Finally, the teachers and administrators have gotten something right

Little Bookworm used to leap out of bed every morning, anxious to go to school and work on whatever project was engaging her attention at the time.  After six months in public school, I struggle to wake her up as she pleads “Do I have to go to school today?”  It turns out that the one thing public schools teach children really well is how to hate learning. 

Turns out, too, that public school teachers and educators, although not realizing how complicit they are, have in fact figured out that a disproportionate number of students don’t want to learn:

More than a quarter of teachers in urban school districts across the country say they don’t believe their students are motivated to learn, according to a survey by the National School Boards Association.

Of the 4,700 teachers polled in 12 urban districts, including San Francisco, about 1 in 10 also don’t look forward to going to work each day.

(You can see a news report summarizing other survey results here.)

As I’ve been hammering away here, students don’t want to learn because the educational system has sucked the meaning out of learning.  Facts and skills are presented without any context.  So much of what children learn takes place in an informational vacuum — and facts without context are boring and meaningless.

I checked out two books from the library last week that were both reminiscences by former jeopardy champions:  Bob Harris’ Prisoner of Trebekistan : A Decade in Jeopardy and Ken Jenning’s Brainiac : Adventures in the Curious, Competitve, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs.  Both are delightful books that I can highly recommend, and both are books that deal with our ability to take in and retain information. 

And as to the latter point, both men absolutely concur that we learn best when we find the information engaging and can relate it to things we already know.  You can use brute force memorization for a lot of things, but the effortless, joyful learning comes when a fact triggers all sorts of little synapses, and makes us excited. 

That was one of the points of the Mission post I did yesterday.  My daughter learned about milk cartons, plaster of Paris and kidney beans, with a little time taken out for adobe brick composition and a random fact thrown in about Indian slaves.  She never got a story.  She never heard about adventurers, and warriors, and men of faith.  She never heard about God, and gold, and disease.  She never heard about the clash of two ancient cultures, one armed with arrows, and one equipped with horses, guns and germs.  She never heard about wide open spaces, and men of God creating lodgings for horseback travelers.  She got some facts, but learned nothing.  There was no joy, no interest, no curiosity.

Public school can be summed up into two question and answer cycles in our household.  In the evening, I ask “What did you learn?” and my kids, in one form or another, answer “Nothing.”  And in the morning, they ask “Do I have to go to school?” and I, reluctantly, answer “Yes.” 

The administrators and teachers have figured out that there’s a problem, but I’m betting that they’ll never figure out that they’re the cause.  Nor will they see that, by changing their mindset, by changing their fundamental lack of respect for children’s innate inquisitiveness and joy in the stories of our world, they could actually effectuate a solution.

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  • ymarsakar

    I’d like to enlarge the picture and ask what draws certain types of teachers to San Fran as opposed to say.. Georgia. And also how differences amongst schools, general education college or technical, can influence the traits of the instructors.

  • Mike Devx

    I remember very little of my time spent in classes in elementary school. One thing stands out: A self-paced three-month program in geography. You got to check out a module and keep it for a few days. When you were ready you took a test, so that you could move on to the next (more challenging) module. There were six series of modules; each series was identified by a color; each series’ modules moved from easy to challenging. I had a blast competing against myself. It fit my personality. A few of us competed against each other to pass the most modules and the most colors. Most of the students didn’t particularly like it or dislike it, I remember. That jibes with your little one’s Montessori experience – what you really enjoy, you do well at and you remember.

    Most of the rest of my time in elementary school is lost to memory and probably was not worth remembering. But I don’t recall ever resisting going to school. I don’t remember ever wanting NOT to go. I wonder if all students moving from a free and creative atmosphere in a Montessori school to the rote approach in a public school struggle with the change?

  • ymarsakar

    Ignorance is bliss, up until you start to realize all the problems you never knew about. As opposed to lowered expectations right at the start.

  • Trimegistus


    (There really isn’t more to say.)