On School

A common characteristic of all schools is the separation of learning from situation in which what is learned will be used. School isolates learners and teachers; while isolated, teachers design and deliver lessons through which the students will change. After completing school, everyone (the educators, the students, and those paying for the school) all expect students will know more and be able to do more than before the schooling.  

Ostensibly, this should be a very easy endeavor. Find a group of students by either compelling them to attend (like we do for youngsters in the United States) or convince them to enroll. Once students are there, teachers tell them what they need to know and have them practice what they will need to do. Test them to find out if they have learned what they were supposed to and also to motivate them. 

The problem with the narrative presented in the previous paragraph is that learning is not as simple as that. Knowing exactly what to teach students is difficult to know with certainty. The standards movement that has captured the attention of educators in recent decades, along with the insistence that measurable outcomes are necessary for learning suggest knowing the curriculum is easy. Except for schooling that is intended to prepare students to enter specific professional fields (and likely pass licensing exams), what “should” comprise the curriculum is largely invented. Knowing the curriculum is further complicated by the reality that there are many different types of learning and some of those cannot be demonstrated on the tests and assignments that dominate assessment and evaluation in schools. 

Just as it is difficult to know what to teach, it is difficult to know how to teach. Lectures and textbooks, the staples of 20th century instruction, are known to be among the weakest teaching methods we have. Teaching and learning do not exhibit the cause-and-effect relationships we might anticipate. Lessons that “work” for one individual or one group may not work for others. Students who demonstrate they have learned may be unable to demonstrate similar skill later.  

In my experience, educators who have a more sophisticated view of teaching and learning than the traditional “tell and test” method that been described in this introduction tend to be more successful than those who do not. Of course, my definition of successful teaching is probably different from others’ definitions. I have found teachers with broad knowledge of teaching and learning have students who report they enjoy class, students who claim to have learned in class, and improved grades in class and on high stakes tests.