7 Lessons Students Learn in School

Student-jumping Stop and think about the most significant lessons you’ve learned in life – times when you’ve gained insights or skills of lasting importance. Now reflect for a moment – did this take place in a classroom? were you taught these lessons by a teacher? did the teacher evaluate how well you learned them?

Most likely the answer to all three questions is no. Yet every day our students “learn” to relinquish responsibility for learning to their teachers. By the time they get to high school, their natural curiosity has been trampled into submission – their questioning reduced to the level of “will this be on the test?” or “does spelling count?”  

Recently my Twitter network (thanks @L_Hilt ) pointed me to an insightful observation on the traditional classroom. Next time you lament that students aren’t motivated, think about the distance between what we learn in school and what we learn in life. 

7 Tacit Lessons Schools Teach Children

  1. Knowledge is scarce.
  2. Learning needs a specific place and specific time (lessons in classrooms).
  3. Knowledge is best learned in disconnected little pieces (lessons).
  4. To learn you need the help of an approved expert (a teacher).
  5. To learn you need to follow a path determined by a learning expert (a course of study).
  6. You need an expert to assess your progress (a teacher).
  7. You can attribute a meaningful numerical value to the value of learning (marks, grades, degrees).

~ From Don Ledingham’s blog post “Utopia” – a summary of a talk by Alan McCluskey on the seven tacit lessons which schools teach children. 

If you had trouble reflecting on life’s lessons or are interested in how to foster more reflective schools, see my post “A Taxonomy of Reflection: Critical Thinking For Students, Teachers, and Principals“ 

Image credit Flickr/Peaches&Cream

9 Questions for Reflective School Reform Leaders

Blueprint1 In response to the November 22: Day of National Blogging for Real Education Reform, I have posed nine questions for school leaders to consider. They’re organized around three themes and a concluding recommendation. (Note: each theme also resonates in the new Common Core standards).

Readers might also want to review my post “A Taxonomy of Reflection: Critical Thinking For Students, Teachers, and Principals

Theme 1. Learning must engage student in rigorous thinking at higher levels of Bloom – analyzing, evaluating and creating. School leaders should ask:

1. Does our school community recognize the difference between higher and lower order thinking?
2. Are students expected to just consume information, or are they asked to create something original that demonstrates their learning?
3. Is our school a creative problem-solving organization? 
Answers: We cut music and art for remedial math. (Wrong!!!)
 We recognize music and art are vehicles to teach math. (That’s better!)

Theme 2. Learning is relevant when the student understands how the information or skill has some application to their life, has an opportunity to figure out their own process rather than just learn “the facts,” and is given opportunities to reflect on their work and their progress as learners. School leaders should ask …

4. Do our students get high grades for simply memorizing the review sheet for the test?
5. Do our students “follow the recipe” or are they increasingly asked to take responsibility for their learning products, process and results?
6. Is the audience for student work simply the teacher, or are students asked to share their learning with peers, family, community?

Theme 3. The digital age has redefined literacy. To paraphrase David Warlick, literacy now means the ability to: find information, decode it, critically evaluate it, organize it into digital libraries, be able to share it with others and stay focused on a task. School leaders should ask …

7. If we’re no longer the “information gatekeepers,” are we teaching our students to critically evaluate information and use it responsibly?
8. Does our technology get used mainly by the educators, or are students regularly employing it to create understanding and share their learning?
9. Is our credit system based on seat time or can it be expanded beyond the school walls to any place / time virtual learning?

I find it ironic that while schools chase NCLB “proficiency,” life has become an open book test. We need to unleash the power of assessment that targets and inspires. One-shot, high stakes tests are just autopsies. Students need regular check-ups where teachers can gauge student progress and target instruction. Ultimately the program must be designed to foster student self-assessment that gives them responsibility for monitoring their own progress. Students should be supported in on-going self-reflection that addresses questions such as:

  • How can I use this knowledge and these skills to make a difference in my life?
  • How am I progressing as a learner?
  • How can I communicate what I’m learning with others?
  • How can I work with teachers and other students to improve my learning?

Schools will need to become places that create engaging and relevant learning experiences, provoke student reflection, and help students apply the learning to life. Authentic  accountability is reciprocal …  leadership is responsible to provide resources for success, educators are responsible for results. Simply sorting students along the “bell curve” won’t do.

Filtering – The New Literacy of Maintaining Focus

The New York Times recent story “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” and reinforces a point I made in a July blog post “Forget About Remembering, It’s Focus That’s the New Literacy.” I thought I’d revisit my original post and add the NY Times’ thought-provoking video. 

The cost of information is rapidly approaching zero. Normally as price of a commodity drops, we consume more of it. But unlike all the other cheap stuff we buy, and then later discard, cheap information demands our attention. Despite all the claims of multi-tasking, we are stuck with a finite attention span. Thus the ability to selectively filter out unwanted information and stay focussed on a task is emerging as a new literacy.

Students are adrift in a sea of text without context.  As the barriers to content creation have dropped, old media (for all its flaws) has been replaced by pointless mashups, self-promoting pundits, and manufactured celebrity. Educators must help students make more effective use of the information that fills their lives – how to better access it, critically evaluate it, store it, analyze, share it, and maintain their focus. (An essential goal of the Common Core standards).

For more on how we need to redefine the information flow in school see my post “What Happens in Schools When Life Has become an Open-book Test?


Recently David Dalrymple, a researcher at the MIT Mind Machine Project, made an insightful contribution to the The Edge Annual Question — 2010 “How is the internet changing the way you think?” He wrote, 

“Filtering, not remembering, is the most important skill for those who use the Internet. … Before the Internet, most professional occupations required a large body of knowledge, accumulated over years or even decades of experience. But now, anyone with good critical thinking skills and the ability to focus on the important information can retrieve it on demand from the Internet, rather than her own memory. On the other hand, those with wandering minds, who might once have been able to focus by isolating themselves with their work, now often cannot work without the Internet, which simultaneously furnishes a panoply of unrelated information — whether about their friends’ doings, celebrity news, limericks, or millions of other sources of distraction. The bottom line is that how well an employee can focus might now be more important than how knowledgeable he is. Knowledge was once an internal property of a person, and focus on the task at hand could be imposed externally, but with the Internet, knowledge can be supplied externally, but focus must be forced internally.”

Image credit: Flickr/staxnet

Observing a Classroom? Watch the Students, Not the Teacher

Classroom Figures Lavern Kelley
As a rookie teacher, I frequently had sleepless Sunday nights, worried about my lesson plans for the week ahead. I would second guess my teaching by asking myself – "what will I be doing, why am I doing it, how do I know it would work?"

It took me years to realize I was focussed on the wrong person in my classroom – the teacher. The real question was – "what will the students be doing?" The learning wasn't "emanating" from the teacher. My job was to design a learning situation that will cause the students to reflect on themselves as learners.

I frequently guide teachers and administrators on reflective classroom walkthroughs with a focus on observing the students by a focusing on two essential questions: 

  1. "What kinds of thinking did student need to use in the lesson segment we just saw?"  
  2. "What choice did students (appear to) have in making decisions about the product, process or evaluation of the learning?"

Think of it as roving Socratic seminar. For more on the process see my post: "Teacher-Led Professional Development: Eleven Reasons Why You Should be Using Classroom Walk Throughs"

I just returned from a week of guiding teachers and administrator on classroom walkthroughs. As I browsed through their evaluations, I was reminded of the power of reflective CWT's. 

Teachers' comments:

  • You're right – it's not about what I'm doing, it's about what the kids will be able to do.
  • I'm going to work harder to encourage my students to take ownership of their learning. 
  • It really made me think about the variety of ways students can demonstrate their thinking. 
  • I'm going to give students more chances to reflect on their learning. 
  • Today reaffirms my asking kids to think outside the box.

Principals' comments:

  • I really enjoyed the risk-free learning environment that makes me think and gives me the chance to network. We are so stressed for time and results that we don't have time to think deeply.
  • This will change my conversations with teacher, I now have a better idea how to get them to reflect honestly on their work. I also have learned how to better dissect a learning activity and see its components.
  • As I go into classrooms, I will have a better understanding about what "engagement" really looks like.


Interested in more reflective and teacher-centered staff development? See my posts:

Lesson Study: Reflective PD That Works

The Reflective Teacher: The Taxonomy of Reflection

A Guide to Designing Effective Professional Development: Essential Questions for the Successful Staff Developer 


Image: Flickr/cliff1066™
Folk Art: Classroom with Three Figures by Lavern Kelley

How Does A School Foster Hope?

One of the best aspects of my work is that I get to meet many talented educators. I’m on the road this week, and I invited two of them to do guest posts. This second post is by James Steckart, Director of Northwest Passage High School. I met Jamie this past summer at the Project Foundry unConference.


“Hope… which whispered from Pandora’s box after all the other plagues and sorrows had escaped, is the best and last of all things.”
 Ian Cadwell (The Rule of Four)

Portage We can disagree whether hope is the best of all things, but let us suppose for a moment that Cadwell speaks the truth. What does hope give the student, the teacher, the parent, the community? Most parents wake up and hope that the lives of their children are better than theirs, whether they live in poverty or in opulence. The community hopes that its members contribute in some positive way to the better of the whole. Most children when they grow have real meaningful dreams of hope. Finally, most teachers hope that their work contributes to the healthy development of the students in their charge.

This concept of hope is common sense, yet most schools do not understand how they can produce hopeful students. In fact for a majority of students working their way through the a conventional school system, I would argue and data we have would suggest that their overall hope disposition decreases with the more time spent in school. Why would anyone stay in a place where their dreams, questions, and hope are called into question and disparaged?

Let’s look at a school where the concept of hope is front and center. At Northwest Passage High School (NWPHS) the mission of the school is simple: Rekindling our hope, exploring our world, seeking our path, while building our community. Embedding hope into our mission statement, we sought a way to measure this concept to see if we were fulfilling our mission.

NWPHS is a small progressive charter school where half of the day students work with their advisor designing projects that meet state standards, and the other half of the day they are in small seminar classes focused on an interdisciplinary topic involving field research and working with community experts. In addition, the school schedules between 30-45 extended field expeditions to further enhance learning. In a typical year the students travel and conduct research in a variety of urban and wilderness areas throughout the United States and 2-3 select international sites.

Each fall new students to our school complete the Hope Survey for new students, and each spring every student completes the ongoing Hope Survey. The survey measures student engagement, academic press, goal orientation, belongingness, and autonomy and is administered through an internet browser.

This allows us to get a sense of how much and whether hope is being grown. For us the longitudinal data confirmed what we knew in our hearts about our philosophy and methodology of working with high school students. Our ongoing students last year had a high hope score of 50.74 out of 64 possible. What lessons has this given us to share with others?

  • First, hope is built when you give students choice and autonomy. At NWPHS, project based learning gives students real choice while they meet Minnesota graduation standards. We track their learning with a sophisticated project management tool called Project Foundry.  
  • Second, we focus on building positive relationships with youth. We do this through intensive field studies, advisories, and service learning.
  • Third, we have faith that students will learn when you help them develop short and long-range goals through the use of continual learning plans and student run conferences which include the student, their advisor and at least one parent. These conferences last 30-45 minutes, and the student leads the discussion on their progress using their continual learning plan as the guide.
  • A student devoid of hope is a shell of a human being. They walk around listlessly living each day by the seat of their pants. Our job as educators, parents and community members it to instill a respect of these students and provide opportunities for hope to flourish.

Image: James Steckart

Posts navigation

1 2
Scroll to top
%d bloggers like this: