Message to Inspire Change in Education:
What is Important to Learn in School?

What is important for children to learn in school? An important question each student, parent, school, community, and nation has to answer. And most people agree there is a core amount of information students must learn to be educated, but they disagree on what that information is and the depth to which it should be learned. I would suggest the problem is not so much to determine what information and how much should be learned, but - how it is learned? The experiences students encounter and how those experiences happen, is what is most critical for students to become educated.

Each person's answers to these questions are the basis from which they judge the capability of their school to successfully educate their children. And more people are beginning to realize the present curriculum and experiences offered in their school will not achieve the results they wish for their children, so they provide additional experiences; based on their interpretations of what their children will need for the future based on the short comings perceived by their children's schools curriculums.

The number of parents who are successful in meeting those needs is inadequately small. The reason, most people do not know either what needs to be known to be educated or how it can be achieved or both. In fact when most people are asked what schools need to teach, respond - basics in reading, writing, and arithmetic and sometimes how students should be treated while in school. Beyond that they are silent and let schools and teachers decide, often to a point of neglect. Their responses based on their educational experiences or what they wish they had been. Very little of their ideas are supported by research and wisdom of practice on how children and adolescents learn and how to facilitate that learning.

If we observe students in a variety of classes we will see a range of behaviors from focused and engrossed in learning to avoidance of learning and disruption to other's learning. If we want an honest appraisal of the situation, students can usually describe the situation accurately. Often telling you - they are being asked to learn and do stuff that isn't going to provide them with any useful information or skill. If they think the information might be useful in the future, they believe they have plenty of time to learn it and they will wait until they really need it. Without the willingness or patience to accumulate information for the promise it may someday be beneficial, they cease their learning and resort to getting by. Doing what they need to do to play the system. The result is a view of school as a place powerless to provide them with anything useful. Consequentially leading to little or no learning at best or disruption of learning at worst.

Without serious inquiry and reflection parents and teachers tell over simplified stories of student failures - mostly deeming them defective or just not caring. Suggesting simple minded ideas or quick fixes like - more time on task, longer school days, longer school years, more rewards, coercion, consequences, or taking back control of the classroom, retaining students that don't make the grade, firing teachers, and closing failing schools. All these supposed fixes have been tried in the past for the same reasons and never achieved the supposed benefits for most students. Particularly not anywhere near the percentage of students we hope to be successful in schools today.

Children today are bombarded with messages and expectations - think before you act, just say no, walk away, look before you leap, be cautious, and don't trust people you don't know. To empower students to assume responsibility for their behavior and the decisions they make is not something that can be given and taken away willy-nilly. When it is, it becomes a behavior problem. Either we want children to make decisions or we want them to obediently do what they are told. We can not expect them to turn decision making on or off. If we do, they are befuddled and think we are being manipulative, or that we don’t trust them, or that we are ignorant and don’t know what we are doing.

If we want students to be responsible and make good decisions, then we must provide opportunities for them to make real decisions. This includes freedom to decide what and when to learn. It is inconsistent to think students will make good decisions if we tell them what to learn, when to learn, how to learn, when to practice it, and provide the only rationale as to the importance for doing so is to pass a test. This isn’t compatible with how most students, or adults for that matter, think.

To expect such is misguided. How then is it possible to learn, and to make good decisions, while simultaneously developing a strong desire to want to learn? Many people have educated themselves with very little teaching. Learning to read and becoming educated isn't hard, when the desire to learn, opportunity to learn, and habits of mind are present. We neglect to seriously consider the most important variables that effect how students are educated: curiosity, a strong desire or need to know, a personal belief that they are capable of learning, a feeling of being safe, a feeling that other students and teachers are there to support them in a way that encourages their learning, a desire to make decisions beneficial for themselves and others and empowerment to do so.

What if neglecting any of these variables reduces or eliminates the feeling of satisfaction, power, and self-efficacy that results from the struggle to learn? What is really important for students to be able to do today? What is it that can provide quality and power for students when learning and after they have learned something to desire to learn more? What information do our children believe is really important and valued in their world? What have they learned that they think is important for them to be doing? If these variables are the most important in determining that children will learn and hence become educated, then are these ideas being given the consideration and respect needed to make good instructional and curriculum decisions? Or are we trying to spoon feed children with information for which they are not hungry? Without consideration that they have no appetite for what they are being fed? Or that what they are being fed is about as tasteless as sand, nutritious as grass, and as useful to them in their daily lives as parkas in Jamaica?

In the past most people learned to read and write with very little instruction and with very little support other than their observations of the personal power that reading can provide for those that read. Why do we believe children who are capable of teaching themselves to talk and walk must undergo intensive instructional sessions designed with repetitious drill over meaningless information to read? What are they learning? That they are powerless to learn on their own? That they are not able to relate meaningless information to their lives in ways that make learning meaningful and powerful. How can they build trust in adults that believe or act as if trivial nonsense is necessary to become educated? And if school stuff is what it means to be educated, then what value is being educated?

Not being able to connect school learning to their lives creates a feeling of helplessness followed by anxiety from stress that results in environments where tasks are seen as useless and a school definitions of success as unrealistic for their needs. Regimented instruction ignores the importance of emotions, caring, and relativity for the learners in a classroom. If there is any gain in achievement it won't matter, because the children have learned that school is hard work, boring, and the information they are learning doesn't connect to their world. Learning to them is following directions to get the job done and cross the graduation finish line.

With out emotions of learning, a desire to learn to inquire, think logically and critically; students will not develop visual spatial abilities, observational skills, investigative skills, literacy in science, art, music, social sciences, and an importance for caring for them self, others and the world. Students won't care or won't imagine why they would want to be educated, other than to do their work, get a job, and gain material desires.

If children aren't given the time and opportunity to develop their abilities in a broad sense, rather than the narrow sense that presently happens in schools, then most children are not only wasting time, but they are sacrificing the optimum time for developing those abilities. While at the same time the vast reserve of curiosity and passion for learning and life they came to school with is being sucked from them instead of being fanned into a flame of life long learning believed to be necessary for theirs and our economic well being.

The possibility that each student will be able to choose their occupation and make a decent living continues to be farther removed from possibility by those who attend public schools and most private schools. We are ignorant if we think everyone has an equal opportunity to attain this. You can argue with one or two examples of someone who did, but why are we willing to accept such low results. Shouldn't we identify large numbers of children who were able to follow the customary path through school to the plum job of their choice?

For most this was not possible and for future generations it will be no better. Significant change must be made in schools to achieve better. It is possible. We know what must happen to achieve it. Not a traditional factory school model of banking information. This education robs students of their curiosity, fascination with learning, social development, and emotional development they need to be life long learners and succeed after school is done with them. Done convincing them that they are basically losers, unable to learn, and will be a financial burden to the rest of society or stuck in dead end jobs and wages. As Jim Steinman wrote and Meatloaf sings in “Life is a Lemon and I want My Money Back”.

"What about your school?
It’s defective.
It's a pack of useless lies."

(Life is a Lemon and I want My Money Back song)

Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes