What We Know Isn’t What We Do

shifting-conversations-logoMy daughter, the high school senior, was in the middle of prepping a presentation for Social Studies when I called home from the road a few days ago.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“It’s so annoying,” she said without missing a beat.

“What’s annoying about it?” I asked, pretty much knowing what her reply would be.

“Every-thing,” she said. “It’s a boring topic, no one cares about it, I hate having to make a PowerPoint, and it counts for like a quarter of the grade this marking period.” She followed that up with an exasperated sigh for effect.

It worked.

Part of me wants to chalk it up to “senioritis,” a well-known condition that I dealt with for 18 years teaching high school English. But another part of me knows there’s more to it than that. Believe it or not, there are seniors who are engaged in class, and I think Tess could be one of them under different circumstances.

We need only to reflect on the things that we have learned most deeply and powerfully for ourselves.

All of which reminds me of a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, who said “I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” I wonder what the conditions are in Tess’s classroom right now. Thing is, we educators know what those ideal conditions for learning are. We need only to reflect on the things that we have learned most deeply and powerfully for ourselves. Odds are our best learning didn’t happen around a high-stakes, assigned presentation on a topic that we had no personal investment in. Instead, we learn best when we have an interest or passion for the subject, when we have agency to choose how to show our learning of that topic, when there’s a social aspect, when there is a real audience and a real purpose in the world for the work, when we’re not constrained by time, when we have teachers or mentors or peers in the mix, and more. It doesn’t take a brilliant scholar like Einstein to know this; we all live it.

Our problem in education is, however, we don’t do what we know. By and large, our classrooms aren’t about giving students the opportunity to pursue questions that interest them, real world outcomes, and personal choices in how they move through the learning process. Why? This is one of the biggest ironies that  find in our conversations around education. We know in our hearts that the best learning environments are not filled with standardized curriculum and assessments, proscribed assignments, and contrived purposes for the work we ask our children to do. Yet, that’s what most schools look like.

Even more troubling is that most schools, at least most of the ones that I have visited, spend an inordinate amount of time talking about managing learning than actually talking about how kids learn best. How many schools can articulate clearly a belief about how students learn best? How many have anything that resembles a list of “Principles of Learning” like the ones published by Esme Capp, who we’ve mentioned many times here on the EML site? If we don’t have clear beliefs about learning, how can we “provide the conditions” that enable powerful learning?

The reality now is that for my connected daughter, the conditions she needs to learn deeply exist outside of school more than inside of school. Her learning at home is passionate, relevant, self-directed, social, and timeless due to the access she has to content and people and tools on the web. At home, she rarely finds the learning “annoying.”

I think the challenge of the growing divide between school and home learning is underestimated by most in education who are clutching to nostalgic notions of what it should all look and feel like. For now, the deeply rooted narratives of traditional education seem to supersede any real conversations around how schools must change to embrace and foster the conditions we all know support the type of learning we all crave. We continue to do that to our kids’ detriment and to our own peril.


6 thoughts on “What We Know Isn’t What We Do”

  1. Joan W

    Your quote from Albert Einstein is as true today as it was when he said it! Students need to be trusted to drive their own learning. Our teachers need to become focused on teaching students how to search for information and how to analyze that information. They need to work in teams to problem solve. This is a great time to be working in the field of education – very exciting changes are underway. It is painful for those that want to hold onto the status quo, but exciting for those that can see the value in having students (and teachers) drive their own learning!

    1. Will Richardson

      Thanks for chiming in, Joan. I wish teachers felt the same agency to teach that we want for our kids as learners. Too often, I think, the culture of our schools inhibit innovation and passion and all the rest.

  2. Mike V

    I’m constantly amazed at the inertia in the educational system. (Inertia: lack of movement or activity especially when movement or activity is wanted or needed. In physics terms, it’s the tendency of objects to remain in their current state – stationary or moving in a constant direction and speed). I agree with Will – the forces outside education are becoming more significant than those within to counter the systemic inertia.

    1. Will Richardson

      As Papert said (loosely quoted) “Schools have an anti-immune reaction to technology and anything else that threatens to fundamentally change it.” The system is really good at marginalizing the “bacteria” that threatens to make it sick. I’m reminded here of a Richard Ellmore quote as well. In talking about his work with schools, he said he’s doing “palliative care for a dying institution.” At some point, the system will succumb.

  3. Mike V

    Palliative care …. what does that portend for those of us within the system, still interested and committed to making the changes we all know are needed? We are, indeed, living in interesting times.

  4. Global O

    What about introducing people to ideas and information and knowledge that they might not have a known interest in? a passion for? any understanding of? Is it worthwhile to push people to understand certain ways of thinking or particular disciplines because they can help us understand the world? other people’s passions? how things work, e.g. what certain science concepts might reveal? Does doing that successfully then rest on HOW we do this? how we help learners access what might seem boring or uninteresting or foreign? Is there value in something such as a liberal arts education? Does having such a thing enhance our deepest interests? enable us to engage w others?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *