Learning That Enables and Persists

Thanks to a tweet from Peter Meyer the other day, I discovered this great post by John Jensen on Teaching in the Middle. In his post, What Went Missing in Education?, Jensen argues that lack of student achievement in the US is due to a systemic, seemingly innocuous structuring of school activities. He terms it the “Learn and Lose System.” He argues that our entire system, designed to increase efficiency and cope with a lack of resources, is set up to essentially move students from one activity to the next, with deep learning — real content knowledge — discarded by the wayside.

He presents an interesting conversation with a high school teacher named state teacher of the year. When he asks the teacher what it is that he does differently that brings him success, the teacher’s response is revealing: “This is really unusual . . . No one ever talks to me about what I do best” [Bold added]. We have a system that ignores excellence due to the unnatural isolation of teachers from one another. As Jensen notes, the district should be phoning this guy and saying, “Hey let’s spread around what you know.” Without modeling and collaboration with the best, how are other teachers supposed to learn? By reading textbooks? By listening to lectures from academic professors who have never learned what it’s like to have a chair thrown in their classroom or to be cussed out on a daily basis? Please.
Jensen then focuses on the second thing this teacher told him: “I am adamant that they know their material.” In other words, he doesn’t just keep moving on when students have not demonstrated a depth of understanding of the content. He goes back, and back again, practicing and reviewing the material until they know the ins and outs of it.
Jensen is right; we have a system that promotes “Learn and Lose.” And while a few teachers may chug along happily down this shallow path, most of us are frustrated by it. We want to slow it down, and spend time digging down deep on the content that matters most, and empower our students with depth of knowledge. I know I sure have wanted to over these last 3 years in a struggling elementary school. But as Jensen notes, these problems are systemic. Until this year, I haven’t had tenure. So if my administration tells me to do something, I do it. If they tell me to stop the unit that I had spent weeks planning and researching and move into a new unit from Teacher’s College, I do it. That doesn’t mean I didn’t try and speak up. I did. I was as open as I could be about my concerns regarding collaboration and curriculum development. But at the end of the day, teachers don’t have the power — our administration does. And that’s not an excuse — that’s the reality. It takes real leadership for schools to deliberately carve paid time out of a busy day to collaborate. It takes real leadership to ignore the political fads and for-profit wheedling at conferences and focus a school’s time and resources on deep and meaningful content knowledge based on a coherent and sequential curriculum.
As Jensen points out, to teach content for deep understanding requires extensive time and practice. We have to rethink our lessons to focus on the outcomes we want to achieve, the understanding we want our students to retain, as opposed to simply the activities that will keep students busy.
I do have some criticism of Jensen’s diagnosis, however. He believes that this shallow system of learning came about due to the influence of progressive education, which discounted routine practice and knowledge of facts in favor of “guidance, social competence, responsibility, and other virtues.” I don’t debate that the progressive pushback against rote memorization and routine activities went too far to the other extreme. But where I want to challenge Jensen’s thinking is his argument against the progressive focus on the influence of the environment. On this he says:

[The progressive focus on non-academic qualities] presumed that these qualities as well as learning itself were transmitted by osmosis from a supportive environment rather than consciously as remembered knowledge.
While environment is undoubtedly influential, relying on it as a substitute for conscious education is an egregious instance of throwing out the baby with the bath water.  Without consciously retained knowledge, one is at the mercy of one’s environment.  Investigations into the influence of poverty, parental education, parental involvement in children’s learning, and anti-learning peer group norms–all in different ways focus on the power of the environment.  Osmosis transmits influence.

Again, I understand Jensen’s need to push back against progressive thinking on this. But we don’t have to flip to the other side and make this polarized. The fact is that the environment within the school and without the school have a tremendous impact on a student’s cognitive functioning. That progressive educators have pointed this out and focus on this is not an innately bad thing. As Will and I constantly reinforce on this blog, schools are not just knowledge manufacturing factories. They are dynamic learning environments. We can consciously design learning environments to be conducive to student learning by incorporating natural light, niches and variegated learning spaces, greenery, and acoustic design. Osmosis does transmit influence.

But again, this doesn’t have to be an either/or here. As Jensen notes above, “without consciously retained knowledge, one is at the mercy of one’s environment.” Knowledge and understanding is critically important, which is why Will and I also constantly reinforce on this blog that it’s not just contexts in a school that are fundamental, but furthermore the content. Without a strong, enriching, coherent, sequential curriculum, a school will be doing nothing but keeping students afloat, instead of empowering them with the knowledge and social skills they need to develop resilience and maturity in the face of academia, the workplace, and a democratic and capitalist society.

We can go to through the research and find case studies of teachers that have taught kids in the basement of a decaying building and raised them to amazing levels of achievement. Yes, it can be done. But my question is this: if we live in what we wish to be one of the greatest nations in the world, and we have the capacity to do it, why would we want to allow our kids to sit in decrepit dungeons and leave their future up to the off chance that they have a legendary, superstar teacher? I would much rather have my kid sit in a school where they might have an everyday teacher who teaches from a strong curriculum and work in a positive, healthy, and inclusive learning environment. Wouldn’t you?

Only when we acknowledge both the importance of the learning environment and deep content knowledge will we have the schools of a truly first class nation.

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