Too many of our students are bored in school too much of the time; too many of our students who aren’t entirely bored are still only skimming the surface of true engagement. We worry, rightly, about our completely disengaged students, those who are failing or getting along with only a minimum of effort and mastery. We have to worry, however, about another set of students– those who are doing just fine by our standards, maybe even earning a 4.0, but who are just playing the game of school. They are effective at doing what we ask of them, but they are not developing the deeper skills necessary for our new century– and what we are asking of them may be just wasting their time. Robert Fried opens his 2005 book, The Game of School, with this declaration: “Far too much of the time our children spend in school is wasted… 90-95 of the time is a waste.”
Sure, our good students do what they are supposed to do. “But unless they view such activities as important, as having meaning to them in their lives right now, they aren’t truly learning, in the sense of developing their minds and hearts as young people eager to embrace the world.” After a lovely series of examples of what should be happening in schools, authentic learning, he comes back to the problem: “We should worry if our young people are beginning to confuse, or to blend in their minds, the idea of obeying the teacher with learning.”
What we want for kids in their learning looks like this: “they should be hooked by an intense curiosity, drawn by an enhanced sensory awareness of the natural world around them, driven by the importance of acting as explorers and scientists, motivated by an irrepressible urge to share what they’ve discovered. Curiosity, sensory awareness, self-enhancement, talk. “
The best chapter in this book, which almost would do better as a stand-alone substitute, is entitled “Humanizing ‘School Talk’ in Pursuit of Authentic Learning.” (I would have killed the first three words in this chapter title.)
The chapter begins with a discussion of that always vexing topic, classroom management. He asks us to redefine the concept, and I think he is onto something. We need to manage those who we are extrinsically motivating, but if we can reorganize a classroom to facilitate students’ own initiative in their learning, the dynamic is very different. “To define each teacher’s goal as ‘creating a mutually respectful learning partnership’ rather than as ‘successfully managing the students’ is to do more than engage in wordplay. It is rather to frame the relationships between teachers and students as one in which they are (or are aiming to be) on the same side in a struggle against ignorance, poor skills, low esteem, insecurity, prejudice, and the paralysis of low expectations– to view teachers and students as allies in the struggle for human dignity, self-respect, cooperation and high achievement. Or, to put the goal in terms of productive contexts, it is to have students and teachers view each other as partners in pursuit of excitement, enjoyment, collaboration, satisfaction, and success in learning.” He does add a note– it is OK to be a strict teacher-ally: to fill the room with your presence, to ensure the kids know you are in charge, that you see everything, that they can rely on you.
Fried begins his discussion of the topic of Instruction with his acknowledging a “common fault shared with many teachers– I get too much pleasure from talking to students about what I think I know something about.” Wow!– this captures so much– and I relate to closely to this “fault.” I loved teaching what I thought I knew, and I LOVED having a captive audience who had the obligation to listen to my every word. I thought of it as my opportunity to be a political pundit (I taught US politics and government), sounding off on my opinions of current events. Now, this wasn’t my only teaching mode, but it was one of them, and just like Fried says-although it was great for me, great pleasure, it was not the best learning for my students.
Fried goes on: “I hold onto the illusion that what I have to say is most important and that the best way for others to gain from my wisdom is to listen and take heed. This is a serious potential weakness, for my talking preempts the airwaves and demands attention from an entire class of learners who might have better ways to use this time. Even as I avoid the trick of warning students, “Listen up, because some of what I say may end up on a test,” my ego is gratified when I observe students write notes as as speak.”
Better than telling, much better, is that old adage from many an English composition class: instruction should be sharing and showing, not telling. Fried goes to his anthropology 101, and takes influence from the way the !Kung people teach: “One virtually never sees an instance of ‘teaching’ taking place outside the situation where the behavior to be learned is relevant… The best answer for teachers is to replicate, to the maximum extent feasible, the ‘classroom’ of the hunter-gatherers. And that is what I observe from the most talented teachers. They are in constant motion, working with students singly, in pairs, and in small groups; briefly addressing the group as a whole; inviting, explaining, modeling, gently correcting, and sincerely affirming. They find ways for kids to help instruct others. There may not be much dancing and chanting, but more of the senses are at play than merely those involved in listening and writing.”
The book feels padded in places, and redundant in others, but it is a passionate plea to take the project of learning seriously, and commit ourselves as educators to challenging our students to learn, richly and deeply, their subjects.