Learning IN SCHOOL and Learning IN THE WORLD: What’s the Difference? | Will Richardson | 3 Min Read

New rule: Whenever we talk about learning, we should distinguish between learning in the real world and learning IN SCHOOL.

For example, the work of John Hattie is cited daily as research that can help us improve student learning. All good, as long as we remember that his research is about improving learning IN SCHOOL as measured by very narrow, quantitative indicators.

That’s an important distinction because the reality is that IN SCHOOL we’re trying to get kids to learn things that they haven’t chosen to learn, that they’re not always interested in learning, that they see little reason for learning when it comes to real-life application, and that they forget much if not most of it as they move through their lives.

So when we read things like “teaching is the most important factor impacting student learning” IN SCHOOL, that doesn’t necessarily mean that teaching is the most important factor impacting learning in the world. In fact, teaching in the traditional sense in many ways inhibits the deep, powerful learning that we want all kids to experience.

In the real world, learning is more exploratory. It’s motivated by personal inquiry and interest. It weaves and winds through many different subjects at a time, and engages many potential “teachers” whom we seek out for their individual expertise or experience. 

IN SCHOOL, the conditions are much different. Usually, students have little in the way of freedom, agency, or choice in terms of what to learn, how to learn it, or who to learn it with. Assessments are standard for the most part; everyone is striving to get over the same bar. And the final say in any disputes is almost always the teacher. 

That’s not a knock on teachers. It’s a knock on a system that bridles teachers and enures them to a very traditional conception of what the role of a teacher really entails, and lives a very narrow definition of what learning is. It’s a system that in general doesn’t promote the conditions that we all know learning requires in order to stick. 

Most professional development that we offer to teachers is about learning IN SCHOOL. It’s focused on how we can get “better” at delivering the curriculum and meeting our mandates and expectations. And it’s easy to see why. We need to seek efficiency if we are to churn all of these kids through the system.

But maybe efficiency isn’t that great when it comes to learning. We also need to strive for effectiveness, especially when it comes to learning that sticks. Because learning IN SCHOOL is not going to be what students do once they leave us, obviously. 

So, let’s enforce the new rule.

What does project-based learning IN SCHOOL look like as opposed to project-based learning in the real world? Are we teaching kids how to design, test, assess, and share great ideas with the world? 

Or how about blended learning IN SCHOOL as opposed to blended learning in life? Are students being taught to find great teachers, choose their own technologies, and learn with others to solve problems? 

How does “student-centered learning” IN SCHOOL differ from learner-centered learning in life?

All of those, and others, are worth interrogating and unpacking because there is a distinct difference between what we do in classrooms and what kids do when they’re learning on their own. And let’s not forget: the latter will never look more like the former as they grow older. 

If we embraced the messiness, the unpredictability, the uncertainty of learning in the natural world, maybe we could create opportunities IN SCHOOL that would prepare students more for their much more profound, relevant, and expansive learning lives outside of the classroom. And at that point, we make that the rule, not the exception. 

Will Richardson

A former public school educator of 22 years, Will Richardson has spent the past 15 years developing an international reputation as a leading thinker and writer about the intersection of social online learning networks, education, and systemic change. Most recently, Will is a co-founder of The Big Questions Institute which was created to help educators use “fearless inquiry” to make sense of this complex moment and an uncertain future.In 2017, Will was named one of 100 global “Changemakers in Education” by the Finnish site HundrED, and was named one of the Top 5 “Edupreneurs to Follow” by Forbes. He has given keynote speeches, lead breakout sessions, and provided coaching services in over 30 countries on 6 continents. He has also authored six books, and given TEDx Talks in New York, Melbourne, and Vancouver.

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