Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Philosophical Differences

Why do so many students dislike school?

Many people have ideas about this. Some are noted experts who write books on the subject. It isn’t often that I read two books within just a few weeks of each other, whose authors are so far apart from each other in opinions and approaches. But recently I did.

The books are Why Don’t Students Like School? By Daniel T. Willlingham, and Unschooling Rules, by Clark Aldrich.  

Viewpoint #1: Willingham
Mastering subject matter is hard, and it
takes a long time.
Daniel Willingham is a noted researcher in cognitive science, and a professor of psychology at the University of Virgina. 

His underlying conclusion seems to be, essentially, that students don’t like school because mastery of subject matter is hard, and it takes a long time. The idea here is that if it isn't fairly quick and easy, they prefer not to stick to the effort.

He strongly argues that learning facts—presumably via the traditional, you-will-be-tested-on-these-facts approach—is essential to mastery, and that mastery of a discipline is the whole point of education. 

He is not greatly enchanted with the school of thought that talks about teaching “thinking skills,” because as he points out, you cannot develop such skills without first learning facts.

Viewpoint #2: Aldrich
Kids are pre-programmed to learn. 
Schools don't nurture that innate curiosity too well.
Clark Aldrich is a noted education-reform expert, described in his author biography as a “global education thought leader.” He is a respected speaker, facilitator, and writer who works with business groups, government agencies, and academic organizations. 

His underlying conclusion seems to be, essentially, that students come hard-wired with a deep and abiding curiosity about the world, and that the job of the educator is to channel that drive to learn, in order to harness its power—not only for mastery, but for a person’s better life. Students don't like schools when the schools do not engage their drive to learn.

He contends that “there are three different types of learning: learning to be, learning to do, and learning to know,” and identifies the third as the kind of learning that is concerned with facts. Moreover, “Traditional schools’ forte, learning to know, can come only after learning to be and learning to do have successfully begun” (pp. 7-8). That is, they start with the wrong kind of learning.

What are we saying to kids?
"Buckle Down!" vs. "Explore!"
For me, these two books crystallize two different education approaches that have grown out of our expanding understanding of how the human brain works. 

Although he writes about the brain in an interesting and authoritative way, Willingham seems to represent the group that retains faith in traditional forms of schooling--what I've called the "paradigm of control" in earlier posts. They see unmotivated kids in their classes as basically lazy. 

Aldrich advocates for an alternative way of "doing school," which is more individual in its approach than traditional school as we currently know it. He and others who think like him see unmotivated kids as people who have not been able to connect with their innate drive to learn.

I am a longtime teacher and practitioner of the arts. For me, the idea of long hours of hard work undertaken for no other reward than mastering a skill--and finding joy in that--is really not strange. 

This is because I know that hard work doesn't have to be the same thing as boring drudgery. 

Okay, practicing arpeggios or learning to hit the basket every time (even if it requires thousands of missed baskets) may sometimes seem like drudgery.  But for a person who is passionately interested in music or basketball, the arpeggios and the practice-baskets are not the point

One practices them for the same reason someone fascinated with chemistry memorizes the periodic table, or someone enchanted with the precision of numbers learns to figure algorithms. 

It isn't so we can pass a test on them. (Not EVER). It's because we need that ability, knowledge or skill to explore our chosen interest more fluently. 

For my money, this is the kind of education every child and adult needs to experience, and which very few schools manage to deliver reliably. Whether it is flute-playing, basketball, higher math, or almost anything, when our interest and drive to learn is engaged, we learn all we can about it, and eventually achieve mastery, because we are fascinated.

PHOTO CREDITS: Cover art for the two books comes from the Rainy Day Books website. The image of three girls playing flutes came from the website of Grosvenor School, an independent day school in South Nottingham. The photo of little Kai practicing baskets is from the blog, "The Adventures of Stinky Mouse and Go Jee." Many thanks to all!


  1. I'm all for experiential learning, and I believe a skilled teacher can turn even a kid's fascination with Kim Kardashian into a valuable learning experience. But what would it take to individualize learning on a city-wide level? What changes in teacher training to equip teachers for this? What teacher/pupil ratio in the classroom? How many counselors in the schools who are REAL counselors--not just schedule-makers--to work with the students who are so traumatized by life that they are closed to new experiences? And what will that cost? Because, I've got to say, I don't see the public will to put money into education. We've known what works for a long time. But the factory system of education persists because it's cheaper and, apparently, America doesn't mind that such education factories turn out shoddily-educated "products."

    1. You are right--the only time most truly seem to care is when they can bash the other party (doesn't matter which) with poor results. And even the few that do care often think like Willingham.

      A step toward my "utopia" would be project-based, self-paced "mastery" education. I achieved it (or a close approximation) in my computer graphics courses at Ruskin, but it is NOT easy.

      You also are correct that it would take much re-education for teachers, and a much greater will by state legislatures to fund education.

      A teacher/student ratio of about 20/1 in high school would work, especially if the kids were experienced in this kind of learning (heck, my computer graphics class in an urban high school with no experience was about 22/1, so we might be able to go higher). In the earlier grades, I think it would need to be a lower ratio--more like a special ed class.