As teachers we do not set out to kill the joy of learning, at least , not anyone I know does. We state in our missions that we want to change students’ lives, motivate them, inspire them, and keep them eager to learn. And yet our mission seems to be at odds with our school system. Classrooms are set up all facing the teacher so that the “sage on the stage” can be the center of attention. The whole day is rigidly structured so that subjects do not overlap, routines are taught and mastered and hardly ever broken. Punishment goes hand in hand with rewards and grades become the ultimate reward in the end. An A will always be better than a B no matter what the teacher says. We divide our students into winners and losers and hope they all have a nice journey through school. And then we wonder why students lose interest, lose relevance. By the time we get to high school, the eyes are on the prize; graduation, where they will break free of the rigidity of school Students count down until summer vacation so that they can be free. Free.
As Alfie Kohn has stated, “School is not an institution of learning, it is an institution of listening and memorization.” (Said in in a LeanBlog Podcast 2/24/09). And this I believe is killing our school system. Test-obsessed and score driven, we no longer let children develop their curiosity to provide them with a real stake in learning. We no longer offer them choice because we have too much curriculum to cover. Our homework is not set up for meaningful exploration but rather to teach time management and study skills. Time management? Like our over-scheduled students need more time management? When students fail to hand in their homework we assume that it is either because they are too lazy or because they didn’t feel like it. We do not assume that perhaps it was uninteresting, irrelevant or perhaps even too hard or meaningless. We almost always assume we know best. And even if we know within our hearts that the piece of homework assigned probably wasn’t all that engaging, we assign it anyway, because we have to assign something and we were forced to do inane homework when we went to school so why should our students be exempt. But the system is broken, we know it, and we have to change it.
There are exceptions, of course, thankfully. There are pockets of teachers and schools that are taking a different approach. That are actively combating this curiosity-killing school system. Those that let their students explore, those that weigh their options, assign meaningful homework, that question their practices rather than go with the status quo. They provide inspiration for some and shudders for other. Perhaps they are just too different for some to even recognize them as schools. Yet they are part of the answer. We must bring back exploration, we must give teachers time to fully engage their students. We must spark teachers’ curiosity as well so that we all can love learning again. They say that curiosity killed the cat, let’s not have the lack of curiosity kill our schools.