You are likely thinking this post is about closing the achievement gap that separates low-income and minority children from their peers. It is not. Rather, I am referring the gap between my beliefs about learning and what happens in my 4th grade classroom. In an earlier post I shared some of my beliefs about learning, which do not align closely with traditional school practices. My goal here is to share some of my beliefs, as well as conflicting school structures; provide examples of actions I take that keep me from carrying out my beliefs; and identify possible reasons why the gap exists, and even grows.
To me, learning means taking in new information that I care about because it is relevant to me at a given time, as well as developing skills and dispositions that I deem necessary for my current and/or future situations. I think learning is organic, non-linear, and ongoing. True learning excites me, engages my senses, and compels me to learn even more. In contrast, schools are typically set up in a top-down, linear fashion with hard deadlines and focus on moving through content regardless of whether students are interested. My membership and participation in Change.School, an online community focused on modern learning and schooling, has introduced me to resources that have helped me better articulate my beliefs about learning. The work of both Russell L. Ackoff and Carol Black prove relevant in describing the angst I feel regarding real learning and what school systems inevitably produce.
"Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught. However, most of what we learn before, during, and after attending schools is learned without its being taught to us. A child learns such fundamental things as how to walk, talk, eat, dress, and so on without being taught these things. Adults learn most of what they use at work or at leisure while at work or leisure. Most of what is taught in classroom settings is forgotten, and much or what is remembered is irrelevant." ~ Russell L. Ackoff
In a response to a question about her film “Schooling the World,” Black included the following.
We tend to forget that school itself is a cultural construct which alters traditional life in profound ways. Some of these ways include:
In my quest to make school relevant for my students, I straddle the chasm, planning units that focus on big ideas and provide layers of student choice and agency on one side and trying to comply with state and district mandates on the other. These directives divert time and focus away from potentially engaging learning experiences by requiring specific curriculum, pacing schedules, and/or assessments. The reductionism created by such mandates, at a minimum diminishes the student experience, and possibly, sabotages the more natural learning taking root. I find myself stopping an engaging conversation between students about examples of figurative language in their self-selected books in order to administer an assessment that requires them to read a passage they aren’t interested in and identify the meaning of one specific idiom. If they aren’t familiar with the given idiom, or fail to select the right definition, they supposedly don’t meet the given standard. Situations like this exist in many forms in traditional schools.
Other factors that widen the gap between what I know/believe and what I do in the classroom are the structures of school; time, subject area, and limited physical environment (which I will not address here). Because we continue to organize the day around subjects, a schedule is created to ensure each subject gets its due, with math and reading grabbing an oversized share in the elementary grades. I do believe that students need to learn how to read and develop number sense, but the rush to move quickly through the checklist of “requirements” counter in-depth, more-permanent learning. I find myself taking a “git-r-done” attitude with required math and reading computer programs so that my students can get to more authentic learning of the subjects. What I believe I should do is provide authentic reading and numeracy opportunities first, and not sacrifice valuable time on the artificial learning tasks.
Some of the “gap” results directly from my own inadequacies. For example, I don’t believe that places of learning should be silent or have students move from place to place in straight lines, but too often that is exactly what I require my students to do. I am not on-task every minute of the day, but I have almost unrealistic expectations that my students will be. I value strengths-based learning, but instead, frequently end up focusing on my students’ areas for improvement. Having explored and refined my beliefs about learning has left me with a proverbial blessing and curse. I know what I want for myself and my students but am more acutely aware of the vast distance between those desires and our current realities.
How about you? Do your actions in the classroom mirror your beliefs about learning? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
Russell L. Ackoff, Daniel Greenberg (2008). “Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track”, p.3, Pearson Prentice Hall
“Schooling the World” film website, https://schoolingtheworld.org/film/