Read an Excerpt
The Game of School
By Robert L. Fried
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7879-7347-5
Chapter OneWasting Time
Let's consider a frightening possibility: far too much of the time our children spend in school is wasted. It's not that nothing happens there or that kids spend their time just fooling around or that teachers don't try their best to present lessons they think are in our children's best interests. It's just that unless our children-of all ages-are truly engaged in their learning, most of what they experience during school hours passes over them like the shadow of a cloud, or through them like an undigested seed. They may be present in the classroom, but they are not really there. Their pencils may be chugging away on the worksheets or the writing prompts or math problems laid out for them, but their intelligence is running on two cylinders at best. They pay some attention to what their teacher happens to be telling them, but their imagination has moved elsewhere. Megan Flatley, a graduate student of mine, wrote in a recent short paper for class, "As a student, I remember being bored in 80 percent of my classes in high school. When something happened out of the ordinary, we all took pleasure in it. Whether this was a student acting up, a fire drill-any kind of distraction, really-it was more fun than what the teacher might be saying or the lessons I was supposed to be learning. Just the feeling of SOMETHING HAPPENING was exciting."
And, worst of all, by the timeour kids have reached fourth or fifth grade, they think that what they are experiencing in school is normal.
Why shouldn't our kids be eager to head off to school each day, anticipating their next investigation, project, or performance? It can be agonizing for parents to see their imaginative, articulate, eagerly seeking young learner become, over the years, someone bored, passive, complaining, or compliant-focused on not making mistakes rather than on taking on new challenges. Most kids in school listen and do what they're told, most of the time. They pick up stray facts and acquire some skills they wouldn't necessarily learn elsewhere. They learn about following rules in the lunchroom and about leaving one-inch margins on their papers. They even learn the Pythagorean theorem and how to write a five-paragraph essay with three supporting arguments and a conclusion.
But unless they view such activities as important, as having meaning to them in their lives right now, they aren't truly learning, in the sense of developing their minds and hearts as young people eager to embrace the world. Although it is true that many of us who have been successful in schools-as-they-are have fond memories of inspired teachers about whom the relevance of what they taught us only became apparent in retrospect (often years later), the odds are that too many of our fellow students never achieved such delayed enlightenment. I'm not insisting that everything we teach must be instantly relevant, only that we take very seriously our students' need to find purpose in what we ask of them. I am still shocked to hear so many young people express just how meaningless they find academic life in school and that they spend their time mostly just going through the motions. Andres, a young man who attends high school in San Francisco, put it this way: "In seventh grade my grades started slipping. I noticed I had a lot more freedom, and I stopped doing my work. But they kept on passing me, even though I wasn't doing anything. It's not like it was about my learning, it was about moving us through to high school. I hated that.
What Is Authentic Learning?
Throughout these first pages, I have been using the word authentic to describe learning that is the alternative to playing the Game of School, and you have a right to know what I mean. Here are several examples, taken from a variety of sources:
A history teacher leads a ninth-grade class on a field trip to an abandoned cemetery in the woods not far from their school. First, she and the kids spend some time cleaning up the site, removing dead limbs fallen from overhanging trees, righting headstones that have toppled over, cleaning the headstones with soap and water and brushes. Each student picks the name of someone from a headstone, and the class goes into the village to find what official records exist for that person. The students do their research, write it up, and present it as a booklet in a meeting with members of the town's historical society, who are enthusiastic about their work and talk with them about it. Their booklet becomes part of the town record.
A fifth-grade teacher, mindful of how abstract such notions as "inequality" and "resources" and "poverty" can appear to kids, comes to class with exactly enough chocolate chip cookies for each of his students. He places students into groups, representing the relative populations of North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, with a large name tag for each group member listing their continent. He then distributes the cookies in a way that represents the "wealth" available to each group. The three students representing North America end up with six cookies each; the eight students representing Africa have one cookie between them. The students are asked to explore their feelings on the competing values of wanting to share the "good things" fairly, versus wanting to have all the cookies for themselves. They also get to speculate on how, if they ran the world, they might resolve this. Each student writes a response to the question, "How can we make the world a better place?"
Children in a second-grade class take a trip to a nearby retirement home. They meet some of the residents and talk in small groups with them. When they return to school, they paint pictures that they think will be appreciated by their new older friends. When they return with their pictures, the residents have a tea party for them, and the student artwork is given to the residents to hang in their rooms.
A seventh-grade math teacher, concerned about widely differing attitudes toward math among his incoming students, asks them to mark, anonymously on a 3-by-5 card, the number that best reflects how they feel: 1 = I love math; 2 = Math is pretty good; 3 = Math is so-so; 4 = I do it but don't like it; 5 = I hate math. A student is asked to tote up the scores while the teacher speculates as to how many kids might be in each category. The results are announced (everyone learns how good a predictor their teacher is). The class is then divided into five small groups, each with poster paper. One group has to reflect the results as fractions; the second, as percentages; the third, as decimals; the fourth, on a bar graph; the fifth, on a pie chart. Their feelings about math are given expression via math symbols. The teacher then talks about how their attitudes might change by Thanksgiving time, and the groups have to represent this, too, on poster paper. (The five groups switch methods of representing the new data.) Afterwards (or on following days), the students write, again anonymously, what they think it would take for each of them to be able to move up a number: what they need from their teacher, how their parents can help, what they themselves can do. The suspense generated by their attempt to achieve these new goals fuels the conversation of the classroom.
An eleventh-grade civics teacher invites students to learn about the Bill of Rights by exploring what rights they wish were guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, from a twenty-first-century viewpoint. Each group can come up with two new "rights" that our Founding Fathers either didn't care enough about or couldn't possibly have predicted a need for. In exchange, the kids have to come to consensus about which two of the existing ten amendments they would be willing to let go of. A legal expert (lawyer, judge, legislator, or constitutional scholar) is invited into class to hear and comment on their proposals.
I recently came across yet another example, offered by a high school student: "For our final exam in English and world history we had a mock trial with a real judge and a court typist. They separated us into defense and prosecution, with four lawyers on each side, and they set up a mock scene from Animal Farm in which the character Boxer supposedly dies. The defense was defending the guy who supposedly killed him. We had to dress up and go down to City Center for three or four hours. It was pretty fun. We learned more about the book, but we also learned how to follow court procedures, write direct testimony, and do cross-examination."
If we look for them, we find dozens of similar examples in all subjects and at every grade level. What they share is that students recognize that knowledge and meaning have not been predetermined by teacher or textbook, but instead will emerge from their own efforts, guided and structured by their teacher. Students act as "junior partners" as they encounter academic content in a more or less realistic setting or through questions that seem cogent and not easily answerable. Nobody knows in advance what will emerge. Their role as students is to speculate about the unknown, to seek and to synthesize knowledge, and then to share it. Important people (their parents, local citizens, other students) care about what they will discover or create. Such engagement forms genuine learning partnerships.
Despite our children's strong innate capacity and zest for such authentic learning, the failure of our educational system to recognize and stimulate these great natural gifts causes educators to focus, instead, on presenting knowledge, or "delivering instruction," to students. As a result, children's desire to acquire information and skills takes a nosedive as they rise up through the grades. On a daily basis, kids are more likely to be influenced by how other kids behave toward them in the lunchroom or the playground, or by whether their teacher smiled at them or scolded them, than by the lesson plans their teacher followed and the knowledge he or she has "covered." The human interactions are what stand out, and it is these that are more likely to induce students to change or modify their behavior-to avoid that one or to get closer to this one or to try not to upset their teacher. Precious little of what they have supposedly learned has had as much of an impact.
The Attack on Our Learning Spirit
For nearly all of us, advantaged and disadvantaged, as we emerge from those preschool years of unabashedly enthusiastic learning and begin our careers as students, our inner drive to learn-what I would call our learning spirit-suffers a series of blows. Our freedom of physical movement is severely restricted, our curiosity is confined, our opportunity to talk to other kids about what we are learning is curtailed. We do not see these as attacks on our learning spirit; they are just the normal stuff that happens in school. In the classroom, we do not choose either to embrace or to reject "learning." We experience a pressure to do well, to be good, to be smart in school. Little by little, grade by grade, we find ourselves relating to school more and more in a way that sharply contrasts with the energy, purposefulness, and joy that young children bring to the challenge of learning how to talk, run, play games, ask questions, and investigate the world around them. Learning becomes a chore rather than an adventure.
In school we are more likely to learn not to talk, not to run, not to play, and not to ask questions. We are cautioned to "keep our hands to ourselves" and not to investigate anything that hasn't been placed before us on our desks. Our curiosity may be seen as impudence, our creativity misjudged as failure to follow directions. In The Passionate Learner, I documented just such a transfer of focus among a group of urban kids:
I asked a group of third-grade students to tell me what were the most important things they were learning in school. They said, "not to run in the halls," "no pushing or fighting," "don't throw stuff on the floor." I agreed with them that these were, indeed, important things, and I wrote them on the board under the heading, "Good Behavior." But next to that I wrote "Good Learning" and asked them what important things they felt they needed to learn. After a few moments, two children raised their hands. One said, "to listen to the teacher." The other said, "to be good."
Already, as third graders, learning had become a world of "good children" and "bad children." Good children listen to their teacher. The bad children don't. Thus far in their lives, these urban third graders still consider it good to "be good." For many of their older brothers and sisters, it has already become cool to "be bad."
Not all children respond the same way, of course. There are plenty of kids in urban, suburban, and rural schools who will perk up and tell us that they are learning to read books, to write stories, to master long division, to care for classroom pets. School is clearly about more than just following the teacher's direction, as important as that is. But we should worry if our young people are beginning to confuse, or to blend in their minds, the idea of obeying the teacher with learning. For that tendency, if left unchecked by teachers and parents, will soon transform many children into youngsters whose resistance to obeying the teacher (which may be a normal aspect of their emerging adolescence) signals a parallel resistance to learning. Before we know it, the "resisters" become synonymous with "bad kids," even in their own minds. We don't find many kids who report, "I love what I'm learning in school-it's just that I don't like doing the stuff my teachers try to make me do."
There is a simple test we can perform to find out whether or not our children are truly learning. We can ask them, not the usual question, "How was school today, Honey?" or "What did she teach you in your math class?" but rather, "Did you learn anything in school today that you really want to know more about?" If the answer is often yes, your child has been primed to continue learning on her own. If it's usually no, you have cause for worry-even if your child brings home a good report card.
Megan Flatley recalls:
I was a pretty good student, growing up, who didn't have to try very hard to get good grades. Looking back, I realize that I could have used my education for so much more than I did. Instead of really being involved in what was going on around me, I did the minimum necessary to get by. And, sadly enough, this "minimum" was more than enough ...! The subject matter was boring and irrelevant to me. My classes were something to get through, and I cannot recall ONCE going home and thinking, "I would like to look into that, to learn more about that."
I don't remember being asked such a question by my parents, or asking it of my kids as they moved through public school. It didn't occur to my parents or me to think that a child's time is as precious as that of a busy adult and that much of the time my kids and I were in school and doing homework was poorly spent. Looking back, I'd say that although most of the public schools my kids and I attended were deemed "pretty good" by local standards, at least 60 to 70 percent of the time spent in schools was wasted.
Excerpted from The Game of School by Robert L. Fried Excerpted by permission.
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