How students learn vs. how schools teach

If you ask a teacher how students learn, chances are, their responses will not include what is typically seen in schools across the nation.

While the majority of my school learning was done seated in rows, taking copious notes and memorizing said notes for upcoming tests, (most of which I would quickly forget) as an educator I now realize what my schooling lacked – inquiry.

Instead of asking questions during class, students are often instructed to locate answers to questions that teachers, textbooks or worksheets propose. They are forced to learn calculus instead of more practical, real-world math, such as balancing a checkbook.

If I had received some practical instruction in my formative high school years that was both tailored to my interests and pertinent to my future as a working class adult, I suspect that my credit card debt would be lower and my vocabulary far superior than it is now. For, instead of spending hours trying to decipher what x equals, I would have been reading. I was a voracious reader as a young adolescent, but once I entered high school, I typically only read what was required for class, mostly because any free time I had involved sitting at the kitchen table with my dad trying to explain my math homework to me, all the while wondering, When am I ever going to use this in real-life?!

Even back then, an angst-ridden teen, I realized what I excelled in (analyzing everything/everyone) and what I loathed (numbers, the periodic table, the Macarena). So why then, nearly two decades later, are schools still fixated on educating students in a way that is not effective?

As an educator, I see the disconnect between common sense teaching and what schools consider teaching. Will Richardson’s TedX talk has many salient points, but this one stood out to me.


In my mind, the “common sense” list is a no-brainer and is a truthful snapshot of how students learn. However, I often find myself adhering to many of the items on the “????” side because they are mandated by schools, districts, administration.

If you’re not a teacher, I’m sure this is difficult to grasp. You’re probably wondering, “Why don’t teachers take a stand? Let their voices be heard to their administration/school districts and boards of education? Couldn’t they just teach the way they know best behind closed doors?”

The truth is, I’ve done all of the above. I’ve taught social justice in secret and seen my students engaged, curious and pondering over real-world questions. I’ve spoken up when my views were not popular, despite pushback from colleagues and administration. I’ve held my tongue (to the point where it bleeds) because despite what I know is right, what I think doesn’t always matter. Also, I have student loans to pay, bills and need health insurance.

Common sense is not necessarily common, especially to those with power.

Richardson’s talk is convincing, but it’s nothing that teachers have not heard before or seen with their own eyes. As a former teacher himself, I am sure he understands the stress, pressure, and ridiculous amount of work that teachers put forth in order to ensure their students are learning in an organic, fun, inquiry-based setting.

However, the debate about how students learn best versus how school has been taught for decades is one that will continue until actual teachers are respected and given autonomy by states, government and politicians.

Until then, teachers try to squeeze as much “common sense” beliefs about teaching into the “????” side of teaching and learning. If this means we turn a blind eye to the “????” of teaching, then so be it.


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