Learning and education: Is it really as complicated as our system of schooling makes it?

by Mr. Sheehy

There are times when what I do seems so futile that I blow my philosophical top. I don’t throw the spasmodic fits I did when I was eight years old, mind, but it is often that I hit an afternoon where at the end of the day I simply toss whatever project I’ve got going onto the desk, grab my bag and coat, and walk out the door without a moment’s additional thought about what I was doing.

These are the days when the concept of education through our schooling system seems ridiculous, and my particular task as a classroom teacher so unachievable that I consider myself a player in a large-scale farce. A dramatic reaction? Yes, but then, I’m prone to such swings; as an individual I try not to think too much when I feel like this.

Still, the observations that bring me to these points are valid and worth noting, as are the feelings that come along with them. The feelings, stated rationally, come about because I see our current work in public education as no different than other eras reputed for inefficacy:

At different points in history, scholars have worried that formal educational environments have been better at selecting talent than developing it (see, e.g., Bloom, 1964). (Bransford)

I would submit that there is reason to think of now as one of those “points in history.” I am not growing talent, I am sifting it, and on my most magnificent days I help discover it where others missed it. But is this education?

I am tempted to answer, no: it’s not education, it’s an extended application process, a sorting system where we drop everyone into the funnel and wait while they bang and bump through various turns and tubes, finally plopping out of the machine in convenient categories. It’s just like the mini-golf hole where I hit my ball into a tube at the top of a little hill and wait while it bounces around inside the hidden depths. It emerges through one of three lower tubes–the ones on the sides dropping it as far as two strokes from the hole, the middle tube potentially awarding me a hole-in-one.

What are we trying to do here inside this mini-golf sorter? There are bad things, surely, but I try to ignore the obvious downsides (e.g.–tired teachers, apathetic students) as not factorable when talking about the system. Instead, I think it is more worthwhile to discuss what we are trying to make the educational system like. A typical optimistic explanation of the dominant educational philosophy is that we are helping students learn how to learn:

The goal of education is better conceived as helping students develop the intellectual tools and learning strategies needed to acquire the knowledge that allows people to think productively about history, science and technology, social phenomena, mathematics, and the arts. (Bransford)

I like the idea of this kind of focus, and I have been a proponent of it since before I became a teacher. Thus, my biggest goals as an English teacher are that when my students leave me they possess more tools and strategies for approaching written texts and the writing process.

Lately at my house, however, I have noticed an oddity that kicks at the ankles of this learn to learn theory. My three children are under five years old and I do not joke when I say they are smarter than me. Eldest was putting on a puppet show for Mommy the other day, for example. One of her puppets is a king, and when Mommy asked her about the king’s life, Eldest explained that before he was a king he was a knight, and before becoming a knight he was a page. My wife’s grin as she told me this story revealed her pleasure with our daughter’s natural curiosity and her shock at the astounding ability of a child to learn. Red-head is not less impressive. In seven months he’s figured out how to sit, eat, laugh, and get just about whatever he wants, especially with that pouty crying thing he does only when Mommy is in the room–it sucks her in every time. Obviously, my children know how to learn, and that innate ability to learn is what cracks my theory about how important it is to teach students how to learn. Am I teaching them something they already know? Has something happened between preschool and 12th grade that makes students forget how to learn?

Maybe. But I suspect they haven’t forgotten so much as learned something else, like how to wait for someone to work for them, or how to wait and wait and wait and learn not at their own initiative or pace but at the direction of a teacher and the pace of the majority. (Do we have a problem with our work force knowing how to take initiative? If so, the championed socialization schools provide might be a place to begin looking for a cause.)

As teachers we have to try to combat this un-learning wherever we can. Perhaps we cannot change the structure of schools (like schedules, testing, grading, and more testing), and perhaps we cannot defeat wholesale the overwhelming turbidite of entitlement, but at least we can try to re-teach some of what has been un-learned. For example, I try to teach students how to ask questions, good questions. It sounds silly at first, but after reading Tovani it occurred to me that too many teachers were presenting students with great questions and looking for answers from the students. This meant their main strategy for students’ learning used something that is not primarily a vehicle of learning. Teachers asking questions strikes me as fundamentally an assessment vehicle, while students asking questions stands out as the learning vehicle. That’s how our children learn, isn’t it? “Why? Why? Why?”

The most dangerous thing I can do before bed is read my girls a new book. We are on a strict, sanity-laden time table, but if the book is new, they attack me with inquiry. Smiles interrupts every second sentence with curiosity about the pictures–“Who’s that? What is that? Is that Joseph?” Eldest patiently waits until the book has finished, often until I have got her tucked in, before pelting me and pelting me and pelting me. It is amazing how many questions press upon a four-year old girl’s imagination as Dad tries to close the door. I tease Eldest’s timing, but of course the mistake is mine for reading a new story before bed. Hearing something new ignites the girls’ curiosity and they pursue the information they want. They learn.

I know my  anecdotes and the comparison is a simplification of the issue of learning, as there is much to learn about methodology and strategy before one achieves expert-levels of learning, but is my comparison that simplified? Is education that difficult? I tend to think it is not. I tend to think that we teachers muddle things in our efforts to please every party that pressures us for results. Our bosses pressure us to articulate objectives and “the research” says we need to be transparent with kids about their learning goals, so we burden them with our jargon-filled standards and terms like metacognition. “Today, students, we are going to determine whether you can analyze the use of various literary devices in a work of literature.” Yeah–sign me up for that course.

Essentially, I think we over-teach. Take the scissors activity book my wife and I could get for our children as an example. If we were to use it, we could prompt our children to cut down particular lines, stop at a point, turn the corner, and cut again. Cut the fancy shapes, follow the instructions, and look how much they’ve learned! OR, we could hand them each a pair of kids’ scissors and say, “Have fun. Don’t cut yourself. Please keep the scraps in this part of the house.” We chose the latter, because eventually kids will do what our kids did–learn skills on their own. Yeah, I suppose it’s Montessori-like, but isn’t it common sense Montessori? I liked it when Eldest cut a series of small notches down the entire length of a piece of paper, and then cut a straight line across the notches so the paper would fly off in little squares. It was efficient confetti making. Or take Smiles, who wanted to cut up her Valentine’s Day card from Grammy after she had added her own coloring to it. I said, sure, it’s your card, and soon both girls had cut out the little hearts and flowers from their cards and Smiles was making tiny squares that were “money” and giving them to me. When I see things like this from my children, I remember that education is not nearly as complex as my job makes it seem.

I realize an article like this raises about 60 more questions that it begins to answer. What should we be teaching? What kinds of things are most important for students to learn? If we are not educating them but sifting them through a system, how can we change this trend? How can we increase the flexibility of how we use our time? How can we call students to a higher sense of responsibility for their own learning?

These are questions teachers ask all the time and I do not purport to have the answers. One thing I am convinced of, however, is that our system of schooling is part of the problem. We cram kids into classrooms and demand quantified data. We create sixteen hundred curriculum standards that teachers need to achieve but we do not prioritize them, so when a student walks in the door with below grade-level learning, we expend our energy not on the things that student needs, but on the things the curriculum says he needs. We emphasize graduation rates above learning and focus our energies and systems around students who do not like teachers, hate school, and could probably use two years in a vocational program instead of four years pretending to study Spanish and chemistry. We champion credit recovery above elective offerings. We cram so many people into such small places that we need to value discipline and quiet more highly than conversation, because it’s the only chance the majority have for getting anything accomplished; and then we wonder why they find it so easy to cheat.  We try to use students’ sense of entitlement in our favor by bribing and rewarding them instead of calling them and their families to higher standards. The list goes on.

Like I said, the whole effect is often enough to drive me to blow that philosophical top. If I am to survive to retirement, I have to consider what I can do to battle it. How can I make the classroom I have in this system a place of learning instead of schooling? For one thing, I can follow Thoreau’s advice and simplify. The simpler I get, the better students like my class and the more I believe they learn. A system often makes simple things difficult–calling the IRS, filing insurance paperwork, correcting a bill–but the less complicated I make things, the more those things seem like learning. I do not have it figured out, but part of it seems to go like this: Good-bye convoluted exercises and worksheets. Good-bye traditionally conceived formula for writing everything. Let’s write, let’s read, and let’s talk. We’ll do it creatively, but we’ll do it simply. In simplicity we seem to be able to recreate the experience of learning as it once was, when learning was fun, and when how to learn was obvious.

That brings up the other thing I am trying to battle this system of schooling, and it ties back into my writing about expectations. I am convinced that students know how to learn, but perhaps that they do not like to work (read this on Indexed). So be it. I will not be the one to reward it.

Here I finally draw to a close perhaps too many words about learning and education, especially considering my lack of solid things to say. While I admit to being flimsy about answers for my classroom, I am solid, however, in my conviction that the system is not a good thing and that is it not the best thing for children. Unfortunately, the system is all most families have for an option, so I strive to improve it and hope it can be fixed. Personally, I am doubtful, but even with that doubt, I will strive to craft experiences for students that exceed the typical systematic schooling and even approach education.

Thanks for reading.