Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Unwilling to learn?

Guest post by Lisa Cooley - Cross posted at The Minds of Kids

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, 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?)

And 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. We MUST control what they learn.  There is in this system a willful ignorance of the facts: that true learning can only take place when the motivation comes from within. And 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 making learning hard. 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!


  1. You have no idea what really happens in schools. Your apparently read all the ed reformers who decry the so-called old-fashioned methods of education that are not really being used any longer.

    The fact that POLITICIANS and Non-Educators-masquerading-as-reformers want high-stakes tests and so-called accountability has little to do with what real educators want to do and try - against all odds- to do on a daily basis.

    1. Cynthia,

      I'm confused as to what are you thanking Nancy for.

      Her inaccurate critique of the knowledge that the author of this piece or I have about schools, the false assessment about what we read, or the inaccurate implication that the author or I agree with the high stakes test / accountability movement.

      Both the author and I are well aware of what educators do, or are forced to do, on a daily basis. In most cases in traditional public school settings it is not what is best for children. Many schools do block and ban, restrict student freedom, and make them learn what they really really don’t care about.

      With those facts in hand, I am interested to know what it is that you are thanking Nancy for. Can you clarify?

  2. @Nancy,
    I'm afraid you are wrong and I’m sorry you have yet to experience or investigate the approach discussed in this post. Personally, I don't read all the ed reformers who decry old-fashioned methods. I've been working in the public school system for more than a decade and have studied and witnessed traditional models as well as those who honor the passions and interests of children. I meet with, talk to and converse with those who offer solutions that honor the unique strengths, passions, and interests of children. I have had the good fortune to meet many such as Joe Renzulli and Sally Reiss of the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, several folks at Nuestra Escuela, heads of Democratic schools like Pat Werner, Dennis Littky at Big Picture, etc. Nancy, please take a look at some of those school models to get an understanding of what is being discussed here. If you do, you’ll have the ability to re-enter this conversation with a more well-rounded perspective of someone who understands how this approach can benefit all learners.

  3. Hi Lisa-I think you have misframed what adults who work in public schools think about learning. We have been handcuffed by policy driven by the standards & accoutability movement and now largely about the destruction of unions. There is no level of the politics of education that doesn't have two hands around our throats and one foot on our backsides. If this was being done to force teachers to do school in the way you have described this country would be better for it. But that is not the case.

    We are being choked out, and our kids as well, for corporate profit and nothing else. I am proud to see kids demanding to be seen and heard by checking out. They are raging against the machine-exactly what public education is charged with doing. Teachers, in great numbers, are the bread winners in our homes-raging against the machine has much higher stakes and much broader effects. The choice to fight back against what we know to be evil has to be made at the individual, family, and colleague level-and even then it feels like too ominous a task to be successful.

    Teachers have been domesticated over the past 20 to be risk advertant, to comply out of fear, to deny their own awareness by a false consciousness. Public education, her students, teachers, and society, is wonderfully dynamic and frighteningly complex. She deserves more attention and respect than you have paid her here.

  4. I don't believe I'm attacking teachers. When I say "we" I am talking about adults in general, many/most of whom don't really get how YPOTS (Young People Of Today) learn. But I hold the same larger entities responsible as you do.

    Teachers do the handiwork of those who decide what kids need to learn and how. I have seen many a well-meaning administrator jump up and down in favor of programs and approaches that provide everything for the student but the decisions of what they learn--and the need to find out, simply, who they are.

    The key phrase in the piece is "let's put students and teachers into productive partnerships." Most of us have to become concerned about it on local levels before we can become aware of the outside forces dictating what schools do.

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful article. I'm not a fan of high stakes testing, and I support the concept of learner-centric education, but your lead off paints with very broad brush strokes and makes it a bit of a challenge to continue with the read. My sense, as a former public school teacher with two kids in public schools, is that there are a lot of classroom teachers (public schools adults) who would love to engage their students in more meaningful ways, but that many district and building level administrators (also public schools adults) have too much invested, career wise, to go against the status quo required of a bureaucracy like a school district (also public schools adults), dept. of ed. (also public schools adults) or government (also public schools adults). Your passion is obvious, and your ideas are certainly worthy of consideration. I know that my passion on this topic sometimes lets me say things in a manner that gets in the way of the intended message, and I'm guessing that's what has happened in your article.

  6. Again, I don't believe I'm attacking teachers, and my opening paragraph has come mostly from direct observations of administrators.

    But it's hard to get people in general to question how education is happening now. In my community it seems most people accept the top-down nature of teaching and learning. I want folks to shift focus to what is inside kids, and how much more valuable learning is when it originates from their interests and passions.

    You know how some make an effort to support soldiers when they don't support the support the war they are fighting? I feel that way -- I want the country to pay a huge debt owing the people who have put their lives on the line, believing their efforts to be for us.

    I think it's an analogous situation.

    If you are a teacher than I think you are by definition an idealist. I imagine it is very hard to teach when you don't believe in what you are doing. You try to find some good in it. I think that's human nature. And you try to throw yourself into the kids, no matter how difficult TPTB try to make it.

    I give teachers a lot of credit. So much that my favorite school model is the teacher-led cooperative.

    My observations in the first paragraph may not be universal, and I'm sorry it turned you off to the rest of the article.

  7. I am a mother and not an education expert. I have seen my kids excel at subjects that interest them ( LA and Social Studies)and absolutely fail at subjects that don't interest them ( Math). Their brains are math-repellant. The thought that they have to take math for at least 5 more years is just depressing. They may never graduate HS if they have to pass a math standard to do it. Meanwhile, they are hugely talented, bright kids and have a lot to offer the world. I challenge you teachers out there who think it is possible to teach a disinterested kid to tell me how it is done!

    1. Lorna, if you designed a math program around the ideas of the guy in the video here: would they like it more?

    2. I like what he has to say. My kids need more skills to navigate the adult world than what they have now. They are not ready to stop math, they are as 7th graders still not at a strong 5th grade level. Also, they love science and I hate to have that door shut because of math hatred. Is there a curriculum out there based on games, physical activity, projects, and art that teaches fractions, decimals, percents, basic geometry, deductive logic?

  8. Someone sent me an e-mail thanking me for my comments here. Since I didn't comment (although I tweeted the link, because I thought the article was interesting and provocative), I had to check the comment out.

    As a 30-year public school teacher who grew into the idea, then practice, of letting students take charge of their own learning, I am a total advocate of defining a teacher's job as uncovering kids' strengths and helping them become the curious, passionate adults they can be. And I thought the piece was wonderful.

    With that said, I have some empathy for Other Nancy. When all arguments for change begin with "public schools have failed" it feels as if that's the most important context for change--and that educators who WANT to practice in transformative ways are being blamed for policies that force them to do otherwise.

    I've been to Nuestra Escuela myself--and it truly is what education can and should be: contextually and individually relevant. But I also strongly believe that a free, high-quality public education for every child is one of America's best ideas, and attacking public schools as a group is the wrong lead-in for discussions like the one here.

    1. @Nancy Flanagan,

      I feel like it is acknowledged that in most cases teachers are soldiers being forced to act against their will. I don't feel that in this blog they are credited with making the decisions that result in the failures of many traditional public schools. That said, there is no denying that many public schools are failing our children. Parents, teachers, and students alike realize this to be the case. I believe we must stand up and resist compliance.

      I also want to make something very clear. When I share the views of myself or others in this blog that public education is failing, I never say that we shouldn't have public education. I say that we should have public education with the freedom to learn restored to parents, children, and educators.

  9. I believe in free, high-quality public education for every child. I believe that what exists in public schools now is not meeting the needs of the students or the world that deeply needs a new generation of innovators. Public schools are failing, but I have been subject to a peculiar kind of brain disability: I believe we have to fix it. I don't advocate for charters, vouchers or school choice. I believe that testing is anathema to learning or, as Gary Stager puts it, "Assessment always disrupts the learning process," and "the amount of assessment a teacher does is between him/herself and his/her conscience."

    I don't blame or vilify teachers, but I do blame all the adults in society in general that propagate a system in which the voices least heard are those of children.

    I want to do away with the educational-industrial complex. I want local control. I want teachers to be treated as professionals.

    Let me repeat, from the last paragraph of my post: "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."

    1. OMG..the above post is from me, Lisa Cooley, but I was logged on with my daughter's gmail account! DRAT those connected kids!

  10. Thinking back to when I actually wrote this piece, I was pretty pissed off myself, because I heard a corroborated report from my daughter that an administrator had stated that students only get freedom of speech when they have obeyed all school rules. Reading this over again, I see that it reflects that anger. But I don't apologized for that. Anger is sometimes an appropriate response.

  11. The real topic is straight-forward; engage students in their learning in ways that are meaningful to them. Good teachers have been doing that for many decades. Corporate intervention and misguided policies make that a challenge, but good teachers inevitably rise beyond the challenge and manage to engage their students regardless of outside pressures. Keep up the purposeful work, fellow educators; our students deserve to continue being challenged. My criticism of public education is not about teachers at all, but about the old systems that some feel we must not abandon or our students won't grow up. Son: Dad, why is it that I can't pack my bookbag because the teacher dismisses me, not the bell, but when I'm late for the next class, "the bell" marks me late.? Dad: Because it's school.