Going to School to Learn???

What an antiquated notion — going to school to learn.

Though I have spent most of my professional life as a teacher, “school” is seeming odder and odder to me. That’s why, in August of 2013, I’m opening not a “school” but a “learning community”Triangle Learning Community (click for details).

Why — in the age of the internet and ubiquitous information — would you go to a place where you’re asked to sit in a room with 20-30 other students (it could be up to 40 other students if you are in California) and learn something that you may or may not care about?

“School” assumes an industrial model, where a bell rings, and a complex and fascinating group of young people becomes a monolith that quietly sits and learns the same thing in the same space from one individual — the “expert.”

Oh, and to mix things up, every week or so, we take technology away from students (huh?) so they can sit for sorting tests/quizzes that rank them. We seem to do this so that colleges can figure out which ones to admit. We also take tests at the end of various grades so that teachers and schools can be evaluated as high or low performing. Don’t get me started on testing and grades…

One of the big problems is that these tests measure static knowledge. In the real world, if I need information I can look it up. On my iPhone. In five seconds.

It’s not so important in today’s world what people know (though we do want them to know some basic things, that’s no longer sufficient). What matters is that they can work with a team to synthesize information from a variety of sources, add value, communicate what they learned, and move on.

School is entirely unlike any other kind of learning people do for the rest of their lives, where we learn by doing. For instance, if I want to learn how to make a video, I have to make some videos. If I want to learn about Beijing, China, because my wife is taking a week-long trip there, I go to the library and get some books and I find videos and maps on YouTube.

But in school, we presume that if students need to learn something — say, how to multiply exponents — they need to sit in a room with 20 other people and learn the same thing at the same time, whether they click with the teacher or not.

There’s this thing called Khan Academy you may have heard of, and it’s a flipped classroom. The lectures are online. That means students can watch a video of a smart and articulate guy (Salman Khan) explaining how to work with exponents (this screen clipping is of a different aspect of working with exponents, but you get the idea):

Unlike class, if a student misses a concept for a moment, it’s easy to rewind the video and watch it again. And if a student is stumped even after watching it a few times, he or she can contact the teacher to ask for clarification.

One of the “comments” left on this Khan Academy video is telling:

Yay! Thanks Sal!! I’m a pretty good math student but I wanted to get better and this makes WAY more sense than what my teachers told me.

Why, when the world is at their disposal, would we have students rely upon ONE teacher in a room?

And if math can be “flipped” in this way, what about other topics that are essentially lectures? Why do I have to go to school to sit and watch someone lecture?

In my vision of school a learning community, adults serve as learning facilitators, rather than teachers. And it’s a learning community because everyone participates and co-constructs knowledge.

Of course, the adult in the room should know about lots of things — but I’m more concerned that the adult models how to learn (the adult should keep a blog so his/her learning is transparent) and that the adult is a good listener and question-asker. The adult models the process of life-long learning, and the students get better at it as they go.

Here’s a final thought:

Ask your kids what they made in school. Not just in art class — but in all of their classes. If they are not making things — if they are merely taking notes or filling out worksheets — ask why not…

And ask them what they’re excited about. Ask them what they are passionate about. Because young people are passionate, and learning should be fun. If they are not allowed to follow their passions, and if learning is not fun, then we’re doing something wrong.

And don’t get me wrong — learning is not always fun — it’s often hard work. Students need to learn that lesson as well. But when students engage with material, they can (and do) learn a ton. It’s time to engage with the world.


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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One Response to Going to School to Learn???

  1. Shannan Schuster says:

    I just commented on your blog on my blog: the view from windowless office.

    I hope you don’t mind 🙂

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