I remember taking debate class as a kid and our teacher, Mr. Black, cautioned us that it was vital to learn to ask the right questions. He advised us to watch out for the proverbial “When are you going to stop beating your wife?” question because of the assumption that was already built into it.
I find myself thinking of that often listening to folks talk about school and learning. I hear lots of folks giving lots of ideas and opinions, but the majority of them all seem to be based on a vast list of assumptions that aren’t necessarily true.
The latest example of this was a recent Yahoo news article entitled “Will longer school year help or hurt U.S. students?” The article features Sec. Arne Duncan supporting the notion that students in this country need more time in school to be successful. The problem with that standard response is that it is based on several assumptions which are totally outdated. Let’s examine a few of them.
Assumption #1 — Students learn by being in school. There are several problems with this assumption. The first is the notion that schools are interested in having students learn. I have argued before that it’s tough to prove that. What schools are actually interested in is getting students to respond in particular ways to a particular curriculum. The System has no way to value student learning — only successful response to instruction. Is it any wonder that kids do the minimum possible? They learn to shut down their curiosity and enthusiasm for school subjects because outside of some occasional “extra credit”, it does them no good. A student in a world literature class may be assigned to read Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Great! And if she gets so excited by the work that she reads an additional half dozen books by Hesse, what is the result? LOL “How nice, Maria”
Assumption #2 — Kids could learn more if they were in school longer. The research is clear — student engagement is tied to academic success. The latest Gallup Research study on student engagement shows that the longer kids are in school, the less engaged they feel (http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/2013/01/07/intriguing-gallup-student-poll-results-but-not-something-id-quote-a-lot/#.UOtTQvkwCww.twitter). Other studies (Kidwell, Leadership Magazine, Journal of California School Administrators, March-April 2010)”The Impact of Student Engagement on Learning”) validate a direct correlation between student engagement and factors such as drop-out rates and general academic achievement. So we know kids feel less engaged with school the longer they are in it, and we know that student engagement is a key to academic success. Who in their right mind would suggest doing more of what we have proof is not working?
Assumption #3 — If kids aren’t in school, they won’t be learning. It’s hard to rank these assumptions in terms of how laughable they are but this one would certainly vie for a high rank. If anyone can think of ANYthing academic that is taught in a classroom in a school that can’t be learned outside of school, I’d be interested to hear what it is! The truth is that thanks to the Internet any student can learn anything they want — and do it at their own pace, at a place of their own choosing, alone or with peers of their own choosing and probably through the lens of what is interesting to them.
The shame of the current school system is that we are NOT teaching kids how to learn. The most that can be said for most “innovative” schools is that they are using technology so that students increase their skill at responding to instruction.
Engaging in a debate on “Will longer school year help or hurt US students?” is just the type of question that keeps the U.S. school system a “school” system instead of transitioning it to a “learning” system. Our kids will continue to suffer for that, and so will we.
We’ve got to change the question. Let’s start asking “Given all of the opportunities of the 21st Century, what’s the best way to help students learn?”