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Most classroom learning sucks

The problem with most corporate/adult learning programs is that they're just like school. And the problem with school is that it sucks. It works against the way the brain wants to learn.Schoolboy_1
The best learning occurs in a stimulating, active, challenging, interesting, engaging environment. It's how the brain works. The best learning occurs when you move at least some part of your body. The best learning occurs when you're actively involved in co-constructing knowledge in your own head, not passively reading or listening. (Taking notes doesn't really count as being actively involved.)
People complain that their kids can't pay attention in school, then their kid comes home and spends two hours studying the elaborate world of Halo 2. Reading, absorbing, problem solving, using sophisticated mental maps, and on it goes.
When learning is "presented" in a push model, your brain says, "This is SO not important." You're in for the battle of your life when you try to compete against the brain's natural instinct to scan for unusual, novel, possibly life-threatening or life-enhancing things.
Forcing people to sit in a chair and listen (or read) dry, formal words (with perhaps only a few token images thrown in) is the slowest, least effective, and most painful path to learning.
Yet it's the approach you see replicated in everything from K-12, to universities, to adult/corporate training.

Skyler (my switcher-daughter) was fortunate enough to go to a private school until 6th grade. In that school, there were no classrooms. There was no teacher-at-the-front rows of chairs thing. Kids sat where they wanted to do their work--on the floor, on the deck, at the kitchen table, whatever worked for them. There were no lectures, no formal lessons. When kids needed help on a "project", they asked, and one of the teachers helped them. If a few kids were dealing with the same thing, the teacher might take them into what looked like a little corporate conference room, for an ad-hoc session. Even then, the teacher was more like a mentor/guide, and not the "sage on the stage". Kids were allowed to work on whatever they wanted, as long as they were fulfilling, somehow, their goals to include geography, math, language, etc.

And each kid had his entire curriculum custom-made for his personal interests. For the things that turned his brain on. One kid was obsessed with dinosaurs, so with the help of his teacher, he designed his entire first year around dinosaurs. Everything he did was based on learning more about dinosaurs. Math was based on calculating sizes and dates, and making his own categorizations. Language was, well, he had to learn to read if he wanted to learn about his passion. Geography was based around researching the areas where different dinosaurs lived at different times, creating timelines, etc.

Another kid's father frequently traveled on business, and his son was fascinated with hearing the stories his father told about the places he went. So they built a program around the hotel brochures his father brought back. He learned to read the brochures, then to work out the distances between the different hotels, and even make little spreadsheets to calculate expenses and work out budgets, etc.
The important thing was that they took the time to discover what the kids were passionate about, and used that as a vehicle for motivation.

Kids aren't motivated about geography. They're motivated by where dinosaurs lived, or where their dad is today. They aren't motivated by arithmetic. They're motivated by how big dinosaurs are or calculating which hotel their dad should visit.

And that's just the first year. By the next year, they've done the dinosaur/hotel thing to death and they're ready for something completely different. The idea of weaving everything—math, science, language, history, geography, whatever—into a framework that capitalizes on the learner's passion was the most dramatic example of powerful education that I'd ever seen. Her school had no grades, and no homework. Ever. It was a leap of faith for most of the parents, that somehow your kids were keeping pace with their counterparts in the "normal" school system, especially since most of us knew that we couldn't afford this forever, and that our kids would all eventually make their way into public schools to finish out.
The school did give standardized tests, and the typical score for the kids in the high 80's to 90's percentile against the national average for their grade. Even more importantly, most kids left 6th grade scoring at least two years ahead of their public school (and every bit as intelligent) peers.

The most depressing result of Skyler's transition to public school was when she came home one day a few weeks into her 7th grade, and said, "In real school, they don't seem to like it when you question the teacher..." She was horrified to be labeled somewhat of a troublemaker, because she'd been treated for so many years as a thinking person, encouraged to challenge and question and not assume it was her fault if she didn't understand something. Suddenly dropped into the US public school system, she quickly learned that it's a very different world. She knew more about learning theory and the brain than most of her school's administration, and her tolerance for poor/weak educational experiences was pretty low.

She did have some fabulous teachers throughout the rest of her public school days, but wouldn't you know it--they were always the teachers getting into trouble with the school administration or even parent's groups. In a later post I'll tell you a shocking story about one of her teachers who made the national news, twice, for encouraging students to think--and act-- for themselves. He was nearly fired during a witch hunt that both local and national media seized on (although most later offered apologies when it became obvious what was really going on).

One of the biggest mistakes adult learning programs and learners can make, in my opinion, is to use traditional school as the model. It doesn't work for kids, and it doesn't work for adults. Because it doesn't work for the brain. I know there are enormous challenges and pressures for delivering public school learning (that so many teachers don't have the option or power to change), but most adult education programs that follow the same poor model don't have those excuses. In many cases, adult classroom training looks like school just because that's how it always looks. There are a lot of interesting and wonderful exceptions in the adult learning world, of course, and a lot of novel things being done with everything from arrangement of chairs in the room to the role of the instructor as facilitator rather than "teacher", and I'll say more on that later.

But for the most part, we're still using the same approach that, given the pace of information change today, is even LESS useful than it was in the past. We need a big change.

[Update: several people have asked about Skyler's school--it was Manhattan Academy in Manhattan Beach California. Be sure to read their philosophy section; when Skyler was there they really meant these things. Too many schools have a nice set of bullet points about their values, but putting them into practice is a different thing. Manhattan Academy walked the walk.]

Posted by Kathy on January 22, 2005 | Permalink


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Ok, I'm seriously envious of Skyler's 1-6 education. Sounds like a blast. If only all our schools would wake up and do it right!

Posted by: Elisabeth Freeman | Jan 22, 2005 12:30:49 PM

Was a part of a group that wrote a grant proposal to develop a 3d engine to build engaging curriculum like this last year and were turned down. Not only were we turned down but the phrase "video games will NEVER be a part of the public school curriculum" came back with the rejection notice. Was not overly enlightening.

Currently, I am teaching a software architecture class using your HF Design Patterns as a model (unfortunately I was two weeks behind discovering it to spec it for the class) but you should see the response from the students. They literally start each class with zero energy and by the end of it a. dont want to stop and b. are dancing all around excited. It's alot more fun than trying to open up their heads and pour in the information (which isn't possible anyway). Making it fun and engaging makesthem want to learn more.

So I know that this works! Some of the responsibility lies in the laziness(too harsh?) of teachers. It's the time to make the donuts syndrome. That gets transmitted to the students jsut as enthusiasm is infectious so is apathy.

heh this is a rant that could go on ad nauseum and probably already has . . .

lovethe blog btw

Posted by: jeff | Jan 22, 2005 2:04:46 PM

Unfortunately the university system is no better. One of the worst teachers I've ever encountered was numerical analysis prof at Yale that, and this is very close to a quote, told us one day in class "you have to suffer to learn." The pretty much summarizes her brilliant teaching style as well. If you asked her to write Head First Numerical Analysis, you'd get back S&M Numerical Analysis.

I'm happy to report she didn't get tenure (although that obviously has NOTHING to do with teaching). ;)

That said, there's a few brilliant teachers there that fully get it.


Posted by: Eric | Jan 22, 2005 3:06:11 PM

I agree with everything you say, and have tried to live this in the University engineering design courses that I have taught. Interestingly enough there's a great paper called (IIRC) "The Two Sigma Problem" in which the author describes how individual attention can help any student achieve excellence. However there is a catch. Everything you describe works well if there is a student:teacher ratio of about (personal opinion) 10:1 which does not seem to be reasonable under current administrations.

Posted by: Jason Foster | Jan 22, 2005 6:12:38 PM

The solution (i.e., big change) is coming to market. Details coming online at www.opportuniTV.com.

An excerpt:

Toward 'Land of OpportuniTV'

The making of a startup comedy about making America the Silicon Valley of customized lifelong learning and career services, the global market that Peter Drucker says will be the biggest over the next 30 years

Posted by: Frank Ruscica | Jan 22, 2005 6:46:13 PM

you migth look at this story about this English principal who is banning homework. it seems to support your thesis

Posted by: James Governor | Jan 25, 2005 6:24:16 AM

Love this post! My 3-year-old son started Montessori school last year. They learn much the same way, choosing their own projects and doing whatever excites them while learning at the same time. I've seen him grow in self-confidence and in a willingness to try things out, even if he's never done them before. It's too bad adults in the business world often aren't allowed to experience their work the same way.

Posted by: Katherine Stone | Jan 25, 2005 12:32:04 PM

Would love to see you in a future blog entry extend your thoughts on learning to how industry conferences should be approached.

James McGovern

Posted by: James | Feb 28, 2005 5:10:03 AM

This is right on! I teach at a Sudbury School, Greenwood Sudbury School (www.greenwood.nu) in Connecticut, which is probably similar to the experience Skyler had at her school. One difference is that we extend this model through the entire K-12 experience. Students aged 5-19 mix with each other, sharing learning and play, and are free to explore their interests as fully as they want. (And they do want!)

Transitioning to college is not difficult for the teens after they graduate, either. Sudbury Valley School has published studies over the last 40 years where they show something like 80-90% of their graduates go on to graduate from college. And this is coming from a school that has no transcript, no grades, no tests.

Adults, on their own, learn in a similar manner. How many times have you been interested in a subject, and you might sit down with a book and delve into it, think about it all the time, play and experiment with new ideas? Learning is fun, and the only reason it's not for most people in our society is that it's been beaten out of them.

Posted by: Aaron Winborn | Apr 28, 2005 9:05:01 AM

>video games will NEVER be a part of the public school >curriculum.

If you need successful case studies for them, there were a number of them presented at the last Education Arcade conference ( http://www.educationarcade.org ). We can't yet release them publically, but if any individual topic interests anyone, email me [ravip(at)mit(dot)edu] and I can send it to you.

>Unfortunately the university system is no better. One >of the worst teachers I've ever encountered was >numerical analysis prof at Yale that, and this is very >close to a quote, told us one day in class "you have to >suffer to learn.

We made a great game for teaching electromagnetism here http://www.educationarcade.org/gallery/thumbnails.php?album=7 which was really successful. Right now, though, all the focus kinda shifted to teaching high school history.

Posted by: Ravi Purushotma | Jul 18, 2005 1:38:56 PM

The Inaugural Game Programming in Schools Conference

Melbourne, Friday September 9th 2005
Victoria Australia

Literature on school improvement is full of exhortations to make the content of instruction "relevant." …….. But if one does belong to a culture in which video games are important, transforming oneself from a consumer to a producer of games may well be an even more powerful way for some children to find importance in what they are doing.
Preface by Seymour Papert to Minds in Play by Yasmin Kafai

This conference will explore the learning theory underpinning game programming in schools. Speakers from around Australia will share best practice in using game programming as a relevant, authentic and highly motivating task which develops higher order cognitive and metacognitive skills. It is a unique opportunity to network with leaders from around Australia in this rapidly growing area.

Posted by: Tony Forster | Aug 8, 2005 7:50:20 PM

Jason Foster makes a good point about student-teacher ratios. In the public school system, it is cheaper to continue doing things in the same manner. That way they can squeeze 30-35 students into a classroom with one teacher (and within that classroom are students of various abilities and levels). People would not want to pay the increase in their taxes to fund such schools across the province or country. There would also be outcry from some of the public if they thought students were just "sitting" around doing whatever they wanted. You cannot please everyone when it comes to education. What did a school like this do with the unmotivated students? What about students who would not want to do anything no matter how hard the teacher tries to motivate them. They would just sit and listen to music or play video games. How does the teacher in the MA school deal with this behaviour? Do they fail?
Also, I think it is unrealistic to say to children that they don't have to take home work that they could not complete in class time. What kind of job doesn't have some take home work sometimes? When I was a student, I would often see students playing cards on their spares instead of getting work done. This doesn't make sense to me, especially with all of the pressure to complete the new harder curriculum (here in Ontario).

Posted by: Shannon Ferguson | Sep 23, 2005 6:21:17 PM

So-called "hands-on" learning is simply overstated. The so-called benefits are actually not benefits.

Nothing works best than traditional teaching, in my opinion, as it is the method to effectively teach to a large classroom, as well as to enable an instructor to complete the objectives put out by professional organizations, state boards, etc. in a timely manner.

The idea of having a student have his entire semester make use of "dinosaurs" is a joke. This is nothing more than trying to make learning "fun". All this does is dumb-down learning and dilute content, all in the name of improving the child's self-esteem and making school more entertaining for the child.

I am a traditional teacher. I have the students copy notes. Five years in a row, my students have outperformed my collegues' students, individuals who have hands-on instructors that believe that the idea of instruction is full of labs and hands-on activities. Last year, I did not have one student fail the state standardized test. My colleagues, on the other hand, had close to ten to fifteen fail the same exact test.

So go on, continue teaching in a manner that is optimal only in controlled settings. Something that is completely impractical to today's classroom, not to mention a method that does not challenge a student enough to be able to build in-depth knowledge. If you want to believe the contemporary, liberal learning theorists, your students will suffer.

Posted by: Paul Parker | Oct 17, 2005 10:49:38 PM

Actually adult learning for some reason often includes more playing.
It was a wonderful story I couldn't help reading. But I'm wondering how big is the problem of changing schools? isn't the impact on the child's psychology too huge?

Posted by: School Teacher | Nov 24, 2005 2:27:42 AM

Good article, but I want to observe that many educators are aware of this -- and their efforts just make things worse. In my experience, the biggest block to students' learning is that they don't even know what it really is; geography is learning maps, but somehow avoids learning what maps really are, and why they matter (beyond "if you want to go somewhere", which kids don't). Your daughter's school had one way to fix that; and in general, when that's fixed, learning becomes fun.

Posted by: Joshua | Dec 10, 2005 3:30:28 PM

I just love this post. I am doing a presentation on fun in the classroom and I would like to quote you.

Furthermore, I am having such frustration with my daughter's school. She has traveled already to over 10 countries and her school criticized her for missing math homework. Moreover, I'm afraid she is doing less well in school becuase it is so boring.

Where is the school? I would really like to look into that. Thanks!

Posted by: amy subaey | Jan 24, 2006 7:06:56 AM

"I am a traditional teacher. I have the students copy notes. Five years in a row, my students have outperformed my collegues' students, individuals who have hands-on instructors that believe that the idea of instruction is full of labs and hands-on activities. Last year, I did not have one student fail the state standardized test. My colleagues, on the other hand, had close to ten to fifteen fail the same exact test."

You're students were able to pass a standardized test. That means that they're better at rote memorization than their peers. It doesn't mean that they understand all the notes you made them copy, or that they can apply it to real life. If you seriously judge your teaching ability based on government standardized tests than you are one shitty teacher.

Posted by: Ayla | Apr 5, 2006 6:17:11 AM

Ayla wrote:
You're students were able to pass a standardized test. That means that they're better at rote memorization than their peers.

That would be valid if his collegues' students could pass the test and have fun, too. The later does not supercede the former.

That is not the case: some alternative methods apparently fail to teach the most basic things. Without foundation, you can't continue learning further. If a child has difficulty with multipliaction, then exponents and logarithms won't come easy. And wait until they see the dreaded integrals of trigometric functions
(or the method of cylindrical shells if you prefer applications).

Maybe a few very *talented* teachers can get away with a non-structured curriculum and still teach to motivate their pupils enough to learn all the hard sciences and social sciences. More power to them. However, only in a perfect world would you have so many super-talented teachers available. And what if you have a below-average teacher totally losing the students who end up fooling around?

I doubt the state's tests were designed with PhD graduates in mind - they are more likely to be a bit on the easy side. If alternative methods fail there, throw them out.

I don't believe learning should be "painful" as a criteria, but neither should it be "easy." The idea is to pass on knowledge to the next generation. It's that simple. You do whatever you've got to do to get the job done. If you can sign and dance and somehow (doubtful) learn about electrolysis, then that's wonderful.
I am exaggerating here but don't discount repetition/reinforcement as an important method of learning.

There has to be a balance between engaging interest and teaching, evaluating the standards. By the way, the quizzes, tests and exams are a very good time-tested "stick" that complements the "carrot" of getting praised for a good grade. This may seem old-fashioned but if you throw away these strong incentives, you could be doing more harm than good.

If a teacher sacrifices too much of "passing knowledge" for "entertaining students", they should be on the comedy channel.

The students need to be ready for the next stage of learning if they choose to. Imagine the frustration if you like healing and medicine, go to college and realize that you haven't encountered half of the jargon in a physics class because it wasn't related to your interest but it turns out physics counts for a lot on MCAT!

I have to side with Paul Parker here.

1) I don't understand the deal with North America trying to re-invent the wheel. The students are failing and every year there's a cry to make learning "fun" and "relevant" and whatever.

Here's the crux of the matter why many American students are not motivated to learn:

-Football players, rappers and movie stars are praised in our culture (e.g. TV) a lot more than literature critics, archeologists or cohomology theorists.

-They don't learn self-discipline and hard work early enough in elementary school. It's a joke over here in many schools.

-Singapore, Central and Eastern European countries, I believe, have descent public school education.

Yes, there are exceptions where some students are handicapped and require special attention. Surely, it is not true that the average student is mentally challenged!

Yes, to an extent learning should not be "dreaded" but that is no reason to water it down. The standards have a reason. The same reason why we have accreditations, professional licenses etc. It simply reduces uncertainty in ability of strangers.

Extreme example: imagine if you weren't sure whether your doctor studied hotel brochures or genetics. What if you were wrongfully accused and your lawyer studied only law as it is applicable to dinosaurs?

I am disgusted to see how a grade 11 student brags about getting through school not knowing how to multiply because he has a pocket calculator. How much misuse has resulted from not knowing the tools! No wonder some students here don't even notice that when you square radical equations, some of the roots may not "work," yet not everyone checks.

We have so much technology in our calculus that some students don't even learn that z^(x+y) is generally not equal to z^x+z^y. I think technology is wonderful but care needs to be taken to explain what's going on behind the scenes in theory, too.

No wonder they struggle proving theorems. Few but the best educators would be able to preserve complete rigor of classical geometry or real analysis and make it "math in your life." I am not counting a few examples about shadows or something like that but general way of thinking.

2) The games at MIT may show great potential! That looks like it could have a good balance of theory and applied work.

3) The opening post has some merit but, in my humble opinion, it over emphacises the hands-on approach too much. Yes, it's great for some students. Others learn better by listening and others yet by (gasp) by motor memory of doing 50 exercises on the multiplication table.

4) Some students find the flexibility of pure mathematical abstractions no less interesting and, perhaps, more beautiful than any dinosaur-bone counting.
E.g. Fibonacci numbers and golden mean ratio reappear in seeming different appliations and not the other way around. Mathematics *could* explain the real world, but it does't have to.

5) What if a student has a latent talent in quantum physics or fungi taxonomy but never develops an interest because they didn't know they had a passion for it?

How many young people don't know what they want to do with their lives even in early 20s? Many do not know. I don't think it's wise or reasonable to let children and teenagers effectively set their own curriculum. Yes, they may have a passion for dinosaurs or tanks at early age but only a few will actually want to become paleontologists or army officers.

Some passions during childhood are only temporary. Realize that there is an inherent trade-off between learning a few marginal topics about one interest and actually learning several disciplines from foundations up without skipping "unrelated to dinosaurs" topics.

Whatever happened to the idea of liberal arts education: expose students to concepts, even a little against their will, because they can't make informed decisions without trying a bit of everything. Here we are talking about learning different languages, not "trying out" different drugs :).

Posted by: Aquinas | Apr 14, 2006 11:53:12 PM

"THE BEAT" (Heart, Hoof & Drum Rhythms) used to empower.
"THE BEAT" is about using the "Basic Rhythms of Life"
to facilitate motivation and communications. "THE BEAT" is about using the rhythms of the horse in conjunction with the rhythms of music which goes back to the basic beating of the heart. An example of "THE BEAT" is that we are developing "Horse Drum Circles" with horse riders forming a circle in conjunction with music/drum beats. FUN & CREATIVITY is at the heart of
"THE BEAT" Thank You!

Posted by: Phil Waigand | Apr 15, 2006 6:51:14 AM

I think that both alternative forms of schooling and the public school systems suck. The problem is that you don't have any balance between what is fun, and what is serious. And what is taken seriously within academics, isn't taken seriously by the teachers.

Teachers create religious, political, emotional, racial, and social bias. This causes problems between a lot of teacher-student relationships, since teachers generally teach what they grew up experiencing.

Some of these things are important, but they are often many years old and belong to the history books. If you throw out all of the trash the American schools put
into their curriculum, you get reading, writing, and arithmetic. If you teach these basic subjects solely to students in K-8 grade, they would definately be capable to pass most standardized tests normally given to high schoolers who sometimes fail.

Standardized learning needs to be standardized. It needs to have a national standard, with a standarized platform. If myself were to decide, I would have children learning their basics on computers and have teachers there to babysit and help in any way they are able. They are obviously very good at doing that, as many of you have stated in previous comments.

High school should be able to teach more modern trades, advanced subject matter, and things that stimulate adolecent minds which are more focused on what is happening in the present. These can include computer programming, operation, and repair; basic electrical engineering, physics, computer aided design, economics, philosophy, family values, health, and fine arts. They need to be able to form ideas, and take information that is truely useful to the real world as it is, but not totally mis-informed, which is what history is for. That is why high school students are disillusioned with the system that they have to put up with on a daily basis, anyways.

Posted by: Josh Moore | Jun 7, 2006 1:43:13 AM


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Posted by: Scott Brison | Dec 6, 2006 6:43:22 AM

Balance, moderation is the key to life really, and education is no different. I like the post that said the main point of teaching is passing knowledge from one generation to another. How should we do that? the same way? Hasn't this generation learned better ways to pass that knowledge on? Havn't we discovered things like multiple intelligences and learning styles that we can use to make that passing of knowledge more interesting, more relevant, and more available to more students? This is America. The land of We Can Make it Better. Why should our schools settle for teaching the same way we learned? In addition, we don't need every teacher in the country to be fantastic, we just need enough to make sure that more children that have the potential are being tapped and brought to their potential and extended beyond the minimum level standards that everyone seems content with. The political and ecomonic climate for the next ten years will continue to be of the pass the knowledge at the minimum level - mindset. That's too bad, but at least we know there are schools out there that are preparing the best and brightest that can afford it.

Posted by: amy subaey | Jan 29, 2007 11:22:58 PM

From a skimming/reading of the responses here, I wonder how many have closely read the posting.

"as long as they were fulfilling, somehow, their goals to include geography, math, language, etc.

And each kid had his entire curriculum custom-made for his personal interests."

I come from a family of teachers, and I throughly applaud these teachers, who every day meet the challenge of helping children to learn all of these subjects while blending with the kid's interests.

I am not complaining or griping about teachers in a standard situation, they go through fire daily as well, but they are very hampered by rules, regulations, political and internal games, security and definitely paperwork and a lack of support.

Standard school teachers would love to be able to teach their students, draw the students in more by use of their interests, to help their students, and so forth. The current situation does not foster that very well, if at all.

Posted by: Theresa | Mar 20, 2007 6:06:16 PM

Awesome post! Thanks for letting us know about the school (Manhattan Academy) it's great that they give kids such a wonderful early start.

Public schools in my experience at least just pass on irrelevant information from generation to generation. The same things someone learns about now are the same things that someone else learned about in the 60's or 70's and people wonder why we aren't farther ahead as a society?

Posted by: Theo Tonca | Mar 30, 2007 1:45:13 PM

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