Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Why Some Slow and Boring in Schools is Good for Kids

I recently listened to Will Richardson’s TedX Talk. He is an advocate for revolutionizing schools. Like many, he believes that our current system makes no sense of the world we live in today where extraordinary learning is now in our pockets. Based on his conversations with about 50,000 people, he constructed the lists below: what we want for schools (the items on the left) and what we don’t want (the right).  Yet what we don’t want, he says, still describes schools today. (I won’t quibble now about his description of schools except to say that it doesn’t describe the schools I’ve been in; they are a blend, rather, of the two lists.)

He argues that the disconnect between the way we all intuitively know we learn best and the way we are taught in schools points him to this surprising truth: “Schools aren’t built for learning.” He notes that his own children learn deeply on their own as they follow their passions, thanks to the abundance available through technology.  He shows his son’s chemistry vocabulary quiz (pity his children’s teachers who are routinely held up as examples of what not to do). His son, he says, got 100% on the quiz, but no doubt will forget the words, because it isn’t something he wanted to learn more about. This shows, he says, another example of why schools are unproductive. Why not make the work relevant? Meaningful? Connected to his passions? Engaging? Our challenge, he says, is to make schools amazing places of learning for kids. We know what to do, he argues. All we need is the commitment and courage to shift the description of schools to the items on the left.

It sounds so right, doesn’t it? But I keep wondering if it is important for each moment of our children’s lives to be exciting, creative, thought-provoking, personalized to their particular interests. Are there things kids ought to learn even if they don’t want to learn them? (“Gimme never gets” springs to mind.) Are there things that can’t be – or shouldn’t be – wrapped up in student’s “passions” or particular interests? (The history of residential schools, for example.) Certainly, as many argue, why learn anything, when everything can be looked up (is it sufficient to simply look up respect for others or calculus?) but that only works if you know what you don’t know. Or are interested. Or can learn independently. Giving students a set of base concepts and vocabulary opens possibilities for all students that they might never know existed. Passions, after all, always fall within our knowns. But what if our goal in schools is to spark new passions? Then we need to present what kids don’t know yet - which is never as comfortable or as easy.

What’s more, forgetting isn’t just what happens when you learn in a straight row in age-related groups with no real world application. When I was 18 I learned to speak Dutch by being deeply immersed in the language. It was powerful, relevant, real world, challenging and self-directed learning. But I’ve forgotten the language now. Remembering demands that we use what we learn, not merely that we are taught in a particular way.  It’s hardly surprising that many students forget many things they learn in school. Not all of us will be mathematicians or chemists or study literature. We won’t continue to practice many of the concepts we learned in school. But some of us will. And all of us will have had an introduction and opportunity to understand the basic literacies in key learning disciplines that will allow us to learn further when/if we choose to in the future.

And there’s something else. I couldn’t fully articulate my unease with personalized learning and this fashion for following passion (although I’ve tried) until I read, recently, this excerpt from Bertrand Russell’s Conquest of Happiness.
The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness… A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.
I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony… A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.
Yes. That’s it exactly. No harm will come to children from the slow processes of memorization, of copying notes, of listening, of reading long texts, of learning “boring” things, of waiting. Not all the time, of course, but in balance with exploration, discovery, passion.  And perhaps they will grow stronger, drawing on inner resources, building the capacity to accept that the pace of life varies and we must often adjust our own to others. I worry, instead, about this “cut flower” generation we are cultivating with personalized learning. How will they resist the lure of instant, fast, fun, intriguing that has always beckoned but now sits in their pocket? How will they step outside of their personal desires to meet the slow, hard, effortful and other-focused demands of healthy relationships, peace on earth, environmental stewardship? Their future, our future, depends on it.

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