Part III of “Our Unpleasant Truths” – Schools Were Not Built For Learning | Will Richardson | 3 Min Read

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.

Go to Part IV of “Our Unpleasant Truths” — The New 3Rs | Will Richardson

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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