.
Justin Ferren says
Can you name some colleges who are more receptive to a non-traditional approach to learning?
Will Richardson says
Hey Justin. Try this.
Cliff Baker says
California is beginning to address this specific problem with UC Curriculum Integration courses that blend academics with Career-Technology Education. Here is the web page: http://ucci.ucop.edu/integrated-courses/index.html
Melissa Flynn says
Great article, and even better is the discussion leaning towards college and universities. This is one solution that truly needs to be developed from the top down. Many colleges and universities still require those first two years of B.S. classes – the ones that don’t really matter to their chosen career choice, but make money for the school. If our kids just took three years of math in HS, why do they need another math in college – unless they NEED it for their major in the math or sciences? Why does a college degree have to be four years, when EVERYONE knows that the first two years could be dropped because they are not really related to the main course work? Why do you think it’s ok for students to go to a ‘community’ college for the first two years?? If we really want the graduation rate for colleges to increase – take out the BS classes and make the real degree happen within 2 years (maybe 3 for sciences).
We can’t truly begin to change our elem and secondary education systems until we revamp the “final goal” system.
And, don’t even get me started with our need for more trade schools in this country!! Not every student will or even should, go on to college, but every student should have access to a system that will help them figure out what they like to do and how to go about doing it with guidance and help.
There is some (much?) evidence that your first elephant is just wrong: See Daniel Willingham here http://www.aft.org/ae/fall2015/willingham
Will Richardson says
Thanks for the link, Matt. What I glean from Willingham is that we can recall things that we once “learned” if we find them needed or useful at some point in the future. I wonder how much of what is learned in school, however, will ever be used again by a particular student.
What happened to the idea that exposure to information, ideas and experience JUST for the sake of exposure, broadens and deepens an individual and shapes them into a more well-rounded citizen, employee and person some day…regardless of whether they will “use” that information in their life? This sentence proves it’s writer needed more rote memory in the area of syntax and grammar :).
Chris Woods says
as a high school math teacher in a rural, at- risk public school, I’m constantly frustrated by too many “experts” (politicians, professors, think-tankers…) who seem to know how to set our curriculum, leaving precious little time for “inspiration.” I make it my goal every day to show my students something awesome being done with math to inspire or challenge them.
we need an “inspiration revolution” not a “curriculum revision”…and a “parent revolution” too.
Will Richardson says
Thanks for the comment, Chris. I agree with all of it, especially the parent revolution. Lots of education needed for parents.
Derrick Mohamed says
Very refreshing conversations! Solutions??? Start, stop, continue. Get all stakeholders to look at ‘your’ system in your school and begin the process of examing your practices. Decide what things you need to ‘stop’ doing, what you need to ‘start’ and then thise effective practices that you need to continue. Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Be bold with your vision to see long term systemic change in your schools. It takes a live fish to swim upstream. Be a risk taker and go for it!
Irene Fenswick says
Nice post, Will. All these elephants are so real. Very often schools are ineffective at preparing our kids for their real lives and we as parents have to do something about it.
Ian Landy says
Great post! Inspired one of my “blogs-each-day-of-learning” https://technolandy.wordpress.com/2016/04/11/day-131-of-183-on-deadlines-and-due-dates-a-willrich45-elephants-shoutout/
because there are quite a few “elephants” that are sometimes….difficult….to talk about – because we need to identify that there are some flaws in the system that many (?) of us were “successful” in (or at least figured out how to get a top score in the “game of school”. And acknowledging the elephants means we (not someone else) needs to think about moving away from them….and focus on Learning.
Next elephant: University! I am curious about the stats regarding professors finding high school students not to be prepared. When look at the info in the link you provided, I wonder how profs are assessing students on critical thinking, comprehension, problem-solving, etc.? Based on my own experiences during my B.Ed degree, and looking at what my son is going through in his post-secondary program currently, I am seeing yet another outdated model of education. There are lectures, textbook work, 5 paragraph essays, and multiple choice tests. Even in our smaller, local University programs where class sizes are reasonable, students don’t often feel that they get to know the professor, or are doing meaningful learning that is more than regurgitation of facts. My whole B.Ed was hoop jumping. Not until I did my M.Ed. was I actually asked to research and write about what I was interested in and tell people what I thought.
In British Columbia, where I am from, we are in the midst of a massive curriculum shift – a positive one – addressing many of the elephants you have listed above. When I look at the B.Ed. program at our local University, there is very little knowledge or instruction from the profs about our curriculum redesign as part of the teacher preparation. Or… ironically… they tell students they should be doing more project-based and inquiry learning, but via a class that is lecture and assignment/test-based in nature. We are perpetuating an outdated model by not preparing our new teachers for the future as well.
How do we encourage post-secondary institutions to address all of these elephants as well?
Raidon T. Phoenix says
Elephant 10: This system shunts aside and ignores both adaptability to learning disabilities, and intellectual giftedness.
I deal with both. ADHD (diagnosed at 19) and a large degree of boredom in regards to typical schooling because, in many subjects, I understood the subject matter in half the time other students did, and wanted work twice as challenging so it would give me a reason to remember it. They never did, unless of course, I wanted extra challenge work on top of the regular busy work.
Now, I’m on the path to publishing a novel or two, working remotely for an author in Texas, and volunteering as a site designer for a company that teaches American Sign Language. Oh, and I just started a YouTube channel. Nothing in school taught me any of this. In fact, I flunked the one class that may have helped with my YouTube channel, a video editing course.
For all those reasons, when I have kids, I’m planning on home schooling, unschooling, and possibly some alternative form of school. I know first hand the damage our system can do. Thanks, Will, for putting it in such clear terms.
Lori Walker says
Thank you for talking about the elephants! For the past 13 years, I have been running an alternative-to-school that is relatively elephant free. What we know: increase student autonomy and you increase instrinsic motivation to learn, which leads to all kinds of exciting outcomes. At Village Home (www.villagehome.org), learners CHOOSE their classes (no required curriculum, no standardized curriculum, no grades, no tests). We dish up about 200 classes a term on all of kinds of topics. The results are pretty stunning in that kids grow up here (1) knowing themselves and (2) enjoying the process of learning. Our students who are now in college look at their exhausted peers who have been trained to jump through hoops, and appreciate their Village Home fertile soil where they were able to enjoy their education.
Golden Gadoh says
I salute you for naming the elephants, and be accountable for what you pointed out. Curriculum as a guess? Absolutely, whose been to the future? Can I ever tell what will it be next year? Guilty as charged here. Something has got to change before, as Ken Robinson recounted, the system kills every creativity there are in our students.
Russ Goerend says
As evidenced by the comments on this post, there’s nothing novel in this list. We know.
Any interest in a series of interviews with schools and programs addressing some/many of these elephants? How about helping gather information about those who are working beyond the items on this list so others can learn about them?
Will Richardson says
Thanks for the comment and suggestion, Russ. I’ve got some “case studies” on my list of things to do. I know of about a dozen schools that are deeply invested in changing things. Do you have some to suggest as well?
Russ Goerend says
Van Meter High School modular schedule
Waukee APEX (along with schools in the CAPS Network)
Those are just a few that come to mind. I very much appreciated your post today where you couple big-picture criticism with a specific example of a school that is avoiding and/or doing something to remedy that criticism. That gives readers who nod their heads along with the criticisms/”elephants” something to latch onto in their own context. What are others doing about this? Is that something we could replicate or remix in our corner of the world? It’s going beyond the nodding in agreement where progress happens.
Justin Birtwell says
I truly feel that something great is emerging. I know that it may seem very far off, but it isn’t. The Greeks had two words for time, kairos and Kronos. A time is coming when the old system, built upon the English industrial system of the 1800’s will die and anew system will emerge. This blog has done a wonderful job in articulating the big list of problems in our system. I for one no longer want to complain about a dysfunctional system, but imagine what may be in store in the future. The system does not need to be reformed,mit needs to be disrupted. Think of the way the analog system of communication has transformed over the past 30 years. When was the last time you used a dial telephone, or listened to a LP record. If we can design an iPhone to be a thing of wonder and joy, why can we not design our kid’s education to be a thing of wonder or joy. And we will,mthe world needs us to, our children need us to. The Greeks recognized that there are certain moments in time in which years and decades of time have culminated into a turning point. The term that used for this is Kairos. It is my opinion that we are approaching such a time.
C. Collins says
Your article brings up many good points. However, some kids just aren’t interested in some subjects, no matter how relevant the teacher makes it to their lives. Why did someone decide that I needed to take algebra instead of taking a class that interested me and contributed to my life? (Please don’t take it personally, algebra teachers…many students hate English class -which I teach.) I have never once used algebra as an adult. No matter how exciting the hands-on project-based learning or social interactions could be, I did not want to be there and still, 26 years later, have never needed it. So, I agree students should have some choice.
Another point is: how can we expect high school teachers to teach 5 or 6 classes of 36 kids effectively? I had the honor of receiving a scholarship to an exclusive prep school, and most of my classes had 7-10 students in them. I loved school and learned so much in those small classes. How can a teacher give effective feedback to 180 students? How much would student discipline improve if we reduced class sizes even by half?
Elementary teachers also seem to have a difficult job by having to meet national or state standards for six or seven subjects?
Thank you for bringing up these elephants. I think it would be helpful if schools continued this conversation and considered some new, creative ways to attack the issues.
We chose the unschooling life before it was even time to send our son to school. I think we busted every one of the ‘elephants’ listed – AND had a helluva lot of fun doing it! Our son, now 25 and an airline pilot, never saw the inside of a schoolroom until college. His learning has been immensely broad, deep and valuable. I would never do it any other way.
Scott Noelle says
Here’s a big elephant that’s implicit in many of the others already mentioned, but it hasn’t been stated outright: Standard, imposed schooling is inherently and thoroughly DISEMPOWERING.
Denying young people their autonomy and their ability to harness the power of their natural curiosity and passion, day after day for twelve years, cultivates what psychologists refer to as “learned helplessness.” The tacit lesson is that being controlled is normal, and freedom is for weekends only. Even the “successful” students are internalizing that lesson to some extent. This is the exact opposite of the purpose of education: to empower the learner.
Spot on. Wow.
In the book “the Talent Code” the author describes two main processes to mastering anything…ignition and deep practice. Ignition is the seed of motivation to spur a student to know more. a Deep practice is about breaking down the individual parts and knowing them so well that t becomes innate. The question of our time is how can we IGNITE students to learn? IT is certainly NOT telling them what they SHOULD learn.
Siggi Olafsson says
Spot on indeed. And then we scratch our heads trying to figure out why young people don’t turn up to vote! They are taught from an early age that they have NO power. They are brought up in totalitarian institutions where they have no say in what they do, when they do it, with whom, where or how. Look at the Sudbury Valley School for a radically different approach
Your commentary evoked memories of my Catholic school upbringing in the late ’50’s and ’60’s, replete with diagramming sentences and memorizing questions from the Baltimore Catechism. (Who made us? God made us. Who is God. God is the Supreme Being who made all things.) Despite the pitfalls of rote learning that you enumerate I have to say I can still repeat the 5 properties of every verb and understand the difference between a participle and a gerund, so I cannot completely agree with your first postulate.
Working in the Gifted and Talented Education program, and the autonomy therein provided allows my students to know what Carl Gauss did, why Newton’s considered the father of calculus and not Leibniz
and how to construct a race car out of DVDs, balsam wood, copper tubes and balloons. Is the program aligned with the common core curriculum standards for their particular grade level? Maybe as much as Sickles 3rd Corp aligned with the rest of the federal line the 2nd day at Gettysburg but probably not as close. Do the students learn as much or far more than in a standard common core curriculum based classroom? Since they are not assessed in the manner of the general education classroom that question may prove evasive but they will have opportunities to make singular explorations based on the subject material presented at that time. Of course I am the final arbiter of what material I present but if they struggle with Gaussian elimination they may excel at constructing rockets out of paper and plastic straws.
I appreciate the points considered in your missive although I do not know how they can be applied in the common core standards based general education classroom. I know if I had to construct my program within the limitations of common core or any such standards, I would fail, and more so because I would likely dismiss those standards that I found less worthy than because I was too overwhelmed by how to manage so many standards in so little time. It is a conundrum worth considering but one for which solutions are more elusive than a hummingbird’s flight.