Our Unpleasant Truths | Will Richardson series:
“Collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.”~ Carol Black, A Thousand Rivers.
That quote ranks as one of the most profound sentences I’ve read about education in the last 10 years. And it suggests the most unpleasant truth of all for educators who are thinking seriously about reimagining schools for an uncertain future:
Schools were not built for learning.
Learning is one of the most natural things that human beings do. We do it so often that we rarely realize we’re doing it. Babies start learning almost the moment they are born, and we learn in varying ways and degrees until the day we die. Even death itself is a learning experience.
Schools, on the other hand, are not found in nature. They are an invention, an experiment in “educating” our youth. They come with an assumption, that if we send kids to school they will learn. But that ignores a very heady challenge: how to take the very natural act of learning in children and make it happen in the very unnatural space of the classroom.
Think whales at Sea World.
We in education are fully aware of this unpleasant truth, for we adults are natural learners as well. But we’re loathe to acknowledge the dissonance between what learning looks and feels like in our own lives and what it looks and feels like in schools.
Case in point: Over the past year, I’ve had the distinct privilege of leading a weekly Zoom session for international school heads. We’ve held 45 consecutive hour-long sessions with only a two-week break during the holidays. Each week, with anywhere from 50 to 100 in attendance, the conversations are intense, honest, and enlightening. Not surprisingly, they center on how to deal with the fast-changing impact of the pandemic, which has presented a litany of challenges that no one could have prepared for just a few months ago. It’s part collaboration, part problem-solving, and part therapy.
Lately, I’ve asked many of those leaders to reflect on the last 10 months. To a person, they say the learning they’ve done has been profound. It’s been steeped in the real world, driven by personal inquiry, enhanced by collaboration and shared experience, and readily applicable. At once it’s been exhausting and exhilarating.
But once they’ve told their stories, I then ask them “How does the learning you’ve done in the past year map to the learning your students are doing in your classrooms, virtual or otherwise?” In almost every case, the answer is an extended silence, and then some variation on “not much.”
We know what powerful learning looks and feels like. And we also know that far too little of what happens in classrooms is “powerful” in that natural sense. We know that so many of the practices and conditions that we create in school actually make powerful learning less likely to happen. School isn’t steeped in the real world, driven by personal inquiry, enhanced by collaboration…and the rest.
They say that the first step to recovery is admitting we have a problem, no matter how difficult. Our difficult truth is that to a great extent, we’re pushing against the natural state of affairs when it comes to learning. Neither students nor whales are the benefactors.