But How do They Learn?

I just knew I'd find it somewhere. I am an accomplished internet searcher; two years of being fairly bored in grad school allowed me plenty of free time to explore. And as a former government employee and teacher, I am especially adept at wading through mind-boggling bureau-babble to decipher what our government agencies are really trying to tell us. So yes, I knew I would find it. And it only took me about 17 clicks to get there.

I am talking, of course, about our national educational goals. I know, I know. . . you're thinking that we didn't actually have any. But you're wrong. They are on the US Department of Eduction Website, which, as an aside, takes the concept of obfuscation to a whole new level. There are actually several goals listed, but the overarching philosophy seems to be this:

President Obama's vision is that by 2020, America will again have the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world with the highest proportion of college graduates of any country. To do this, the United States must also close the achievement gap, so that all youth— regardless of their backgrounds—graduate from high school ready to succeed in college and careers.

Ah, I think I understand. Within the next ten years, we need to ensure that more people have productive careers that serve the national interest, which means more college grads, better prepared high school students, and elementary school programs designed to prepare students for high school. Therefore, our system should be designed to ensure that we get kids ready for this life of work in the national interest as soon as possible - perhaps as early as preschool.

Ridiculous, right? I mean, that's not really what they're saying . . . it couldn't be . . . the government could not possibly be suggesting that we start preparing our kids for the workforce when they are in preschool, could they?

Of course not. They're suggesting we start even earlier:

The Department of Education has identified a limited number of high-priority performance goals that will be a particular focus over the next two years. These goals, which will help measure the success of the Department's cradle-to-career education strategy, reflect the importance of teaching and learning at all levels of the education system.

There it is. "Ladies and gentlemen, congratulations on your newborn. Now to begin your indoctrination in our national cradle-to-career education strategy. Here we go! We have goals!"

If you ran a business like this, you'd be done - completely bankrupt with zero customers - in a matter of years. I know, I've been a part of a couple of those. Businesses fail not because of a lack of goals; most at least have the goals of being profitable, or of providing a quality good or service. No, businesses usually fail for one of three primary reasons: either they have no strategy at all, their strategy is disconnected from what their customers want from them, or they have really bad managers who are stuck in the past.

The goals on the DoE website lead me to believe that they suffer from all three.

They have goals, but no overarching strategy of where we need to go and how exactly to get there; they built goals that serve the national interest without necessarily considering things like "user" choice, options, and alternatives; and they assume that their system of education is the best way to ensure that our nation is competitive - and then assume that we should all support the government's goal of being competitive in the way they define it and under their terms and conditions.

More disturbing is the fact that many of our "educational leaders" in critical national roles are stuck to old educational paradigms about what kids need to know and learn. Many of these paradigms completely discount the realities of the world of ten years ago, let alone the world of today - or the world of ten years from now. We live in a world of tools and technology that render many aspects of our curriculum redundant, if not useless - and that technology is advancing all of the time at speeds and in ways that are hard for even the most visionary among us to grasp. For example, I would hazard a guess that ten years ago very few, if any, of these visionary people could have imagined the way in which we use social media to connect with others. There are thousands of examples of how technology has increased the flow of information -and therefore the pace of learning and the number of ways in which we learn - to degrees that we struggle to comprehend and keep pace with. We need to learn different things in different ways now more than ever before.

Making this even more interesting is the fact that adult learning theory suggests that formal classroom curricula based learning really should account for only about 10% of the time someone devotes to preparing for a career. The other 90%? On the job training, experience, and coaching. Most of us know that intuitively; that we truly learn when we apply new skills in practical directions, not when we theorize about them. That's why teachers have to student teach; it's why internships exist; it's why there is a "behind the wheel" test to get your license instead of simply a written one; it's why virtually every entry-level job has some sort of formal training program, regardless of the worker's level of education of classroom preparation.

In a world in which technology renders curricula irrelevant, I hesitate to trust a ten year plan at all, let alone one which emphasizes preparing people to serve a national interest they did not choose, through an outdated curricula in ways that inhibit actual learning, while simultaneously eliminating free choice for how they learn. The fact that the government wants us to start all of this in the cradle is simply a final insult.

Of course, that leaves us with the question of whether or not our kids will actually learn anything if they cannot rely on the government's cradle-to-career process. I mean, how can kids learn without Uncle Sam and the various other governmental education agencies around to lead the way?

The children and young adults in my life learn exactly the way I do - through access. The access, for us, is virtually boundless. They learn through playing games, both electronic and board. They learn through reading, both electronic and book. They learn through television and movies - whether the program is about science, nature, or history, or whether it is an episode of Pokemon or iCarly. They learn through their access to our knowledge as parents, and through their access to our attention and patience. They learn through exploring their physical world, from hikes, from swimming, from breaking old clocks with baseball bats, and from going to the playground. They learn from their successes and failures, and from their relationships with the people around them, young and old.

Like us, they also learn through their curiosity, and the freedom which they are given to exercise it. Because they live in freedom - freedom of how to spend their days, how to choose their experiences, and how to establish their own boundaries - they can learn in freedom. Their minds can go where they wish, in whatever direction they choose, for as long and as deep as they want to go. Each curiosity is pursued, some to be dropped, some to be lost in for days, weeks, or even months - and perhaps for a lifetime. They explore ideas and concepts that a formal curricula would never dream of, and therefore define not only what to learn but how much to learn about it - and what they choose not to learn because it has no meaning for what they are interested in.

In short, like us they learn by living in the world as it exists today, in pursuit of their passions and with open hearts and minds. They do not need to be told what to learn, or guided by a misguided ten year plan based on outdated curricula and teaching methods. By being connected to the world in which they live, they know more about how to exist in that world than many of us do - and therefore will be better prepared for the changes to come, whether that means living within the realities of the future or altering those realities to affect changes meaningful for their generation. DoE, thanks anyway; I think we'll get along fine without your plan for now.


  1. Obama's appointment of Arne Duncan as SoE was my first disappointment with his administration. This post brilliantly explains why I felt that way.

  2. It's the DoE version of what happens in any large, humanly-fallible bureaucracy. The military is a classic example. Every war ever fought has started with an entrenched old-boy network who are still conceptually fighting the last war and who aggressively weed out those who are different, i.e. those thinking ahead to the next/current type of warfare. After a while, this kind of thinking is either replaced with forward-looking (or at least current) thinking, or the old-style country simply loses the war.

    The DoE is stuck in the Industrial Revolution version of education. They need to catch up or they'll "lose the war" by becoming obsolescent and, like the moon-launch sites at Cape Canaveral, they will be abandoned in place.

  3. In Australia we're facing a similar sort of overhaul of the education system. Whilst we have finally managed to throw off the right wing shackles of John Howard, the pretend left wing replacement government has a rather stagnant view of education. All the children must learn exactly the same things in order to become the worker bees of tomorrow. Now, if only they could agree on WHAT it is that all the children need to learn we'd be one step closer to The National Curriculum.

    Having grown up with parents who were teachers I understand why the government intends to do this. I just think that it leaves so many children behind because they have no interest in the curriculum, and as more and more children become alienated from the system I really don't see why making it MORE systematic, MORE institutionalised is going to fix this! It concerns me that there is no discourse about the system as it stands, and there is no mainstream critique of the ever worsening outcomes of our education institution. All that is ever suggested is more of what we're already doing ... even though it's failing miserably.

    Bring on the unschoolers ...

  4. Wandering over from Kylie's blog :) Great big YEAH THAT, to your entire post! We're not quite unschoolers, but we lean in that direction. Kids can't help but learn, it's just what they do!

  5. Coming over from Kylie, and wow is this an interesting post.

  6. And all of this is possible with a little thing called compulsory school attendance, in which minors, those being forced, have zero rights.

  7. I agree with Mozi Esme re child-led learning. We homeschool our three, I choose our curriculum, field trips, activities, and basic schedule with their interests, goals, even input in mind. In fact, our oldest asked for homeschool after being very bored with preschool. (He has cousins who homeschool.) Our kids are being raised tech savvy, but we also love classics and contemporary lit for kids.