As I was finishing off the last crumbs of pumpkin pie after the big, annual Richardson Thanksgiving Day feast, I caught this snip of a conversation between two extended family members, one a 24-year old girl who was struggling to finish college, the other a girl in middle school who clearly was not enjoying it.
“I hate school,” the younger one said. “It’s all about stupid stuff that no one cares about.”
“I know,” said the older one. “They just make you study boring stuff and memorize it for a test and then you just forget it all anyway. That’s not the way people learn.”
It’s not the first time I (or you) has heard this or some variation on the theme. But here it was again, delivered in pained, frustrated tones that made me close my eyes, take a deep breath, and once again wonder why.
Why, when we know that this is what by and large school does to kids, why do we keep doing this? I mean, I know the whys that everyone cites. But why do we give those reasons more cred than it’s just not right to be boring and disengaging kids from learning regardless of what policy makers or parents or whoever else doing the counting want?
We gotta stop.
Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia approach of educating kids, puts it as clearly as anyone:
“The teachers follow the children, not plans” (Kindle 1561).
In other words, it’s about learning, not teaching. We’re so wedded to our lesson plans and curriculum guides and on that we’ve forgotten the focus of our work. It’s not science or history or Shakespeare or calc. It’s kids…learning. Learning how to learn.
This isn’t rocket science. If we care at all about the fact that we’re creating another whole generation of disengaged learners in schools, just start following the kids. Let them lead. As Malaguzzi also says:
“The objective of education is to increase possibilities for the child to invent and discover. Words should not be used as a shortcut to knowledge. Like Piaget, we agree that the aim of teaching is to provide conditions for learning” (Kindle 1451).
Yeah. Go do that.
(Image credit: Vanessa Bumbeers)
Tim McClung says
I too experienced a Thanksgiving exchange between my niece and grandson. The niece, bouncing around colleges with no direction, was never asked how she wanted to spend her life, so now she equates college to a good football team. And my poor grandson, in a private school, that measures success one test at a time, can memorize every book of the bible and will eventually not remember everything and get an A and he will be devastated because of the error and not because of the play and wonder he has missed in the pursuit of one more worksheet. I keep your books on a shelf and rather, than start an argument, simply point to the titles and say just read the Introduction….before it is too late.
Tuck Northrop says
Will – thank you for this post. Conversations like these exemplify the tragedy that is all too present in high school and college students’ lives. I am a second year English teacher, and before I started designing a curriculum or writing lesson plans, I did a lot of thinking about my own experience in high school and college.
I went to a Jesuit high school and studied the standard curriculum – Western Civ, Chem, Bio, Physics, and four years of literature, math, and theology. The test-oriented classes were difficult, and at present, I can recall only fractions of equations and traces of elements.
What I do remember was a theology class with a Jesuit-in-training where we thought about morality, struggle, and meaning in our own lives. The papers we wrote empowered us to explore introspectively and to share our deep desires and fears in a healthy, supportive relationship. In a lot of ways, that class saved/changed my life. Journaling and vulnerability have kept me sane through some very difficult time.
The most powerful experience I had in college was participation in a Western Cultural Tradition honors program. Yes – we read the classics and wrote extensively, but what truly mattered was the community. Our class of 12 students tracked the program together with the same professor for our three final years, two classes per semester. We made and shared dinners together. We went to events, museums, and Boston Symphony Hall together. In short – we were seen, known, and understood at the deepest level by our peers and our professor. We were a family.
From this rambling recollection of my experience, I draw a few very basic but salient points about engagement:
1. Emotional investment drives engagement
2. I started to care about schoolwork when the material was relevant to my life
3. My dedication to education began when I realized it wasn’t about tests and grades – it was about the joy in discovery
4. Being vulnerable in papers and class discussions is scary – but it allows you to be known and present with a teacher and class
5. My most powerful educational experience was when I felt engaged with my peers and professor in a manner that transcended the ‘classroom experience’ and burned with the intimate glow of a team or family working towards a goal together.
With this in mind, I have ignored a lot of the guidance provided by my administration and the city in which I teach. Test scores and growth are not my priority.
My goal for my 10th grade English class is to create an experience where the classroom is not a place to be dreaded, but a place where you can be yourself, learn about yourself, and take risks. I want my students to leave my class and think that school doesn’t have to be the performance-based nemesis it so often is. When my students walk into my room (dimmed and decorated with twinkling lights) and Coltrane is playing, I want them to take a deep breath and feel like they are coming home. I want my students’ relationship with learning to soften and become personal. In this manner, I hope they develop a personal attachment to learning that will carry them forward through the college experience, and, later, the classroom that is life.
Will Richardson says
Thanks so much for that, Tuck. Gives me hope when I hear stories about teachers who think deeply about their own learning before designing the learning experiences of others. All too often, I think we don’t spend enough time in reflection.