It is easy to notice that students don’t come to school to learn.  In fact, it is difficult to spend any amount of time in a secondary school without butting up against that central truth.  But it is much harder to figure out how to engage students more authentically in the learning that could go on inside a school.

There are at least two big problems.  First, students often don’t have the background knowledge to make the transmitted information interesting.  For example, students can be told about the Boston Massacre of 1770.  They can hear or read about the colonists’ anger at the Stamp Act.  They can be told that five men died from the
shooting by the British soldiers.

But without an adequate background, students can too easily miss the importance of the event.  They can see it as simply a very small battle, one in which just a few people were killed.  Without a fuller historical understanding, they can view the Boston Massacre as simply one of the steps that led to the Revolution a few years later.  They can miss the terrifying uncertainty and excitement of that March day in 1770, the anger among the colonists, the sweaty nervousness among the armed teenagers in the British army.  Without a proper background, the events lose their individuality, the participants become stick figures acting out their parts, running along a pre-ordained track toward the Revolution and the start of the united States.  Boring.

The second major problem is that many students don’t have a decent reason to work to remember this transmitted information.  This can be different for a lot of students.  For a surprising number of young people, the internal rewards are enough.  They want to earn good grades, so they work hard at the abstract task of memorizing the series of facts that are told to them.  Sometimes they are successful, sometimes not.

The bigger problem comes from the much larger numbers of students who see very little reason to chase after those internal rewards.  They don’t care what kind of grade they get.  They don’t see any reason to work hard to memorize this series of facts.  They don’t care about Crispus Attucks, or Paul Revere, or the anxiety of late colonial life.

Consider this analogy: without these two things, 1.) background knowledge with which to contextualize information and 2.) a reason to care about that information, information transmitted in schools is like listening to driving directions in an area you’ve never been, to a place you have no desire to go.

With a solid background, you can follow along with those directions in your head, making sense of each part.  When you are told to “take a left on Broadway, where there’s that big Halal store on the corner,” you can picture that store and picture yourself driving along the new street.  It all fits.  You can follow along and mentally get to the place you want to go.  You’ll remember it.  You’ll get there.

But if you are hearing directions for a city you don’t know, you will have to do the much more difficult task of simply memorizing a list of directions.  You’ll have to remember that after taking a left at the Halal store, you need to go through three lights, then take a right on 83rd, etc.  Without a preexisting knowledge of the destination in general terms, it is a much more difficult task to remember a list of directions.  You are not able to picture the route in your
head as it is described.  Second, if you don’t really want to go where the directions are leading, you will be less likely to make the effort to memorize the list of directions.  You will be more likely to simply stop listening after you hear the mind-numbing list of directions.  But if you really need to get there, you will be more likely to listen carefully, take notes, and ask questions to be sure you’ve got the directions correct.

In any case, reading a list of directions then expecting people to be able to get where they are supposed to go is a tall order.  Yet that is what the transmission model of schooling assumes.  It presumes that young people will be able to memorize long lists of facts, usually separated from any reasons to make the facts seem important.  Also, the transmission model assumes that students will be able to develop the background information to contextualize those facts at the same time that they are receiving the lists of facts.

In order to make schooling more effective, we need to shatter both of these mistaken preconceptions.  We need to break away from thinking of proper schooling as a transmission of facts from adult to youth.  We need to break away from conceiving of the proper measure of that education as the regurgitation of lists of transmitted facts.

So how do we do it instead?
Let’s return to our directions analogy.  If a young person was not familiar with a part of town, we would not
simply read them a list of directions.  If we could, we’d take them on a tour of that part of town first.  We’d let them know that in a little while we’ll be expecting them to be able to get to the destination on their own.  That we need them to get there without help from us in order to function as an adult in our society.  Then we might show them some maps of the area as we point out the route.  They could try to redraw the route themselves on a map before they try it their first time.  As they go, they could progress from driving with an experienced instructor at first to driving on their own.

And in order to decide if the education had been successful, we would not simply ask students to recite back the list of directions they had been told to a place they did not want to go in a part of town they had never been.  Rather, we would evaluate their education by watching them get themselves to that destination.  If they took a different route, fine.  The important part would not be a question of repeating back abstract transmitted information but achieving a real task set out for them, one in which they had been given the support and guidance to complete successfully.

Leave a comment


  1. Jonathan Anuik

     /  November 14, 2011

    Adam drops the lesson in learning, the knowing, in the very beginning of this post, when he mentions the emotions (i.e., anxiety). There needs to be space for learners to pick up on emotions, sensations, etc. “in the moment” to stimulate reflection and imagination, as opposed to learning as a series of facts to be inherited, through memorization!

  2. Donald Byrne

     /  November 15, 2011

    “achieving a real task set out for them” — I’m skeptical that these real tasks exist on a scalable level. Society does not want to support these real tasks. There aren’t enough mentors or interested adults to shepherd the kids along. The teachers can’t do it — or at least it doesn’t seem that way from here, deep into the unknowing of a fall semester full of teen spirit. Our school, like many districts, did a “graduation project” for seniors, and ditched it after one year for lack of funds and support, as worthy as the goal was. No, most of society wants the kids to disappear into a factory school for a set amount of time where they are minded and kept until a prescribed age. Society is quite content that only a few succeed in the transmission of knowledge, that only a few qualify for the “good jobs,” that only a few latch on to the intention of education.

    Tell me where I’m wrong. It’d be a good reminder and lift spirits.

  3. @ Donaldo: Maybe then we need to follow John Holt and Ivan Illich and escape from the premises of institutionalized schooling. Maybe the only problem is, as you describe it, the problem of scalability.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: