Everyone is familiar with the point of view that goes more or less like this:
“Students spend a relatively small number of their waking hours in school, and even fewer hours in classrooms. Their education, if not their schooling, mostly takes place out of school. As a result their learning, or their not learning, depends more on what they bring with them to school than on what happens to them in school.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s in a 1995 essay for Daedalus is one of many writers who points to the fact that schooling and education are not the same thing. For too many, he says, “education is conceived narrowly as schooling.”
What is less generally known and recognized are the particular out-of-school societal conditions that most affect the student’s in-school learning. For Harold Howe such conditions are the following:
* A rapid decline in the time spent with adults by children across the full social and economic spectrum.
* Growing parenthood among teen-agers unaware of its responsibilities.
* A rapid growth of poverty in young families.
* An unexpectedly large, new wave of immigration since the Vietnam War.
* A major shift in the learning demands of well-paying jobs with an impact on middle-class children as well as the poor.
* A human rights revolution in the lives of racial and cultural minorities, with a serious lag in delivering its promises.
* The concentration in cities of poor and minority families along with well-hidden, similar problems in rural areas.
* The erosion of neighborhood activities to enrich children’s lives as the need for them mounts because of growing poverty.
* Similar erosion of the capacity of health agencies and other services as demand exceeds supply.
As Howe points out such a list could go on and on, but this one is “sufficient to back up the assertion that non-school-related educational services are standing in need of prayer.”
In other words the out-of-school” conditions of kids’ lives are in desperate need of corrective action if we would expect schools to become places of real learning. This is the position of a number of educational writers from Jonathan Kozol, who speaks eloquently of the tormented lives of impoverished, inner city children, to David Berliner who makes it clear that poverty, joblessness, broken families, lack of health insurance, and other such conditions stand as insurmountable obstacles to kids’ learning in school.
This was my understanding of why public schooling was failing large numbers of minority and immigrant children living in impoverished urban and rural areas of our country. Then I read Robert L. Hampel’s “A Generation in Crisis” from Daedalus of September, 1998.
Hampel paints another picture entirely. Schools, all schools fail to educate large numbers of their students not principally for the reasons given above, although this is not to say that we might forget about improving the impoverished conditions of many children’s lives. This should still be a priority of government.
Hampel says that the real culprits to learning in school are what the kids are doing during the greater number of hours spent outside of school. If they do any homework at all it’s only a few hours a week. Whereas they spend inordinate amounts of time with television, video games, computers and other electronic media. They spend probably no less time “chatting” and being influenced by their friends and peers. And, as the get older, they will hold down part time jobs, for as many as 20 hours a week.
We look at our kids and see them with computers, friends, and part time jobs, and are most of all relieved that they’re not over eating and getting fat, trying drinks and drugs, not engaging in premarital sex and getting pregnant, not members of gangs, not,heaven forbid, contemplating suicide. We support them in what seem to us healthy activities. We buy them computers, encourage them to be with their friends, even help them to secure a job.
But what happens, as Hampel makes clear, is that school and classroom learning cannot compete for their interest and attention. Their games, friends and weekly pay checks are much stronger influences in their lives. School is definitely out of the running.
Hampel doesn’t ask what we should do. What can we do? What has happened is that schooling has lost its way. For the most part it is no longer concerned with what the kids care most about.
It may very well be the mission of the school to:
“produce responsible, self-sufficient citizens who possess the self-esteem, initiative, skills, and wisdom to continue individual growth, pursue knowledge, develop aesthetic sensibilities, and value cultural diversity by providing intellectually challenging educational programs that celebrate change but affirm tradition and promote excellence through an active partnership with the community, a comprehensive and responsive curriculum, and a dedicated and knowledgeable staff.” *
But this is not the “mission” of the kid. He is on a mission of his own and for the moment, anyway, there seems to be no connecting link between his mission and that of the school.
*The mission statement of the New Rochelle, NY, public schools of June, 1987
Schooling, not education, is what mostly goes on in those places we call schools. for schooling as a rule has little direct relation to learning. When learning does take place it’s usually in spite of, not because of the school. What happened that schooling and education have grown apart? (Were they ever together? Perhaps in schools for adults. Perhaps at Plato’s “school” in Athens.)
Education, or learning, is what life and the best schools are all about. Learning, which is life long, depends primarily on just two factors, the teacher and the student.
Now most educational reformers think that by positively impacting other factors, such as class size, length of the school day, standardized testing, school uniforms, disciplined classrooms, progressive classrooms, the degree of school autonomy etc. student learning can be given a boost. It can’t, of course, as has been abundantly shown by the history of failed school reforms.
A good teacher and a motivated student are the only two factors that can by themselves significantly boost the amount of learning that goes on, in school, or more commonly, in life. For learning to take place the teacher (which could also be a good book, work of art, or even the natural world itself… Lincoln’s teacher was a book, Darwin’s was nature) needs to be both knowledgeable and caring. The student needs to be ready, to listen and to want to learn. Absent either one and learning does not take place.
The tragedy of our schools stems directly from the fact that they are not primarily concerned with recruiting the very best teachers and with arousing the curiosity and interest of their students.
OK, that’s not easy to do, and there’s the rub. But rather than work on the “hard problem” (teacher recruitment and student motivation) we busy ourselves with endless “solutions” to the “soft” or easy problems mentioned above, length of school day, order in the school and classroom etc.
What happened that we have now in our schools so few excellent teachers and so few motivated students? For the first the answer is easy. Our country early on gave its respect, and resulting monetary rewards, to those who care for our bodies, our doctors, to those who protect our contracts, our lawyers, and to those who grow our economy, our business men, not to mention our media and sports celebrities. To those who would “school” our children, care for their minds, we gave, and continue to give as little respect and dollar recompense as possible.
Why we did this is not so easy to answer. Perhaps it was because those of us who made it to the highest levels of power and influence in our
country always knew how little our own success depended on what we had done in school. Schooling was a minor factor in our lives so why should we by our tax payments heavily subsidize an industry whose major function seemed only to be holding children safely and securely in a place apart, in school, until they were of age and were ready to enter society.
So in regard to the one factor, the teacher, things will not change until we decide to give the teacher the respect and monetary rewards that the importance of the position (being close to the child during the child’s formative years) demands.
What about the other factor, student motivation? What happened that most students in our schools, most often before they reach the fourth grade and ten years of age, will lose their natural curiosity and interest in everything they encounter in the classroom? What happened that so many of them by the time of Middle School have little or no interest in what their teachers are doing and saying?
Many have tried to answer this question. The most common answer is hormones. The advent of puberty. The child’s interest in his or her body, in sex, trumps the beginning algebra, foreign language, history and literature classes. The real question is, given this fact of the child’s interest and preoccupation with other than school subjects, why do we act as if it were not so?
The right teacher may somehow get through the child’s growing physical awareness of body and self to the child’s mind. This is what happens to those children with particular aptitude and talent for the lessons of the classroom and who are naturally obedient. We call these the “good students” of whom there are always a few in every classroom, their presence enabling those teachers who do remain, to remain. This is not, however, what happens with most children.
Is school destined to fail because it doesn’t give proper place and importance to the physical changes taking place in the child’s body, let alone to the popular culture that most occupies the child’s time everywhere but in school? There are those who would put middle school aged children to work on a farm, especially one with lots of animals, and where bodily functions may be readily and openly observed and discussed. And there are those who would bring popular culture into the classroom. But both “reforms” have failed to make schools also a place of learning.
Most of all in regard to the second of our two factors, the child’s motivation to learn, we need to give the child a lot of slack, and not pretend that the child is with us when he’s not. We need to take into account and deal with the fact that the child is only a little bit with us in the classroom and a lot more somewhere else. The classroom lessons in math, science, literature and history while endlessly fascinating in themselves are probably of little or no importance, probably boring, to the child.
What is important to the child, especially in the tween and early teen years, are the “life lessons’ that they are experiencing all the time. These “lessons” may stem from their close contacts with their friends, from the many hours spent with their games, from the music, films and other forms of the popular culture that surrounds them, from their trips to the mall, shopping and just hanging out.
It’s not at all that children are not able and ready to learn. In all the respects just mentioned they are far more knowledgeable than we are. There is no question about their ability to master what interests them. Ask them about the things they are curious about and are motivated to learn, their music, their computers, their video games, their interactions with their peers, and they will quickly lose us, as we lose them in our classes, but in this instance because of our absolute ignorance of what they are knowledgeable about.
Children are of course learning all the time. That’s what being alive means. It’s just that very little of that learning goes on in the places we call schools.
There are schools, both public and private, that do stress good classroom behavior and don’t worry about whether the students are learning, knowing that the latter will not take place until the students themselves are ready.
Children do, as we’ve already noted, come to school with their interest and motivation in place. Everyone has seen the great delight that small children take in learning their words and numbers in the elementary classroom. The greatest difference between schooling and learning is the absence (schooling) or the presence (learning) of interest and motivation on the part of the student.
But everyone has also seen kids’ interest and motivation fall away by the fourth or fifth grade when their awareness of themselves, and most especially their growing awareness of their relationship to others, become the principal and driving forces in their lives.
For here begins the process when learning turns into schooling and the content of the lesson becomes confined to the classroom, when what is most vivid and most alive for the kids is no longer words and numbers, as it may have been during the first years of school, but the physical, their bodies, and the social, their friends, thereby relegating the subject matter of the classroom to at best a few minutes of homework squeezed somewhere in between friends, family, sports, television, video games, computers and other such modern distractions.
Ask your own children who wrote the Declaration of Independence, what were the Federalist Papers, who was Jim Crow, and you will see that even your own kids may not be learning, or at least not retaining information about their own country, the very things that school was supposed to teach them.
Then try to carry on a conversation, say in Spanish, the “easy language,” with a third, or fourth year Spanish student in a typical American high school, perhaps with your own child if he or she fits the description. You will very quickly see that the schools (as in teaching Spanish or American history) are clearly not doing what they say they are doing.
Now what we seem not yet as a nation to have fully recognized, is the fact that in our schools, especially our middle and high schools, very few things are learned in the sense of acquired, or made one’s own, — a grounding in American history, or conversational ability in the Spanish language, as in our examples.
Our elementary schools, those schools that have been around since the time of the earliest settlers on the Atlantic seaboard, are probably best at what they do. In part because of their long history. And in great part because what they do is still highly relevant to kids’ lives outside of school. At earlier times and probably still today most if not all elementary school kids do learn to read and to count.
The situation in our middle and high school classrooms, however, is something else. Only for the last 60 or 70 years have most of our young people been subjected to schooling during these years. And the jury is still out on how well we have succeeded, even whether it was such a great idea that all kids be in school for some 12 or 13 years. But they are, and we have them.
The success of the elementary years is probably best explained by the fact that the subject matter, mostly the learning to read and to count, is not limited to the classroom. The kids, at least those who do learn, go on with both activities outside of school. And those who don’t probably don’t learn.
Totally different from the situation of the middle and high schools, where what goes on in class is usually not something the kids take with them and do at home. Rather it’s something, in spite of books and notebooks crammed into knapsacks, that the kids at the end of the day mostly leave behind them in school.
Is it any wonder that just months let alone years after these classroom lessons, perhaps even weeks or days, the kids cannot solve an equation like the one they solved in class, can’t
respond in Spanish to a question put to them in that language, can’t tell you much if anything about the US constitution and the separation of powers, can’t even accurately place the Civil War on an American history time line.
And the reason is not that the schools have failed, as so many echoing the urgency of those who gave us A Nation at Risk in the 80s would have us believe. The schools haven’t failed. The kids, perhaps. But they have failed to learn, not so much because of what went on in school, what the teacher did or didn’t do, but because the “languages” spoken in the classroom, the ones they were supposed to learn, be they math, science, history et al, are just not spoken outside of the classroom.
And math, science, history et al are languages, no less than Spanish and Chinese, and need to be spoken, and read, somehow “used,” given life, if they are to be learned. For John Dewey was right. We do learn by doing, much more than by listening. Lectures and language tapes are not enough.
Try to learn Spanish or any foreign language when you hear only words in that language from your teacher (or on a tape) while sitting in class along with some 25 others who are as ignorant of the language as you are. What language can possibly be learned in this manner, other than by the rare student with exceptional intelligence, a photographic memory, or both?
Now all this is not to say that middle and high school students are not learning in school. They are learning, and many of them are learning a lot, but little or nothing (in respect to what they might have learned) of the academic subjects that are still at the heart of the typical middle and high school curriculum.
What they are, in fact, learning, and this should come as no surprise to anyone, is what they are doing in school (or out of school) with interest and motivation. You can put a kid in a classroom, of course, but that’s it. So far we haven’t been able to make him or her learn.
What kids are learning may be music, as in playing a musical instrument in the school band. It may be art as in designing sets or murals. It may be acting as in the school theater group, or it may be bodily strength and coordination, plus cooperation with others, as in participating in one or more team or individual sports activities.
What kids are learning may be any number of other things including shop, automotive mechanics, and other voc ed activities. Schools, in order to stay in business, learned long ago that play, art, music, voc ed and all the rest were no less important, I would say essential, to kids’ lives, to their mental and physical health and well-being, than college prep and advanced placement courses. Indeed, if you want to see even greater “failure” than you think you see right now in our public schools limit schooling to college prep. (This being for some what the No Child Left Behind Law is effectively doing to the schools.)
Currently there is, and has been, almost from the time of Horace Mann and the Common School over 150 years ago, a sharp, verbal battle between those who would give the public schools failing marks and those who would defend the schools, claiming that they are doing just fine the way they are.
I would say that this battle need not ever have been. The sides could have come together because they are not so much apart as they are talking about different things — the ones about the low academic achievement of public school students (that which has probably always been low), and the others about the real success that the common school has had in reaching all, or nearly all of our youth.
For the defenders of the public schools correctly say that now no one is left out, and that all are given an opportunity to continue their education through high school, college and beyond, even though only a minority of them will actually do so.
There are many things we could say about our schools that might help to go beyond the school battle I refer to. Most important both groups ought to understand that learning is not what schools are mostly about. For the kids just have little, often no interest, in what the schools are teaching. So why blame the schools. It can hardly be their fault if the kids are not ready to learn.
Although life itself is all about learning, and although kids are learning all the time and everywhere, for the most part they are just not all that interested in what we are teaching, in particular, in math, science, history et al, all those subject matters that we tell them are all important and that they will need, to go on to college, to get a good job, to make a lot of money.
Those who attack the schools say that at one time things were different. At one time in the past, they assure us, kids did learn, — math, history, foreign language and all the rest. But a close look at the past, a close look at student achievement in earlier periods makes it clear that this is not so.
Gerald Bracey and others have shown us that in the past kids, at least the relatively few of them that were in school, did not learn anymore then than their peers are learning now. Kids are kids and the educators who should most of all know this most of all seem to forget it.
In fairness to those who attack the schools they do have a number of reforms in mind. One of their reforms is to make both kids and teachers accountable. First test the teachers, then the kids. Hold the kids to (national) standards. Make them fear for their lives after their schooling if they don’t work while in school.
But of course the threats don’t work. Because the kids, even if they work more in class, and are given additional class time, still don’t take what they are taught in class into their lives, that is, where these things they are taught might be learned. Equations, American history, and the spoken foreign language are still not a part of their lives outside of class.
The kids are into other things. The schools don’t take this enough into account and go on confusing schooling, what is going on in their schools, with education, that is not going on. Our schools would be just fine if our goals for the schools were things that schooling could accomplish. But too often our goals are in need of an education for which our kids in middle and high school are not yet ready.
What could the kids be learning in school? Good classroom habits for one, such as listening to the teacher and other students in the classroom, speaking up and thereby contributing to the class discussion, being on time, being equipped with whatever is necessary for the orderly classroom activities, such as pens, notebooks, texts, even laptop computers. But instead of doing this sort of thing where we might be successful we go on pretending to teach (math and history) and the students go on pretending to learn.
We still labor under the mistaken notion that education, and worse, education for democracy, is what goes on in the schools. It isn’t, and never was, and could not be. This mistaken notion has led to most of the “problems,” (read dropouts, achievement gaps, discipline, algebra for the middle school, advanced placement etc.), and most of the “solutions” (read reforms, failed for the most part).
What we call education in the schools can never be anything more than the acquisition of certain skills, to begin with in the primary grades building mostly on skills that the child has learned outside of school, the two principal ones being walking and talking, not necessarily in that order. And if the child has not already learned to walk and to talk outside of school school will fail in what it sets out to do.
No one better than Mortimer Adler understood all this, what he called the difference between education and schooling. Here he is speaking in a 1995 interview:
“I can hardly remember what I used to think when I had the mistaken notion that the schools were the most important part of the educational process; for n
ow I think exactly the reverse. I am now convinced that it is adult education which is the substantial and major part of the educational process — the part for which all the rest is at best — and it is at its best only when it is — a preparation.”
“[school] at its best only when it is … a preparation.” What does that mean? Certainly not education for democracy, not even the start of life long learning, certainly not the knowledge of oneself, in fact none of the major and traditional “goals of education.”
School is a preparation. In Adler’s words, “use ‘schooling’ to signify the development and training of the young; and ‘education’ to signify the learning done by mature men and women. Make this important distinction between education and schooling.
On this point I would disagree somewhat with Adler. I would say that he ought to have said “liberal education” for learning done by mature men and women, rather than education. Because education doesn’t wait for adulthood. (It may even happen in school, although usually not the result of the school’s and teacher’s efforts.) Education doesn’t wait for anything. That’s why we do have extraordinarily precocious children.
However, Adler is mostly correct that schooling for most does come first, and only later education, well after the school years. But he readily admits that we’re not going to change the present understanding that education does take place in the schools by simply saying it isn’t so.
What if we could change the present understanding, what if in everyone’s eyes “schools” suddenly became as for Adler places where schooling, not education, goes on, education becoming in everyone’s eyes something else entirely, maybe just another name for learning, that which is always going on, mostly not in school and at widely varying rates depending on the learner?
A bit further into the interview Adler says that “nothing could be more preposterous” than the assumption, that to graduate from school, college, or even beyond, means to have become educated. This being one more widely held and incorrect assumption that we’re not able to dispel.
“Imagine’” Adler then says, “this brightest student in the best of all possible colleges spending four years industriously, faithfully, and efficiently applying his or her mind to study. I say to you that at the end of four years, this student, awarded a degree with the highest honors, is not an educated man or woman, and cannot be, for the simple reason that the obstacle to becoming educated in school is an inherent and insur-mountable one, namely, youth.”
So there you have it, youth itself is the inherent and insurmountable obstacle to becoming educated. Those who have been close to their own children during their children’s very first years should not, will not be surprised at this.
What were those stages of psychological development that Freud tells us all children pass through, the oral, anal, phallic/genital stages, taking the child through puberty and beyond? Placed along side these real drivers of the child’s psychic energies the high sounding educational goals of our schools are mostly without influence on the actual psychic life of the child.
But if children cannot be educated in school (for they lack a real independent and responsible life experience on which to draw — to illustrate this Adler compares the classroom behavior of the GIs back in school on the GI Bill following their war experience with their not much younger college classmates)… they can be “trained,” that which ought to be the proper activity of the school.
Again, forget about education for understanding, education for democracy, the essential school movement, all that sort of thing, and instead use schooling to help the child acquire skills and information appropriate to his age and abilities.
Such skills such as speaking and reading foreign languages, gaining a familiarity with the languages of math, and music and art, as well as the skills acquired through such combined physical and mental activities as athletics, art and theater, any number of vocational pursuits, all kinds of science experiments.
And then there is the acquisition of all kinds of useful information, the knowledge of the past, the knowledge of the earth, and the creatures of the earth including man, the knowledge of the universe to mention a few. All of this is more than enough for the child in school.
But, while it’s true that children can, much more easily and more rapidly than adults, acquire the skills and knowledge mentioned, it’s not enough, as more and more the schools and teachers have recognized, just to simply stand up in the front of the classroom and teach. The center of the effort to learn from the very first has to be the child.
Therefore, as much as the teaching of skills and of knowledge the principal and primary role of the school and teacher has to be to motivate the child. Up until now that has not been the case as, for example, for every 100 or more curriculum papers we have one or fewer papers on what it takes to arouse the motivation and interest of the child.
At the end of his interview with Max Weismann Adler makes a common mistake regarding our nation. We are, he says, a nation at risk, because there is so little of what he calls education going on. But education, especial the liberal education of a lifetime of which Adler is most of all speaking, has always been rare, perhaps mostly non existent in prehistory, and we are probably no more at risk in this regard than we have ever been.