Monday, May 9, 2011

Do Schools = Learning?

When students come into my class for the first time, I ask them to fill out a brief questionnaire about learning. Asking twelve year olds to reflect on the ways in which they learn best is a challenging task for both teacher and student. Why is this? I don’t think many students have been asked to reflect upon their own learning – or not enough so that this is a comfortable space to occupy inside their own heads. To assist in the process of getting students to think about learning, we have a conversation. I ask them to consider what might be their best learning experience and to describe it. Nothing. I get blank looks. A student raises his hand. “You mean like our favorite subject?” Okay, I think, an opening. “Well, what is your favorite subject?” I ask. “Math, definitely math.” “And why is that your favorite?” I probe further. “We don’t write much in math.” Sigh.


That says a lot, I think. We define what we like based on what it isn’t. More importantly, after eight years of conversations like these with students, I have realized how school has sucked all the fun out of learning and is therefore made irrelevant. I would also argue that my gifted kids aren’t learning much in school at all. Most of what they learn is through a pursuit of the things they love to do. And really, isn’t that true for all of us?

After my first experience with the learning questionnaire, I learned to help students to “situate” their experiences in order to get an answer to what their best learning experience has been. The example I use? Learning to ride a bike. In my school’s community, this is a common enough rite of passage to make the idea of learning more concrete for kids. I point out that all of our most valuable learning experiences have some important qualities in common. We wanted to learn the new skill or knowledge first. We had desire to accomplish a specific goal. Support from a more experienced mentor helped us to build and refine our knowledge or skill. Practice helped us to get better. We probably experienced a strong feeling of satisfaction once we reached our goal. While school may be capable of providing some of these conditions for some students, the distance between what students desire to learn and actual content covered in classrooms increases exponentially as curriculum is shoved at them at an alarming pace, devoid of context or importance outside of the culture of school.

The writings of Gee align well with my observations with my own students. He writes about the disconnect between learning and schools and gives examples of how certain students, those seen as unsuccessful in school, are accomplishing amazingly complex mental tasks outside of school through the playing of games. The idea of situated cognition as explained in Gee’s A Situated Sociocultural Approach to Literacy and Technology, states that “thinking is tied to people’s experiences of goal-oriented action in the material and social world” (p. 7). When schools approach the teaching of information in discrete units which seem unrelated to one another, students have trouble using their own experience to identify patterns and to make connections. Problem-solving can’t happen without identifying a pattern or connecting to our previous experiences. The interesting bit is that we don’t all see the same patterns, even in situations with which we are familiar. “What determines what experiences a person has and how they pay attention to the elements of these experiences is their participation in the practices of various social and cultural groups” (p. 10). My example of learning to ride a bike as a valid way to show the qualities contributing to a positive learning experience wouldn’t work in all communities or with all students. Schools make hegemonic assumptions and choices in delivering curriculum based on the dominant “white culture”. As a growing percentage of the school population is outside of the “white culture,” it becomes increasingly important to find ways to disrupt current practices which discount the “funds of knowledge” that our students bring to school (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009).

By ignoring or demoting the importance of digital literacies, we are not preparing students to be critical and reflective about the media they consume, to participate as generators of content, or to understand how to operate in a more flexible group, distributed leadership environment. Outside of school, some of our students are recognized as experts in the digital realm. These same students are not valued for the expertise and knowledge they bring to school since it is not recognized as “traditional knowledge” (Gee, 2009).

Gee brings up interesting questions about how schools should incorporate these new literacies to combat traditional issues with learning. As students make the transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” many succumb to the “fourth-grade slump”. Gee thinks that the emphasis on decoding and literal comprehension works against the idea of our brains as pattern identifiers, generalizers, and rule appliers. In short, students lack the experiences and context to make sense of the texts in content area classes such as science, math and social studies. We need for students to be prepared to handle “increasingly complex language” (Gee, 2009, p. 18) through oral language development in a specialist or academic sense. Conversations around children’s “islands of expertise” can help to expand and deepen specialist language to better prepare them to participate in school academics.

Popular culture is one of the areas in which students develop these “islands of expertise.” This link can help provide the context and connection with school academics. Gee’s proposal is to stress “knowledge as tied to activity and experiences in the world before knowledge as facts and information and knowledge as situated as opposed to verbal understandings” (p.33). Considering how we currently “do school” we are not truly organized to support how people best learn new knowledge and skills. Perhaps if school were more like learning to ride a bike or playing a game, immersed in the concreteness of doing rather than beginning with abstractions, we would be surprised at the kinds of problem solvers and academics we could create. Ultimately, schools will need to do a better job of learning about and connecting with their students if we hope to create an educated populace.



Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research in the next generation (Practitioners’ inquiry). New York: Teachers College Press.

Gee, J. P. (2009). A situated sociocultural approach to literacy and technology. Retrieved 04/23, 2011, from A Situated Sociocultural Approach to Literacy and Technology.

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