I’m Tired of Talking About Education

Actually, I’m not.

I’m going to spend the rest of this essay talking about it.

I am very tired of talking about school, especially with people who think we are talking about education.

Education and school is not the same thing and I can prove it. School takes place for six, seven or ten hours a day. Education takes place 24/7/365.25.

Learning and Schooling

Image by colemama via Flickr

If you don’t know why there is a .25 after the 365 you don’t need more school. Chances are the teachers don’t know either. You, and they, need more education.

Education, a.k.a. learning, comes from asking questions (Hey, Educationontheplate, why is there a .25 after the 365?) and getting, or better yet, finding or developing answer. Go to it.

People are sponges; we learn all the time. People learned long before there were schools and we will continue to learn long after schools finally choke on the curriculum they try to regurgitate and die.

English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scienti...

Image via Wikipedia

From the moment we are born, and possibly even before then, we are observing, noticing patterns, making assumptions, testing them, revising them and starting over. This may sound familiar to science teachers who call this the “scientific method” and try to teach it to students who really just need to have it pointed out that this so-called method is what they’ve been doing naturally their entire lives.

What students do naturally, what we all do naturally, is learn. 24/7/365.25. We do it with or without schooling and often do it in spite of schooling. Schooling comes with an agenda but learning often does not. As in my life, and perhaps frequently, schooling gets in the way of learning.

It is true in kindergarten where the natural learning and socialization of play has been replaced by reading, writing, algebra and being yelled at for not standing in line properly. All this is to ready students for first grade. Children learn in spite of this.

In first grade students read more, write more, and follow more directions to get them ready for second grade. Children continue to learn in spite of this. Sometimes they’ve already learned that school is not right for them by testing it and finding that it does not meet their needs. When that happens we schoolers tell the student that he or she is not right for school, that they are not meeting the school’s needs for order, discipline and standing in line silently and we start to teach them that they are failures.

This is what school is best at: teaching students that they are inadequate, that they are failures.

They fail to stand in line correctly, form their letters correctly, or form their sentences and paragraphs according to the standards (I wonder what school thought of John Barth, e.e.cummings, Hemingway, Jonathan Safran Foer or, especially, Roberto Bolaño, known for incredibly long sentences, not to mention devastatingly evocative metaphors). They write like writers instead of three or five paragraph automatons and we call them failures.

Learning is free-range, we learn from what we manage to be exposed to; school has a curriculum (math, science, ELA, etc.) and a meta-curriculum (how to stand in line, how to raise one’s hand for permission to speak, the procedure for going to the bathroom).

I work in a school that’s part of a school network that’s part of a school system. That school system is one of 14,514 school districts in the USA (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). I’m willing to bet that at least 99% of those districts have the word ‘school’ in their name and that fewer than .0001 have the word ‘learning’ in their name.

But think about this: No one fails to learn yet many fail at school.

American Education is in the Dumpster

Image by brewbooks via Flickr

I’m tired of talking about school.

I’m tired of thinking about school.

I’ll never get tired of thinking and talking about learning.

Learning is education.

School is something else entirely.


U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, “Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey,”2000-01 and “Local Education Agency Universe Survey,” 2000-01.

For those who haven’t figured out 365.25 yet, a clue: leap years.

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18 Responses to I’m Tired of Talking About Education

  1. I concur that school and learning are not one in the same when talking about education. To be educated, in a nutshell, is the process of learning things. These things can range from your ABCs and Math to proper social behavior. I’m not really sure why you are referencing the “standing in line quietly” so often. Are you expressing that schools focus too much on social behavior? Schools are supposed to be the place where students learn about a) the world and how it works and b) the knowledge they need to proceed forward and take their place in the world. Therefore I think it is quite acceptable for schools place strong focus on teaching students proper social behavior, but not at the expense of proper learning. Indeed nobody stops learning after school stops. Heck, that’s even more the case with the internet and its vast amount of information at the tip of one’s fingers.
    The way I see it, schools have missed the point and have shifted into being a business rather than a nurturing environment for the future citizens of the world. The simply starts from the fact that schools do not stimulate thinking anymore. Take nay school from any part of the world and you will see that most teachers nowadays do not get their students to think or take charge of their learning. It’s not their fault mostly because they have to follow what their employer tells them they should be teaching. But what is a teacher really suppose to do? Teach or direct learning?

    • Deven Black says:

      I reference standing in line often because standing in line is 100% about school and 0% about learning. School is run for the convenience of the school, not primarily for the benefit of the learners.

      Teachers should guide learning, not direct it.

      • Kate says:

        I disagree. Standing in line is not just about school. People stand in line all the time – at the grocery store, wedding reception lines, ticket lines, at the movie theater, getting on an elevator, the dmv (do I need to go on). Standing in line is a necessary part of life and people need to learn how to do it. Just because it’s rote and boring and mundane doesn’t mean that it isn’t something that kids need to learn. I realize this wasn’t the point of your post but I think you chose a poor example that overpowers some of the better points of your article.

        The social/behavior aspects that you reference are parts of school. The alternative is to NOT teach kids procedures. I get the impression that you think things like standing in line, raising hands, learning proper handwriting, etc… are some kind of victorian-era nonsense. But if you think these get in the way of learning than I would like to see kids learn WITHOUT these things in a school setting. These are all things that are used in real life – not just in school.

      • Deven Black says:

        There is standing in line and there is standing in line. In school one must stand in a straight line, silently. One mustn’t lean against the walls, etc. I actually have no issue with students standing in a line from time to time, and perhaps all the time when moving from place to place, but learning how to do so should not be a major focus of Pro-K or kindergarten and students certainly not be yelled at for doing it improperly. Some of the Pre-K and K teachers I see have more in common with drill sergeants than they ought to have.

        I also do not put learning proper handwriting on the same level as learning to raise one’s hand. My argument with those school procedures is not that they exist but that they are raised to the same level as actual useful skills or, worse, posed as requirements to be mastered before one is allowed to learn actual skills like handwriting or reading.

        And I have not communicated what I wanted to if you come away thinking that I said those procedures stand in the way of learning. As I tried to clearly convey, learning takes place 24/7 every single day, even when one is asleep. The question is only about what is learned, particularly what the student learns about his or her self as even the youngest child performs tremendous amounts of metacognition regarding his or her learning and the contexts in which it happens.

        That context counts is what education policy makers from the top to the teacher (and we do set policy even if only within our classrooms) either forget or neglect to take into consideration. Oh, we try to create friendly looking text-heavy classrooms, but that is as far as we take context. Maybe you thrive in contexts that are designed to thwart all sense of control you might seek, but most students don’t.

        Yes, order is as necessary in school as in the rest of civilization, but we should seriously and thoroughly consider the messages our procedures convey to students and, for that matter, their parents before we continue to use them just because that is the way it has always been done.

  2. I think your post is generating quite a few tweets Deven. Wonderful thinking as we end this year and head into a new one. A year which, is, by the way, a leap year 🙂

  3. Meta-curriculum is a great way to put it.

    The pattern of behaviors, expectations and communication is what is also called school culture. It’s pretty clear that culture is the most important factor in school turn arounds and in learning that works.

    There is some recent research that suggests precisely that. I will look for the link to the study and post here or send it along on twitter.

    Nicely done! And hope you have a great new year. I look forward to getting your posts. Some of the best I’ve found in the twitterverse about education from the ground.

  4. Kate says:

    Ugh. A pseudo-intellectual post that takes a somewhat relevant point and turns it into a supposed brilliant revelation. People are slobbering all over themselves to *love* this article…even though a lot of teachers/schools ARE focusing on learning.

    An article that does nothing to change what you are griping about.

    • Deven Black says:

      What I am griping about are people who do not understand what they are talking about when they talk about education. As for the pseudo-intellectuality of the post, that is unintended. I neither claim to be an intellect nor accept that title when imposed by others. This post is just the gut-level rection of an inner-city teacher to platitudes, spin, and other general dishonesty about what school is, what it does and who benefits from it. While a “lot” of teachers and schools might be focusing on learning, there is something about the very structure of most schools that still creates a sense of being failures in a large portion of their student population and, increasingly, in their teacher population as well.

      If you have any more cogent argument to put forward to me I would love to read it. Thank you.

  5. Bob Main says:

    I like your article, but it seems to me that learning to politely stand in line is a very normal and, I think, acceptable part of the role school plays in socialization. With the current system design, class sizes are too large to get around what must sometimes be “for the convenience of the school.” I do agree it could often be handled differently (‘how we can succeed together’ instead of ‘how you’ve just miserably failed’), but unless I’m missing something, there has to be some sense of order before there can be a sense of comfort. And believe me, I’m not a stereotypically authoritarian teacher by any means! Thanks for a great post!

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  8. Sarah says:

    I really enjoyed reading. Somewhere along the line someone “counted” all we do in school related to lining kids up and so on and presented it at a training. At times I think they were right, about 25 minutes a day the students are really learning something new. But, then, I step back and think about what they obviously did not have structures and systems to measure-human interaction, the importance of feeling safe, the warm room, the anticipation of routine, things that might be quite important to my students. Still I always consider my art ed teacher who said if you learn about what they make and do at home, intersect with that life and learning you gain quite an insight into your place in the real education.
    I certainly thought of that training, reading here today.

  9. chris Gibson says:

    One of my New Year’s resolution is to get back into blogging. It was an honor to see your comment on my very dusty blog. I must fly here to your blog more often. It has a an edginess I like very much. 🙂
    BTW, my best friend founded Thailand’s very first Montessori school; I’ve read a lot about Montessori education. What do you think of it? Just wondering.

  10. Bob & Kate,

    I am pretty sure people could figure out how to stand in line without needing to be schooled in it. To think we need to be taught something as simple as that greatly underestimates your fellow human. Besides, there are tons of other social cues we pick up and learn outside of school.

  11. I really like your article. Especially the idea that learning is free-range. Nice metaphor.

  12. jamiesuzanne@hotmail.com says:

    I just caught this article in The Homeschool Handbook. I’m a former teacher, now public librarian. I think you could understand a recent epiphany I had at age 35:

    I never learned how to live life in the present. Why? Because I just realized, from the earliest years, I was taught to do things because they were necessary in the future. I can’t think of anywhere along the way where someone taught me how to just enjoy NOW, how to enjoy being a kid, how to appreciate my environment, how to appreciate who I was at that moment.

    How many times do teachers and parents say, “You’ll need to know this when…(fill in some vague future date that means nothing to kids)”?

    Examples: You need to know this in first grade. Eat this so you’ll grow big and strong. Pack your bookbag the night before. Study now for next week’s test. Do well in high school so you can go to college. Do well in college so you can get a good job. Work hard so you can retire early.

    All through college, grad school, and the dozens of jobs and relationships I’ve had, I was constantly thinking of the NEXT THING. Never focused on what I was actually doing, never really appreciated time as I was in the middle of it.

    Perhaps we need to rethink the way we talk to children. To make them realize that the things they are doing are enjoyable and important NOW and in the future.

    So, yes, there is a lot of schooling going on and not as much learning. And we need to be very careful about the learning that isn’t on a report card. We’re teaching whole thought processes and whole views on life. We’re preparing them for life, not just the next test.

    Thank you for a wonderful site and all the things you do for education.

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