Why Academic Teaching Doesn’t Help Kids Excel In Life

| November 14, 2013 | 32 Comments
  • Email Post
2872099576_6d354bb62d_z

Cliff1066

By Shelley Wright

Academics. Most of our current school system revolves around it, and yet, I think it falls miserably short of what our kids need. To be honest, I think our academic system of education is highly overrated, at best. At worst, it destroys a number of our kids.

Hear me out. I’m not saying that our kids shouldn’t learn to read, or do math, or develop other valuable skills. But too often, the focus of our kids’ school day is Content with a capital C, with little connection to why it matters. Instead of learning together, many of our students spend hours filling in worksheets or copying down lecture notes that they could google in 30 seconds.

Too often the lectures they listen to are boring and irrelevant to their lives. And from my experience, most of this content is simply memorized, spewed out for an exam and then quickly forgotten. But beyond this, there’s often only one right answer, which frequently cultivates in our students a fear of failure.

SCHOOLS VALUE HOOP JUMPING

For the most part, kids who we consider “academic” tend to be good hoop jumpers. They’ve figured out the system and can navigate their way through the predictable demands of the system. But they are seldom truly engaged. Rarely are they transformed by their learning. They’re going through the motions.

I’ve come to realize that being “academic” doesn’t tell you much about yourself. 

Research shows that some of the least engaged students are the highest achievers. Think about that. They do well because they know how to “do school.” Is this really the best we have to offer them?
What if you’re not “academic”? Most of these kids pass through too many years of their young lives feeling like they don’t measure up. Feeling stupid. And for some, it radically alters their trajectory of their adult lives. Unfortunately, too many students have to recover from school once they graduate. Is this really what we want for them?

I USED TO TEACH THIS WAY

In all honesty, I have to admit that I used to believe in this academics-oriented system. For too many years my students sat in straight rows. I asked the questions. I had the answers. I controlled the learning.

The truth is I did this because it’s what I knew. It’s how I’d been trained. It’s what I saw replicated in universities and in other teachers’ classrooms. I sincerely believed that good grades mattered.

I’m an English teacher, and I subscribed wholeheartedly to the belief that the pinnacle of success in English was the ability to write “the essay.” But I’ve radically changed my position. I’ve come to believe that the traditional essay is one of the most useless things we teach our students.

Recently, I’ve started to ask people I know, “Do you ever write an essay?” I’ve never had one person say yes. I wonder how many teachers, except those who are taking university classes (or writing an opinion piece like this), ever write true essays. If I may be so bold, I wonder how many English teachers frequently write essays.

I’m not saying our kids shouldn’t be able to write. On the contrary, I think our students should be able to argue gracefully and persuade powerfully. They also need to know what they believe and why. I simply think the essay is a medium that has outlived its usefulness, at least in high school.

ACADEMICS FOR THE ACADEMICIANS

I’ve come to realize that being “academic” doesn’t tell you much about yourself. It tells you you’re good at school, which is fine if you plan to spend your life in academia, but very few of our students do. It doesn’t indicate whether or not you’ll be successful in your marriage, raising your kids, managing your money, or giving back to your community. All things that matter much more than being good at school.

School should be a place where kids can discover what they love. They should be able to ask the questions that matter to them and pursue the answers. They should discover what they are passionate about, what truly sets their hearts and souls on fire. They should discover they can make a difference now. Above all, they should leave school knowing what they are good at.

Today, I think most kids graduate only knowing if they’re good at school or not. Often our students have many talents; they just don’t fit in our current curriculum because their talents are likely not considered “real knowledge.” And what is that? In the Biology curriculum that I’ve taught for the past several years, one of the objectives that my students need to know is earthworm reproduction. Really? Out of all the things we could be teaching a 17-year-old about biology, someone (a whole panel of someones, we can guess) decided earthworm reproduction was essential?

OUR STUDENTS LOSE THEIR CURIOSITY

We are born curious. Babies explore their environments to learn; they do it naturally without being told. Three-year-olds constantly, at times annoyingly, ask, “why?” And yet, by the time my students arrive in Grade 10, they have all but lost their curiosity. Consequently, when I get a new class of students, we start by unlearning.

We begin by imagining what school could be, instead of what they’ve known for 10 years. Only then can we move into the work that will help them become lifelong learners who truly enjoy the search for answers, rather than the mark at the top of their exam.

Recently I’ve been reading Amanda Lang’s The Power of Why. In it she states:

“Curious kids learn how to learn, and how to enjoy it – and that, more than any specific body of knowledge, is what they will need to have in the future. The world is changing so rapidly that by the time a student graduates from university, everything he or she learned may already be headed toward obsolescence. The main thing that students need to know is not what to think but how to think in order to face new challenges and solve new problems.” (p.14)

LEARNING HOW TO LEARN AND FAIL AND LEARN SOME MORE

Our school system doesn’t need to create kids who are good at school. Instead, we need to create an environment that engages learners, fosters creativity, and puts responsibility for learning where it belongs – with our students.

Instead of rote learning, teachers need to use content to teach skills. We need to build environments that allow our students to get messy and build things. Places where students learn how to learn, and know how they learn best. Where students engage in significant research, and learn how to identify credible resources amidst a plethora of information that, at times, may seem overwhelming.

Furthermore, our students need to be able to problem-solve, innovate and fail over and over again. Throughout all of this, our kids should be collaborating with each other, as well as virtually with students across the globe. They need to be able to communicate powerfully using the mediums of print, photography and video.

THREE QUESTIONS TO GUIDE STUDENT-DRIVEN LEARNING

As I’ve worked with my students, we’ve come to realize they need to be able to answer three questions, regardless of what we’re researching:

  • What are you going to learn?
  • How are you going to learn it?
  • How are you going to show me you’re learning?

How they get to this last question is often their decision. And what they come up with never fails to surprise me.

My classroom hasn’t always looked like this. But over the past three years we’ve shifted to a constructivist pedagogy that has transformed not only my thinking, but my students as well. Now we learn in an inquiry, PBL, tech-embedded classroom.

The journey at times has been painful and messy, but well worth the work. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that my students will often exceed my expectations, if only they’re given the chance.

This post originally appeared on the Powerful Learning Practice blog.

Related

Explore: ,

  • Email Post
  • http://dwayneportfolio.weebly.com/ Dwayne Schnell

    I like this… thanks for sharing!

  • King Rat

    The article is Crapola from the outset. All subjects are disciplimes. They discipline the mind and provide psychologial toughness for young people. No more feminizing. The education has been dumbed down enough as it is!

    • jesus.

      Pardon, but how do you mean “feminizing the classroom”? People fall behind with the current system of learning – too far to catch up, oftentimes. In my experience, this group of kids is predominantly male, and the fact that thngs are “dumbed down” does not mean that all students are able to understand it. As a high school senior, I am admittedly frustrated with the pace of curriculum this year, as these changes set in, but the “academic” kids are not the ones being valued anymore. School boards are creating a lower level of intelligence, and it’s scary that the next generation is being raised without knowledge of the world’s facts. These are the things that have kept me from pouring confidence into this idea. I’m sure we’re of common mind, but your description of classrooms as girly and stupid is not very academic, in itself.

  • patty eljaiek

    I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve seen the results in classrooms that embrace the idea of actual thinking. It is an uphill battle though against years of doctrine. Students themselves get confused and sometimes they seem distrustful of new techniques and approaches, but more times than not they rise to the challenge. Thank you !

  • Bob Lee

    I don’t agree with the premise at all. It is the same logic that gave us “new math” and ‘phonetic spelling”…..it is crapola to the nth degree.

    • Tim

      Why, Bob? You are going to have to persuade me better than that. We have just as much, if not more evidence to suggest that the current methods don’t adequately prepare all learners for the “real-world” when they leave their formative years of education. We waste learners time doing menial tasks and using old methods that aren’t effective. As a result, students end up being good “hoop jumpers” as indicated in this article.

  • Bob

    Why, Bob? You are going to have to persuade me better than that.

  • SarahN18

    I think I’m on the fence on this one. While I do believe that there are somethings that students need to know by rote, such as basic facts, I also believe that our education system is outdated. It was created for an industrial revolution world and does not keep up with the pace of the digital world. I like the three guiding questions listed here. I think that they could be very useful as more and more 1-1 technology makes it’s way into our classrooms. However, without knowing more about the method’s the author used, it’s really hard to determine whether this idea could be replicated in a classroom.

  • Fabio9000

    You can get away with stuff like this in English. I’m sure Mr./Ms. Wright goes to a constructivist dentist and drives a car made by a constructivist engineer who gets her steel from a constructivist factory.

    • Clarence

      I would rather have a dentist or engineer that can think critically and solve problems than one who compliantly jumps through hoops on their way to a degree.

      • CurtisCFEE

        Ditto. And I’d like a dentist and engineer who can do things, and not just tell me about them.

  • Waka

    I have done most basic lines if work as a full time student (it’s hard to keep a job along with priorities) and I do agree with ~90% of your article

    Now that I have tested out of half of my classes and “earned” the paper, I have a hard time getting anything.
    I talk to my younger cousins a few times a month (one is a male senior in HS and his sis is a year after) while the male is a typical boy and the femme is the “prodigy” of the family.

    …it is very hard to mention that you are absolutely spot on when the executive world that has come to be wants what the academy of “scholars” looks for. What proof is a grade?
    While I earned B’s and C’s up to the last year and figured it out at the latest minute.

    …Academy is a cult. Go figure that you can waste your personality in grade school.
    (Master of biophysics from Nova SE and I’m 23yo unemployed living with parents)

    • Justin

      You’re spot on that they don’t care about the paper that much. What they do care about, is what you’re doing with that knowledge. If you got B’s and C’s while advancing your science in other ways, they care about what you can bring to their table. It took me way too long to figure that out. When I did, I started teaching. All the paper does is show that at some point in your life you completed some projects. Without other information to back that up, or to show that you really are passionate and driven in what you learned, it really will be for nothing.

  • Maria

    I wonder why so many people think that school is supposed to teach life skills such as failing and getting up again. It actually is supposed to teach academics. Parents should teach their kids how to be a successful person in other areas of their life. If a kid jumps hoops in school, it is the parent’s and – guess what – the KIDS’ responsibility to change their ways.
    It is not true that much academics will be obsolete. Math and writing, the basics of chemistry and biology, physics, and history… will always be the same.
    While I agree that kids are supposed to get to know pursue their passion, there is a time and a place for that. But there is also a time and a place for memorization and boring basic academic stuff – the ‘content’, otherwise there is no foundation of real learning.
    Learning can be fun but students need to understand that life is not only fun. When they start their job, they are not the ones telling their boss what type of work they want to do, no, the boss will tell them. And it might be boring and not challenging, and they might not be passionate about it. But it needs to be done and someone will have to do it. We need to be careful what kind of expectations we teach our students to have.

  • Andy

    Those of you who think that rote memorization and high academics through boring lecture is the way school should stay are probably either not teachers or have been so blinded by the way school is always “done” that you can’t see anything else being better. Everything in this article speaks to the direction education is moving in the U.S. and rote memorization and boring lectures will be obsolete. The business world is not looking for high academics they are looking for employees who can think critically, problem solve, and work in teams as well as other 21st century skills. What is the point in having students memorize vocal words for the quiz on Friday and then forget them 10 minutes after the quiz is over? What is the point in having students memorize who the 33rd president is? What matters is molding young people who can apply that knowledge to the world around them. Instead of asking what, where, when and who we need to start asking our kids why and how. These questions challenge them to think and problem solve. But how are they going to get the basic information they need to answer these questions? With the technology we have today our students can look up over half of the information we “teach” them faster than we can lecture them about it. Now we can stop wasting time in the classroom teaching information students can find on their own and dig deeper into the curriculum and find more meaningful answers when we do. Its time to wake up and see the change that is coming. Contrary to popular belief change is not scary, change is good. Change is a good thing, if its not good, change it.

    • Justin

      How do you problem solve without appropriate background knowledge? Do you really want an employee who spends all his/her time looking things up in google because s/he can’t be bothered to remember them? What about when they’re corporate policies instructed to them from managers? Where are they going to look that up? How do you prove you can think critically if you cannot describe those thoughts in appropriate ways? Furthermore, how big do you think the world is, compared to how big your students see the world? Is big the whole town you live in? The whole county? The whole state? There may be access through technology, but the scope of many students continues to narrow and hyperfocus on what THEY enjoy, instead of what they should learn. So are you going to stump them with the big questions without even bothering to check on their ability to answer small ones?

    • DLRJ

      There is a solid body of research that suggests that this idea of critical thinking rather than factual knowledge is a false choice. You can’t think critically unless you have a fact base from which to draw. If you think about it, that is the whole basis of a liberal arts education. Is the information I learned in my comparative politics class useful to me in my current profession? No. But analytical skills I learned when I was forced to put that information to work and, for example, write essays about it has been invaluable–analysis that I couldn’t have done without that base of factual knowledge. There is no question that students need practice in critical thinking, but the idea that memorization is not a useful teaching tool or skill is badly misguided.

  • pedro

    We discussed this back in Teacher’s College – that was 18 years ago. Nothing new here….

  • ty

    The ability to write an essay gives students two important tools. Firstly, it helps answer the ‘How shall I learn it?’ question. If you understand written academic structure, you can read efficiently and effectively. You know where to look for the opinion, main ideas, etc.Secondly, essay writing ability enables students to show what they have learned, thereby helping to answer the ‘How are you going to show me you are (or ‘your’) learning’ question. Again, they will be able to do this efficiently and effectively if they can write a coherent essay. I’m not saying that knowledge of academic writing structure is the only way of studying or displaying knowledge, but it’s a very useful tool. I would like to hear more about the ways the writer’s students answer these questions.

    I also see rote learning as an essential skill. Sometimes, whoever you are or whatever you do, you need to memorize stuff. However, I think the writer means that ‘rote learning instead of critical thinking’ is a mistake. Perhaps they would agree that ‘rote learning as well as critical thinking’ should be the objective.

    I’d like to know the rationale behind the choice of earthworm reproduction as an essential learning objective.

  • Bipin Mohanty

    By mistake we are considering only academic teaching/learning are helping kids to excel in life. Also marking/recognition is for academic only and little bit on sports. But if you will see all students are equally talented/interested in Art, Music, Dance, Social Work, Design, Photography, Cooking, Gardening, Politics, Acting many more where the want/can excel if we will support. Do not blame academic.

    My question is why ONLY academic?
    Most of the present teachers are not convinced because they are out of academics only.

  • Wendy Burleson

    I agree with the writer in principle; as a high school teacher with two decades of
    experience, I perceive that some students (although I hesitate to say “many”)
    are disengaged in the current system — even Honors students — thanks to the decades-old exam/grading system, and in high school, the fixed-end point of 100 hours.

    However, I do not believe that “academics” are to blame – every discipline involves core concepts and skills requiring mastery before one can think critically and creatively. It’s basic Bloom’s taxonomy, where knowledge and comprehension are the foundations for critical thinking skills. Mastering core content isn’t necessarily meaningful personally to students (although an effective teacher can make it engaging), but it is a necessary step in the learning process. Moreover, as a English teacher, I do see tremendous value in having students compose essays – as long as
    they are not the only written form taught in the course. Knowing how to communicate effectively via blogs, forums, wikis and social media – and various non-written forms of communication – is equally relevant.

    I believe that the artificial construct of the timetable is one major issue. Why must one master Math 10 or Social Studies 11 in six months? Why can’t there be more flexibility for Inquiry-based courses that allow students to build creative and critical thinking skills following these foundation courses? Creative, challenging projects — especially ones founded upon the principles of inquiry-based learning — should not be the purvey of only Enriched and Honors classes.

    Inquiry-based projects help students become genuinely engaged with learning. Recently delivering an inquiry-based Humanities course about my school’s connection to the Great War showed me how deeply engaged students could be when challenged with real-world problems to solve and real world projects – inclusive of a web site showcasing the culmination of their research. At semester’s end, my students wanted to continue developing the project because they were genuinely engaged and motivated; in fact, the course has continued – far past the original 100 hours allotted and in far more directions than I could have ever anticipated.
    Nevertheless, I believe part of the reason these students were able to
    be so engaged and proficient in their projects was their prior foundation in
    Social Studies 11, where they learned the basics about the Great War as well as
    their prior foundation in English 11, where they developed strong writing
    skills – including those in essay composition.

    In British Columbia, Canada, where I teach, change is indeed afoot at the provincial level, and as more knowledge is shared among innovative educators via blogs, Twitter, and other forms of social media, change will continue at the classroom level as it always has. However, on a broader scale, public perceptions are partly what have made the pace of change glacial over the decades. Post-secondary institutions
    and the public often seem to translate “student-driven” as “dumbing down” rather
    than as “moving up” the thinking ladder. I’m not certain how B.C.’s Education plan will address such perceptions moving forward.

  • Luba

    I understand your point of view on the need to engage students better and to provoke curiosity. However, there are a few points I don’t agree with. First of all, the fact that people don’t “write essays” in their lives isn’t a reason not to learn to write them in the first place. That logic implies that school should teach only what you’ll specifically need later in your professional life. I disagree. School is the place that should teach you to think, precisely because you won’t learn it later, in your non-essay-writing life. Writing out your thoughts in a powerful argument and thus learning to shape them is not, as you put it, useless.
    Second, you dismiss academics as being people who go through the motions and aren’t passionate about anything. “That’s fine if you want to spend your life in academia”, you write. Now that is pretty simplistic. If you’re spending a lifetime researching, teaching and writing about a topic, that generally means you’re passionate about it. It’s too bad your article devalues this life choice so quickly.

  • Lovedmum

    I agree. But the question then is how? How do teachers facilitate this kind of engagement in the classroom. How do you actually translate this into your practice? Especially in the absence of technology and funds in classrooms and librarys in many of our schools.

  • Phan Anh

    I like the question: How are you going to show me you’re learning?…and learn to use it

  • HipHughes

    Great piece. My goal has always been to walk the line between both discourses. Allow kids to bring themselves into the classroom, their voices… and then allow them to “play” with the academia in order to express its meaning in new ways. Mix that with student driven knowledge pieces and I think you can bake up some learning. Write the essay with the knowledge you will be creating a movie trailer or podcast or website or comic or cartoon or ….. (insert composition new literacy piece) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p1qzb2b92sA

  • guest

    It’s called a liberal arts education for a reason. And there is a lot of data that shows that writing an essay–that is, being able to analyze of piece of writing–is a skill a lot of 500 companies look for in their candidates.

  • Pingback: No More Essays? | Kindled Class

  • deserteacher

    Genuine teaching involves higher level thinking–creativity, imagination, and the great themes of life These qualities of teaching inspire, validate, and launch students into their own journey of lifelong learner and expression of self-hood. (And at this time I will put in a plug for the study of literature and poetry–the quickest way to higher level teaching.)

  • hard working teacher

    I agree with Maria – parents need to teach their kids about life – work ethic, grit, determination, and other factors that make one successful as a student, employee, and citizen in our society. Unfortunately, there are too many parents that aren’t doing this and additional pressure is placed on teachers and school systems to make up for this.

    I also agree that there are some basic skills that students still need to learn – how to write, how to read, how to do math, etc. Those are things that productive and influential

    people need on the job and in other areas of life. As far as memorizing basic, it’s not just about knowing those answers, but also about being able to do math mentally, to be able to see if answers are reasonable, and to not have to rely on someone or something to do everything for you. Unfortunately, our society has turned into this “everything has to be fun” and “everyone has to be a winner” state of mind. Schools have picked up on this and it seems like it’s almost more about entertainment so the kids will be interested and engaged. There are times in life when it’s not fun – suck it up! There are situations that it’s not a game and you have to be serious. There are times when you have to work hard to get things done. Your boss isn’t going to give you breaks and game time (actually who knows? the way this world is going, that will be expected, too!) and make everything hands on. Sometimes hard work and buckling down is what you need to be a success.
    And, kids are starting to get the impression that they always get to make a choice about everything, that they always get it their way. We are turning our society into one that expects everything, one that thinks it’s okay to do things your way all the time. Colleges and employers aren’t going to put up with this.

  • Joffre (J.D.) Meyer

    Frankly, I read this article because I was an English teacher who moved to a tough part of town–near my college–and had trouble with anti-intellectual, pseudo-friends and bullies. I agree with Luba mostly–the comment giver right before me. I like your point about finding material that has more than one right answer. That’s why I gave two grades on essays: one for grammar and the other for writing. I corrected all the essays for grammar first before checking for content. I felt that the “midterm, final, that’s it” syndrome is a horrible way to evaluate students. So I made sure my Developmental English course was like a football game with an objective exam each quarter; then there were two or three essays each half. Those objective exams had just one right answer. I have a passion for writing essays born in recovering from cerebral meningitis at age 18.

  • Bruce Price

    But keep a clear distinction between what is taught and how it is taught. Just because some teachers have given boring lectures over the years does not mean that the material did not deserve to be taught.
    The trouble with all the loose generalizations in this article is not that they are false (they well may be entirely correct) but that our Education Establishment uses these kinds of generalizations to justify kicking out the last remaining substance in our schools. So finally you have children sitting around talking about the world but never actually learning or knowing anything about the world.
    @educatt

  • Pingback: Inches Into Miles: “The Persuaders” Demonstrates How We’re Becoming More Mindless | A Kettle Full of Uncertainty