Friday, May 18, 2012

Lay down the burden.

In most of today’s public schools adults feel so strongly that the standard subjects that have been taught for a hundred years are so crucial that no matter how different the world is today and how achingly indifferent kids are, they must learn it. Covering content is more important than learning. This idea is supported by the testing culture -- or perhaps the testing culture is actually doing the driving?

So we design clever ways and means of getting the information in. Differentiated instruction, finding learning styles, teaching with multiple intelligences, rearranging tables and chairs in the classroom, unpacking standards, letting kids choose how they will learn a prescribed subject so that it can be “assessed”.... sound familiar?

All these methods are supposed to serve as shoehorns; ways to ease the information into kids, past that rock-hard wall of not giving a damn, into their brains in some form that they can access it (at least long enough to take a high stakes test).

But in the meantime kids are catching on as Marc Prensky shared in his article Engage Me or Enrage Me. Prensky points out that many of the kids we are trying to drug for non-compliance, don’t have A.D.D., they’re just not listening because they know what we’re trying to impose upon them is irrelevant for their success.  

We now have a generation of students who are mad as hell and they’re fighting back. They are doing so by talking, throwing things, not listening, talking, leaning back in their chairs till they fall over, chewing gum, texting (doing drugs, drinking, bullying), skipping classes, taking bathroom breaks, and talking, talking, talking.

We adults are stumped! We must create rules for discipline and behavior, ban and block the tools for learning that they love, restrict their freedom of expression, and any other way we can think of for capturing them, holding them still and making them learn what they really really don’t care about. (What does this remind you of?)
We are absolutely convinced that the value of education is actually greater when children are compelled to learn than when their learning is driven by their own interests or passions.  We believe pushing kids past that initial unwillingness teaches them what they are capable of in a way that learning stuff they feel a passionate interest in does not.

It sounds good, and there is a place in education for such discovery; such an opportunity to build on a weakness, either to gain what wisdom is there, or to prove to yourself that you can. When this happens in the context of passionate learning, there is motivation. There is understanding. There is empowerment.

We are still so sure that if we allow kids to take the lead in their own learning, they will stray off to worlds unknown, frightening, dangerous...or they will simply stay in one place, like stagnant water, happy just to gather sediment. We MUST control their learning.

There is in this system a willful ignorance of the facts: that true learning can only take place when the motivation comes from within. We’re so used to seeing kids struggle with learning that we, as a species, seem ignorant of the fact that learning is joyous. We settle for the appearance of learning that comes when it is coerced.

There is a fear of taking a leap of faith: that if kids learn what they love, they will also learn what they need.

Let’s put down the burden. Just set it down and walk away. Make schools places where the first job of adults is to discover who these kids are, and provide support, time and resources to help them become the people they want to be.

Their futures are more important than our outdated ideas.  

Let's stop being satisfied when kids comply with learning that is thrust on them. 

 Let’s stop making schools into battlegrounds where the will of teachers is pitted against the will of students. Can’t we all just get along?

Let’s put teachers and students into productive partnerships, where trust and respect is at the core of the relationship; where teachers use their expertise and experience to guide and facilitate the learning that is most meaningful to students. Imagine the joy in our own hearts as we watch our kids work hard at stuff they love! Imagine how free we will all feel!

Thanks to Lisa Nielsen for her magical editing.


  1. It's never been quite clear to me when exactly you think kids are capable of deciding what they need to know. 1st grade? 6th? high school? Are there any subjects that don't lend themselves to self-determination?

  2. Nancy,

    It would be helpful for you to study models that give children the freedom to lead their learning. When studying such models you find that humans are born ready to decide what they need to know and that adults can guide, inspire, support, and provide a safe environment. Additionally, not everyone needs to know the same things and force is not an effective means of fostering knowledge and learning. Like many who were traditionally public schooled, I was forced to learn social studies, science, math, and ELA in school, but I learned nothing that was forced upon me. A complete waste of everyone's time. Models that are child-focused lead to young people growing up happy, satisfied, intelligent and with purpose and meaning.

    You can start by studying these models:
    Reggio Emilia
    Democratic Schooling
    Big Picture Learning
    North Star Self Directed Learning
    Schoolwide Enrichment

  3. Kids are capable of deciding what they need to know starting the day they are born. See, you can take what I'm saying and stretch it to the extreme, and make it sound like I'm saying kids should live in a Lord of the Flies world, without adults. But please take careful note that I'm not saying that. I'm saying they have rights, they have wishes and needs, and those things are not factors in traditional education.

    Sure, there are subjects that don't lend themselves to self-determination. They are different for each child. If kids don't learn what's prescribed for them to learn, does that mean they shut down? Hmmm.

    One thing a lot of folks never quite grasp is that learning that is joyous leads to more learning. As kids learn, they find their strengths and their weaknesses and can direct their own accomplishments.

    See, there goes that pesky leap of faith again.

    If you don't believe the drive to learn is strong in every child, then I can understand being nervous, making sure kids are made to learn stuff even if they don't want to. But that drive IS strong; it's just thwarted and misdirected, clamped down and stomped on, and it's time for that to end.

  4. Here are some interesting videos that talk about this business of telling kids what to learn. My favorite right now is this one:

    where a math teacher talks about why we need to teach less math.

    Then there is this famous study in India by Sugata Mitra, about self-directed learning:

    And this one which I haven't viewed yet but is recommended to me...Kids Take Charge.

  5. If our current views of school led to a lot of unhappy, well-educated people, perhaps an argument could be made to continue as we are.

    In fact, we all know that schools are more and more total institutions, that they cripple many people forever, and that even the best students the schools turn out may pay a dreadful cost in human potential and happiness.

    Learning things is our (as LC says) joyful heritage as homo sapiens. How have schools hijacked this heritage and turned it into such a burden on so many?

  6. Our species is a puzzle, that's for sure! Thanks, John.

  7. Amazing articulation of concepts I've come to understand over my 20-year career in public education. The thing is, I was a good student. But even though school was relatively "easy" for me, there was so much that was soul-crushingly irrelevant that I resented being forced to "learn" it. Because, of course, I didn't really.

  8. Yes...we need to learn to stop regarding that thing that happens when kids study stuff that is imposed on them as "learning." Maybe we need a new word. A word for when you are "being taught" without being motivated to learn.