Friday, March 26, 2010

Why's school important? The student perspective of school.

Ask a student "why school is important?" and you will get a lot of different answers. If you think deeply some of them they could lead you to a worldview-shattering realization about what students perceptions of the world are. I urge teachers to ask students this question 1-on-1.

Students almost always say the reason school is important is "to get a good job and/or make more money or go to a good college" Ask the same student how school will help them to do those things and most will have little in the way of a descriptive answer. You might hear "by getting good grades" or a vague "by learning" answer. Rarely a student will answer that "learning allows you to do more things that's why school is important." If you ask that same student why learning is important and they will most likely say "to get a good job or go to a good college." Its all very circular and a more vacuous than we teachers realize. Do students realize that the learning is why you are capable to "do" college and "do" a job or is their concept simply a progression that happens and your done when you are not smart enough to do more: Elementary leads to Middle leads to High school leads to College leads to Good job? If the latter is their mindset and the transitions we offer students from primary to high school are basically social promotion (they are), why would them actually making effort to learn enter into that equation? What message do we send kids when the importance of learning is something teachers talk about but the reality is such that practically everyone who brings a pencil graduates into the next level of school. If students believe that their intelligence is a constant (not growing or dynamic in any way) isn't it a matter of them just passively sitting by and seeing how far their smarts will allow them to make it in school?

The funny thing is that a lot of us would have said the same things I hear students say today. Like them, we didn't think much about what our answers meant in real life for us either. If a teacher asked me why is school important, I would have just parroted what adults told me school was for. My goal in answering would have been to get the question "correct" to make the teacher happy with me. Other students have told me that they would parrot the correct answer just to "get the teacher off my back". In other words to avoid the potential personal criticism a teacher may give them for their own personal understandings and goals, students will tell the teacher what they want to hear. As well meaning teachers, we would want to help the child align their thoughts and goals correctly. Students often tell us what we want to hear to avoid frustrations like looking ignorant, being criticized , etc. It's something experienced teachers are always mindful of. I didn't think to analyze the students answers when I first started asking this question. I felt students were on the right track when they said "to go to a good college and have a good job". I was wrong because I didn't dig deep enough!

So here is the million dollar question for readers: "Based on what you have personally heard from kids do they have an understanding of the purpose of school and learning?"

From my experience I would say no. The purpose of learning is to gather knowledge and apply it to acquire skills that extend your ability to do things.

Language is a tricky thing. I can see why some people might say "the purpose of high school is to learn so you can go to college." The sentence makes sense, but think about how that language could be interpreted by literal minded students. Some students may even read into this sentence and see cause and effect. "The purpose of high school is... to go to college."

Language is a larger factor than most give it credit for in this misunderstanding. Look at a lot of ways we talk about education in the context of learning. For example, compare the following sentences that convey the purpose of education.

"High school is important so you can go to college and get a degree. Then you can get hired at good job doing what you want and have a successful life."

"High school is important because what you choose to learn and do there helps you develop skills that allow you to 'do' college. You can choose to learn advanced skills in college that make it easier for you find a job you like and live a successful life."

Look at how weak the language we use is in the first sentence. you "go to" college you "get" a degree you "have" a successful life. The way this is worded these things seem to happen to you as if you have no control over your life. Isn't this is the reactive I'm-a-victim thinking we so often complain about in our students? Compare that to the language in the second phrase. Its a bit wordy, complex, and maybe not very poetic (I welcome suggestions) but it is reality. We choose what we learn. College is not just some place you go like the mall it is something you do and work at. We learn to get skills. Having knowledge means having skills that can lead you to live a successful life. Sadly, many students don't see it that way and the language we are using isn't helping.

Let's teach our kids why learning is important! (Send me any ideas that are successful, I welcome them) Here is a mini-lesson to try with any kid or group of kids. The final point of this mini-lesson for students is to get students discussing the connections between learning, skills and boredom; The more you know, the more fun life can be.

Ask them...
1) "Do you get bored easily?"
2) "Do you think that doing nothing or not being able to do anything is boring?"
3) "Do you like being bored?" (younger audiences)
4) "Is playing your favorite game boring?"
5) "Would it be fun to play a new game if you didn't know any of the rules?"
6) "How would you know if the new game was really fun or not?"

Give them time to think about each question seperately as needed especially number 6. To know if the game is really fun we would have to learn about the game by reading the rules, watching others play, or playing it yourself. A good follow up question might be "Is watching others play, reading directions, and playing a new game learning?" Its only though learning that we can know if things are fun. We could miss a lot of really fun games out there if we don't learn much about them to see if they are any fun.

Doing nothing is boring.

You can't do what you haven't learned.

You CAN'T imagine the fun you could be having if you knew more!

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