Productive Learning: The Road Less Traveled | Will Richardson | 3 Min Read

The overarching purpose of school ought to be that children should want to keep learning more about themselves, others, and the world around them.

That’s a paraphrase of the driving force behind the work of Seymour Sarason, an educator and writer who has had a huge influence on my thinking about schools and learning. For Sarason, “productive learning” was learning that engendered “wanting to learn more.” Anything that didn’t cause students to want to learn more was “unproductive.”

Want to argue with that?

When I bring up that idea in my coaching or workshop contexts, no one disagrees with that purpose. Schools should be laser-focused on helping kids learn. That is at the core of our work with children, especially now at a time when our kids will be required to know how to learn their way through the world in self-directed, self-determined ways. 

So, the question becomes, why aren’t we better at creating the conditions for “productive learning” to happen in school?

Some of that, as I have mentioned before in this space, is because most schools have very little coherence around how they define what learning is. Personally, if you don’t have a definition, just steal Sarason’s. I’m sure he would be pleased if you did.

But what if the reason that we don’t create the conditions for productive learning is that if we did, we would challenge just about every system, structure and value proposition supporting this whole enterprise? Could it be that “productive learning” would just be too much of a shock to the system?

Getting to productive learning in schools isn’t rocket science. You don’t need reams of research or data or brain science or “meta-analysis.” We flout all that stuff because we’re trying to figure out how to make kids learn in school (which is much different from learning in real life.)

All you really need to do is ask “How do I myself learn most powerfully and deeply?” And, “what conditions are present when that is happening?” 

Or, even better, just go watch and listen and interact with kids who are learning on their own outside of school. Go watch kids at a skatepark, on the basketball court, when they’re playing an online game, or when they’re building something. What conditions exist for them in those moments?

The answers you’ll uncover won’t shock you. You won’t be blown away by what you find. But you might be blown away by the disparity between how prevalent those contexts are outside of school as compared to the inside of school. In most places, the gaps are huge. 

The work in front of us is to close the gaps. I know I might sound like a corrupt MP3 here (since broken records are so passe) but for the good of learning and to achieve the overarching purpose that Sarason articulates, we need to break a lot of the old structures and rhythms and stories of school. We need to create classrooms that are overflowing with the conditions that learning feeds off: passion, time, inquiry, collaboration, and creativity among many others. 

It’s not easy. We need to build the capacity of our respective communities to understand that change, to embrace the uncertainty it brings, and to trust the process. We do that by telling new stories and letting go of old ones. And we do it by making sure we have a deep understanding of the powerful new contexts in the world in which we are operating. This isn’t 2019 you know. 

Or not. We can choose not to do this work, of course.

But if that’s the choice you make, then please own and communicate the fact that you’re a school about schooling, not one about learning. 

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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