Is School Really for Learning

When traditional schools talk about promoting learning or that learning is their business, I’m not really sure they mean what they think they mean. Info-nugget memorization training in preparation for a successful Jeopardy! career or resume-building for college apps is certainly one type of learning, but I don’t think that is what young people need. I think learning needs to be motivated by a desire to learn and the time, space and support to pursue something until you have had enough if it. The most meaningful learning I have done that added to the enjoyment and success of my life has followed that pattern and almost all of it has happened outside of school.

There is a certain anti-intellectualism and anti-curiosity bias that is built into the structure of school and is independent of the fine folks working there. A thought experiment I think will prove the point. Imagine I am teaching a year-long US History class to 9th graders. We have to cover the years 1860-1945, there is a standardized mid-term and final and a set of content standards for the course from the district. There are 25 students in the class of varying interest in school and US history in particular. All this to say, we got to keep things moving or we are not going to reach the end of the class, my students will not do well on the district tests and their grades will suffer and I will look incompetent compared with the rest of my department when we do the analysis of the mid-terms and finals. Now let’s say we are talking in class (briefly of course, lot’s to cover after all) about the draft riots that happened during the Civil War. Let’s say there is a student or two who are actually and generally interested in learning more than the brief mention I can give it. I mean, really want to know about it and perhaps even the history of the drafts in the US and resistance to it. Actually interested.

What are my options here? Can the class stop for a week or two and take a look? Nope. Give some links or books for outside reading and study in competition with the 2-3 hours of required homework a night? Not likely to happen. There are obviously little things that can happen around the edges, but the dominant structure of the situation discourages any sort of natural curiosity or intellectual depth. I’m not sure there is an answer to this problem in the current system and I stopped trying to think of solutions a long time ago. I was tired of sacrificing meaningful learning for tiny bits of content. I quit and helped create a place where hopefully there is enough flexibility to make a difference.