We have to stop pretending

When it comes to education, we have to stop pretending…

  • that short-term memorization equals long-term learning
  • that students find meaning in what we’re covering in class
  • that low-level facts and procedures are a prerequisite to deeper learning
  • that analog learning environments prepare kids for a digital world
  • that what we’re doing isn’t boring

I’m going to try to turn this into a challenge. I’m tagging George Couros, Sylvia Martinez, Wes Fryer, Vicki Davis, and Steven Anderson.

Please join us. When it comes to education, what are 5 things that we have to stop pretending? Post on your blog, tag 5 others, and share using the #makeschooldifferent hashtag. Feel free to also put the URL of your post in the comments area so others can find it!

** Check out the responses from everyone who has participated. Awesome! **

Make school different

(feel free to use this image as desired)


Since it’s hard to impart nuance in 5 short bullet points, I thought I’d explain my thinking behind what I blogged above (particularly given the thoughtful replies below from Keith Brennan)…

1. Too many teachers cover stuff for a week or two, the kids regurgitate it for a week or two, and then they’re off to the next thing. If you ask the kids six months later, much (most?) of what they ‘learned’ is gone. But we call this process ‘learning.’ And while that may be true for the short term, it’s not very true for the long term. Memorization isn’t the concern, it’s the overemphasis on short-term memory without concurrent attention to long-term memory.

2. My understanding from the cognitive psychologists is that we remember what we attach meaning to. If it’s not meaningful to us (i.e., we don’t find internal reasons to hang on to it), we might keep it for a little while (particularly if we’re forced to) but sooner rather than later it starts to fade away. The challenge is that it’s hard to find meaning in decontextualized fact nuggets and procedures, which is why students have been asking the same questions since time immemorial: ‘Why do we need to know this? Why should we care? What’s the relevance of this to our lives now or in the future?’ We give those questions short shrift in most classrooms and then wonder why students disengage mentally and/or physically.

3. The key word here for me is ‘prerequisite.’ I don’t know anyone who thinks that factual knowledge and procedural knowledge aren’t essential components of robust, deeper learning. What inquiry-, challenge-, project-, and problem-oriented learning spaces seem to show us is that so-called ‘lower-level’ learning doesn’t always have to occur FIRST and often can be uncovered or discovered rather than just initially covered. What needs to come first and what can come later is dependent on the interplay between the individual learner and the surrounding learning context. Coming at learning from larger, more holistic, perhaps real-world-embedded, applied perspectives often can help students attach meaning (and motivation) to factual knowledge and procedural skills. If schools did a better job of eventually getting to deeper learning, this sequencing issue might be less of a concern but too often what should be a foundational floor instead becomes an actual ceiling and students rarely get to go beyond and experience deeper learning opportunities.

4. If I want to learn how to lift boxes, cut down a tree, or lay tarmac, I can only get so far with a digital app or simulation. Similarly, if I want to learn how to be functional and powerful in digital knowledge environments, ink-on-paper learning spaces only get me so far. Schools are supposed to be about knowledge work and nearly all knowledge work these days is heavily technology-suffused. It’s difficult to adequately prepare students for digital information landscapes without regular immersion in and use of digital tools and environments.

5. Kids are bored out of their skulls with much (most?) of what we have them do in class, particularly as they move up the grade levels. Just ask ’em… Our biggest indictment as educators and school systems is that we don’t seem to care very much and simply accept this as an inherent condition of schooling.

63 Responses to “We have to stop pretending”

  1. Thanks for the spark Scott. If we want to make schools different, we need to ask students to take ownership of their learning. I suggest presenting students with the following challenge; When and how does your best learning take place? What can be done to bring your best learning experiences into the school setting.
    I am a believer in the power of problem-based learning. The problem; traditional school practices are not meeting the educational needs of many of our students. The solutions and changes should be driven by the people who have the most to gain by improving the situation. #makeschooldifferent

    • While students certainly have the most to gain from improving and changing the way school is done, saying that change should be driven by students assumes that students have the power to make changes. They don’t. Students rarely have any voice in school matters. They aren’t included in curriculum decisions and don’t get to choose learning outcomes. Projects are selected for them, assignments are given to them, and even methods of assessments are done to them without consultation or involvement. Students can’t be expected to take ownership of their learning or drive change when the adults continue to hold all the power.

  2. Thank-you Scott for motivating me to post and tag. As educators, we look for the good and though we are consummate evaluators, we often push past what we recognize as deterring us from the goal in an effort to maintain peace, i.e. status quo. That will not help us grow as professionals nor will it help our student grow civically and academically, personally and professionally. Check out my post: http://partnerinedu.com/2015/04/13/makeschoolsdifferent/

  3. “that short-term memorization equals long-term learning”

    It’s difficult to see how long term learning is possible without long term memorisation. It’s difficult to see how long term memorisation is possible without passing through some short term memorisation, as that;s how we add to long term memory.

    Memorisation is, in many significant ways, learning. It’s not the whole kit and caboodle, sure. But it’s the stage and set for the play.

    “that low-level facts and procedures are a prerequisite to deeper learning”

    Facts are a necessary part of plenty of learning. Low level ones too. When you are building an engine, knowing how carburettors work, for example, is probably key. That;s a set of presumably high level facts. Knowing that your atomised petrol needs air to ignite is a low level fact, but is key to diagnosing carburettion problems. Knowling that diaphragms get pierced, float needles stick, and petrol can be dirty. All low level. All key.

    Low level facts are not key to learning if you already know them. Sure, if you are missing some of them, you might be able to pick them up as you go.If youbare ,missing enough of them ( for example, if you don’t know what float needles, diaphragms, air and idle mixture and screws are) then they probably are pretty key.

    “that analog learning environments prepare kids for a digital world”

    A smarter person than me put it like this. Human cognitive architecture hasn’t changed much in the last ten thousand years.

    Nor, fundamentally, has learning. This is not to say that digital technology is not powerful, useful, or essential. But it’s not the narrative, and it probably hasn;t revolutionised human cognition, Prensky and unsupported claims notwithstanding.

    Human cognitiion is the story, context, narrative and locus. Both analog and digital are circumsribed by the neural, in largely the same way and it’s at that interface that the learning narrative becomes meaningful.

    I’d also argue that analog and digital are key. Thde world is comprised of plumbers, welders, chefs, carpenters, farmers ( of which I am kind of one) and bricklayers as much as it is comprised of coders, ui designers, managers and youtube personalities.

    Digital and analog are not opposed. They are interdependent. You need people to lay your tarmac as mush as you need people to design the car you’ll drive on it. The person laying your tarmac probably needs to learn in analog. The person designing probably needs a digital focus.

    • I like your comment “Digital and analog are not opposed. They are interdependent”. I do believe they go hand in hand, together they give us the best of both worlds and increase our learning experience in a classroom and out-side a classroom, while learning at school, work and ‘play’).

    • I don’t have a site, so hope you don’t mind my post here instead.
      We have to stop pretending that …
      1. Preparing students for job’s that don’t exist is a new concept.
      Looking way back one can see that has always been the case. Quick example, when I was at school we never heard of the concept of computers, let alone computer teachers, yet today they exist, many of today’s teachers did not grow up with them).
      2. We are preparing students to be life-long-learners.
      I believe people generally have always been life-long-learners in one way or another, it isn’t new. One example, there is a large number of elderly people who operate tablets/smart phones etc, they did not put their head in the sand and shun the technology, they embraced the technology and found a way to learn).
      3. Student’s learn best when they are creating their own learning.
      From experience, that may work for some students, but it does not for the vast majority. In fact, it may create unnecessary angst and frustration).
      4. There really are “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”.
      I am in no way knocking Prensky, he wrote that article in the last century and it was valid then, but we have moved on. He subsequently wrote about moving on. So why are people keen to hang onto this concept?
      5. Student presentations of a prezi (or similar) ticks the box as “Creating”, on the Revised Blooms Taxonomy.
      If only teachers would stop, look and consider; they are very often based on a template create by the software, filled with cut and paste website information (that the teacher may or may not know). Where is the critical thinking? Where is the analysis and evaluation, where is the true learning?

      • Glad to have your contribution, Heather. All of the successful PBL environments out there might disagree with you on #3. I love your #5 and have that conversation with educators frequently (“no, that’s NOT what we mean…”)

        • Heather…in my experience with HS students, #3 becomes true through force of training. By the time they reach me, they want to be told what to do, and they do often become “angsty” and frustrated when you try to get them to self-direct. My philosophy is that if you aren’t working towards your own goals then you’re working towards someone else’s, and so I think it’s important to rekindle a student’s curiosity – and that means giving opportunities for them to create their own learning. Just my thoughts…

          • Hi Huskie and Scott thanks for your feedback, I agree, there is a place for it (#3) and I have seen it work well, sadly, too often I have seen the other side. I believe in allowing students to push their boundaries and not be restricted by class mates or teacher’s interest/ability, don’t get me wrong, but without solid foundations it sure makes it more difficult for them.
            I suppose what I meant in my post, was that I keep seeing PBL pushed without, what I believe, the necessary planning or thought on the teachers end to the situation/type of students etc they are working with.

          • Huskie… I agree that many are so used to being told what to do that they don’t know where to start to direct their own education. I believe that is one of the things being beat out of students in lower grades along with creativity. I think you are lucky if you have students who want to do the work of directing themselves rather than just waiting to be told what to do.

        • What’s a “PBL environment”?

  4. Challenge accepted:

    When it comes to Oklahoma education, we have to stop pretending…

    1. We are giving elementary students a grade in “science” when we haven’t provided any opportunities all year for them to conduct an experiment, measure something, collect any data, or form a hypothesis.

    2. We still live in the 20th century when communication, commerce, and learning opportunities were analog rather than digital.

    3. Coding is a skill students should wait till high high school or college before learning.

    4. That educational quality comes from mandated curricular pacing guides, benchmark tests, and a myopic focus on multiple-choice exams.

    5. That it’s acceptable for over 1000 K-12 classrooms in Oklahoma this year to be without a certified teacher.

  5. And here’s my cantankerous and grumpy challenge response


    • Keith, thanks for the thoughtful contributions. I added to my post some explanations of my five bullet points. I believe that we may be in less disagreement than you think…

      • I left some additional comments over at your blog too.

        • Thanks, Scott, for the replies, and clarifications.

          It’s difficult to get the gist of someone’s thinking in depth from five bullet points. That’s not a criticism, btw. And I did kind of go off on one. Your post was inteded as a jumping off point, and not a manifesto, and that’s what I did I guess. Jumped off.

          I think your post gave me the opportunity to begin to tie together a heap of ideas, papers, studies that had been swimming around in the murky soup of my mind and snap them into clear focus.

          I hope the disclaimers I put in – that I might be getting you wrong, or misreading you – helped ameliorate anything off target I fired off.

          I’ll posta reply to your comment on my blog when I’m a little less tired.

          Fo now, thanks for the original post, the detail, and the conversation.

  6. Thanks Scott – this is terrific! Here’s my contribution; http://goo.gl/GDZLy9

  7. Thank you Scott for throwing down the challenge.
    Here is my viewpoint: http://goo.gl/nVBn7W

  8. i love this prompt and here is my response: 5 Things We Need to Quit Pretending About Education | Teaching From Here

  9. Thanks, Scott. Tried to keep it succinct, but a powerful question. http://crowleym.com/2015/04/14/we-have-to-stop-pretending/

  10. Thanks for this great challenge. It is hard to choose just 5 in the great delusion that is school reform these days…
    1. That we can leave poverty out of the picture.
    2. That standardized tests and grades measure learning.
    3. That students can learn if they are bored.
    4. That people who have never been teachers are “education experts.”
    5. That a traditional classroom is the best place for teaching and learning.

  11. It isn’t that I don’t care. The problem is that the priorities of testing are skewed. I teach 6th grade special education language arts. I can think of NO career that will require figurative language. Unless a student knows at 6th grade, that he or she plans to be a writer, poet, or editor, it isn’t important enough for high stakes testing. It should be introduced, practiced and tested in a unit test or even in a semester test. It shouldn’t be high stakes.

  12. A relevant challenge for being relevant.

    I collaborated with a grade 10 student to come up with this:

  13. I didn’t read the comments before writing these, so apologies for the repeats. Great minds, and all that…


    1. That compliance is the same as engagement.

    2. That a teenager is a “child” who isn’t ready for real responsibility, even something as simple as using the bathroom without asking permission or borrowing a pair of sharp scissors.

    3. That a kid’s nature is one of laziness, their preferred state of being is ignorant, and without some extrinsic motivation delivered by trained professionals they would live their pitiful, illiterate lives bareknuckle boxing in exchange for drugs under some freeway bridge.

    4. That school work and class work and homework and grades and bells all somehow automatically equate to learning; that these “things” that are bureaucratically or logistically convenient are more important than the feeling of actually learning.

    5. That schools aren’t primarily teaching our kids dependency and unquestioning obedience.

  14. Here are my five. I shared the challenge with my grad students tonight as well. Hopefully some of them will start their own blogs and add a few more suggestions.


  15. Thanks for the push Scott. Here is my contribution:

    Students learn best in groups of people their own age

    The subject labels and divisions we use are effective and, on top of that, they’ve always been there and it is too much work to change them

    Students need teacher constructed activities all day long to learn

    It is acceptable that students are evaluated in school in ways that are completely different to how they are evaluated in the workplace

    It is acceptable for school to stay the way it is, because school and the real world have always been different, right?



  16. Everyone should answer this challenge! Thanks, Scott.


  17. Hi Scott,

    Wonderful that I stumbled upon your blog. It is quite interesting. I don’t have 5 in particular, as I am still quite new to education and can’t presume to think we are pretending anything (wouldn’t feel I had the right to judge), but I will comment on your points.

    ◦that short-term memorization equals long-term learning
    This is something that we like to think teachers have gotten over, but in fact many classrooms and courses still function this way.

    ◦that students find meaning in what we’re covering in class
    This is particularly hard to work with as an English teacher, since most kids won’t be reading Shakespeare after my class. I always do a ‘why are we here?’ activity, where I ask students about WHY they actually think they are in an English class and what they think they will learn from it.

    ◦that what we’re doing isn’t boring
    Hah.. yes, indeed. This goes both ways for me. I have experienced ‘burnout,’ which is what happens when you spend too much time planning incredibly elaborate, colorful multimedia presentations and activities for each lesson. But for me, what works equally well (without all of the intense, stimulating graphics) is simply BEING interesting when I speak– relating facts using stories, anecdotes, getting students involved.

    I also have an education blog and I would appreciate it if you took a look!

    – Anna

  18. This is an important conversation. Here’s my response: vhttp://kevinjbrowne.weebly.com/blog1/we-have-to-stop-pretending.

  19. Thanks for the spark to write this post. Let’s keep this conversation rolling.

  20. Scott, thank you for making this happen! The PLN is an amazing platform to advocate for real change. School is a place kids should love to be Unfortunately, that’s not always true. Here is my submission:



  21. Love this idea, Scott. This is an incredible list. Here is my humble submission:

  22. Great topic! Here are my #5Things.
    We have to stop pretending:
    1. That “kids these days” know how to use technology for academic purposes.
    2. That technology is separate from pedagogy.
    3. That a zero is a legitimate grade for a professional educator to give.
    4. That banning devices will make students pay attention in class and that BYOD will distract them.
    5. That going 1:1 automatically transforms teaching.


  23. We need more conversations like this!

    Here are my additions:


  24. I am enjoying reading all the ideas on this topic.

    Here are my thoughts: http://servantprincipal.com/2015/04/22/lets-stop-pretending/

  25. we have to stop pretending…

    1. One recess a day is sufficient for elem students
    2. That differentiation is easy for teachers
    3. That we are giving specialized instruction for all sped students
    4. We aren’t wasting lots of money on underused technology
    5. That any one group or person knows what is best for kids

  26. Thanks for the tag. Been thinking about this. I only have one. We have to stop pretending that we don’t know what to do to make education better.

  27. We need to stop pretending that School Libraries and Teacher librarians DO NOT make a difference.
    (Over 19 studies over 16 years show the strong correlation between a robust Library media program and increased student achievement on standardized test! http://www.ala.org/aasl/parents/studies
    We even help with College Success

  28. Hi Scott – Thanks for your insights and the ability to inspire and motivate an entire community to put their thoughts to blog posts. Your premise has been quite the inspiration for many.

    I shared my thoughts here – https://dougpete.wordpress.com/2015/04/29/stop-pretending-makeschooldifferent/

    I can’t help but think that it would be so much easier if everyone agreed on the same five. However, the diversity of responses tells the true story of education and many eyes are so helpful.

    • I think it would be an incredibly interesting exercise to have students, staff, and parents / community members all submit their lists via an anonymous online form. This would be instant feedback regarding the trouble spots within the system and would be absolute gold for administrators and school boards who were serious about improving the lived experience of youth and educators.

  29. Thanks for generating so much inspiring conversation with this Scott! Here are my 5: http://www.bamradionetwork.com/edwords-blog/we-have-to-stop-pretending

  30. Great project. Now to get the right people to read the responses!


  31. Hey Scott, I really like the idea of this challenge. I’m impressed by the number of the answers. So many valuable thoughts…

    Anyway this would be my humble contribution: we have to stop pretending that learning can’t mean having fun.

  32. I really like that competition idea. I’m overwhelmed by the number of responses. So many important thoughts. That would be my humble contribution anyway: we must stop pretending that learning can not mean having fun.

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