High school students know that their learning isn’t relevant

Bored teenage girls in class

As was so aptly said just a few days ago:

It is hard to make an argument that there are many desirable post-secondary educational or career scenarios for current high school students that will not require the use of computer technology on a daily basis. The kids have known this for quite some time now. High school students know that they will almost certainly be using computers in any desirable job that they manage to get after high school. They know that a computer is a requirement for success in today’s higher eduction environments. They know that, in the “real world,” college students don’t write papers in longhand on loose-leaf notebook paper; they know that, in the “real world,” people don’t create business presentations with markers and paste on poster board or tri-fold displays; they know that, “in the real world,” people who engage in any type of research may still occasionally use books, but they conduct the majority of their research using online tools. They know that, “in the real world,” bankers do not keep their accounts in paper ledger books, or do their financial forecasting only with the aid of a calculator. Yet high school students are regularly asked to write in longhand on notebook paper, make presentations using kindergarten tools, research mostly using books, and do their calculations on paper. Why should anyone be surprised that they don’t find their high school experiences “relevant?”

Do we have the will to integrate digital technologies into students’ learning in regular, frequent, and meaningful ways? Are we brave enough to cast a critical eye at the learning tasks that we assign students and ask difficult but necessary questions about their relevance in a technology-suffused, globally-interconnected society? Are we willing to look at what passes for ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’ and ‘schooling’ on a day-to-day basis in this country and acknowledge that the vast majority of it is mind-numbingly boring and disengaging? Can we recognize that we’re infantilizing our young adults instead of enabling them to be empowered learners, thinkers, and doers?

Robert Fried noted that:

We have opted not to create schools as places where children’s curiosity, sensory awareness, power, and communication can flourish, but rather to erect temples of knowledge where we sit them down, tell them a lot of stuff we think is important, try to control their restless curiosity, and test them to see how well they’ve listened to us. (pp. 58-59)

He also stated that:

[M]ost of what [our students] experience during school hours passes over them like the shadow of a cloud, or through them like an undigested seed. They may be present in the classroom, but they are not really there. Their pencils may be chugging away on the worksheets or the writing prompts or math problems laid out for them, but their intelligence is running on two cylinders at best. They pay some attention to what their teacher happens to be telling them, but their imagination has moved elsewhere. (p. 1)

We could have learning spaces that emphasize hands-on inquiry, critical thinking, collaboration, and authentic, “real world” problem solving instead of teacher lecture, rote practice, and fact regurgitation. We could have learning spaces that spark students’ imaginations and enable them to be interested, engaged learners instead of dulling them into bored compliance. We could have learning spaces that students would choose rather than classrooms that we force students to attend. Shame on us that we don’t.

[cross-posted at Education Recoded]

21 Responses to “High school students know that their learning isn’t relevant”

  1. I totally agree. I believe the more we can individualize education the better. I also believe this needs to start early. I am a principal at a middle school. We are looking at Competency Based Education. You can not fit these concepts into our current educational system. So I agree…we must be brave and risk takers. Evaluate what is happening in your district or building and begin to address those needs. The education is for the students, not us. Allow students to learn with the tools they are comfortable with and we should work with them not in front of them. Let’s do what is right…not what is easy. Article is right on!

    • Can we get administrators to understand this? Can your school boards realize that it’s more than just filling seats. It seems that the risk takers are the teachers. These are the people that will put their low paying careers on the line. Daniel Pink suggest that we need to make money not an issue for teachers to really succeed. They have to decide if they want to lose every thing they work so hard for to prove to some administrator (that often times has not taught in the classroom) that what you are doing is better for the student. Students know you have to teach certain things in a certain amount of time. They know your job depends on the results they get from their standardized test over things they don’t believe is important to them. Just ask ten high schools if they are allow to use youtube. Most will say no but you will find many science, math, english videos that will be great resource for students. These resource are free and engage students on their level. Students feel their learning is irrelevant because they can’t make the connection by the way they are being taught.

  2. Scott – Many of us don’t do this on a large scale, because many of us are evaluated solely on our students standardized test results. I agree that we should emphasize hands-on inquiry, critical thinking, and collaboration, but until the reliance on test scores for evaluative purposes are modified we will not make a full press.
    In my opinion, district level administrators either need to initiate these types of learning spaces, or provide principals with the autonomy to do so. A few years ago, I asked one of my superiors if we made a full press with technology utilization, would we get a one year reprieve from test score accountability for taking the risk. The administrator responded, “absolutely not.”

  3. Jason Markey (@jmarkeyAP) Reply January 5, 2012 at 11:12 am

    Sam – I agree with your concern for evaluation based on student achievement measures which are most likely tied to test scores. We are hoping to re-frame the discussion around student achievement in our district to take into account multiple measures of the student experience. The long-term hope would be this would allow us greater latitude in not tying our instruction and curriculum as much to a singular test, but giving students opportunities that create well-rounded critical thinkers, that work with content and skills that are rich with relevance and student centered learning.

    • Jason – looks like your district is headed in the right direction. Multiple measures of student learning will facilitate the transition to learning spaces that we know are best for our students.

  4. JR Dingwall @JRROCKWALL Reply January 5, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    After reading the first paragraph a few things came to mind.
    1) In my own university experiences I have had to fill booklets with pen and paper writing not only in humanities courses, but also in maths/sciences.
    1-b) fine if you can use a calculator at home, but in higher level maths such as linear algebra, abstract algebra, geometry, etc. a calculator is pretty much useless, and not even allowed in classes. However, the content of these courses is not about crunching numbers, it’s about math concepts so again the technology you need is your mind.
    2) When it comes to math problems I have yet to see interfaces that trump pencil and paper or a white board. Yes of course I could visit wolfram alpha or maybe find a piece of software to complete the calculation, but pencil paper can be done anywhere. Also if one small piece of input is not how the software would “want” it, an error occurs, which can easily be interpreted by a human mind.
    3) tactile skills are still so important. My background is in what used to be called Industrial Arts, and although much of the industry has gone digital there is still a need to create things by hand.

    With all of that said, it’s about balance. I think we need to worry less about forcing technology into every aspect of our teaching and ask the question “why will I use the technology”. Perhaps a bigger question is, “How do we teach our students to be information literate”.

    • JR, I don’t have any disagreement with you. It is all about balance. Use the right tool given the task at hand and your personal inclinations/preferences. That said, right now we’re underbalanced, not overbalanced, on the tech side of things when it comes to schools. I can only dream of a day when there’s TOO MUCH tech in schools!

      All of this tech conversation aside, the bigger issue is lack of interest / engagement by students…

  5. My son, a high school senior reading this right next to me, says, “Right on! This is so true.” He is no slacker at school; his grades are excellent. However, we both know how little he really has to do to score well on any test. It’s almost laughable.

    • Shelley,

      What is more laughable is how little tests can really measure. But what brings me to tears is the weight we are forced to put on something which means so little. And what drives me crazy is having to defend over and over again how ignoring the tests and focusing on personally meaningful projects leads to better learning, is more rigorous, and ultimately will lead to better test scores. And what drives me absolutely stark raving mad is trying to explain to school managers (and often to other teachers) that such authentic learning is the result of negotiation and dialog with the learner and cannot be done through pre-planned scripted lessons or teacher-driven assessments.

      A teacher’s job ought to be to help children learn. Instead, too often, the teacher’s job performance is assessed not only on how well students perform on a test that narrowly measures what a student knows but also on how closely they follow a script and stick to their lesson plans. If the goal is optimal learning then the very best teachers know their lessons cannot be scripted, they cannot be pre-written, they cannot be programmed. The optimal lesson plan is one that is written on-the-fly and responds to student needs and questions, not some common core standardized curriculum that dictates what and when each student should learn certain things.

      In my classroom I ask very few questions. I make my students do most of the asking. Their questions guide what we do in class and what we learn. They ask the questions they are ready to wrestle with and are relevant to them at the time they are ready to have them answered. If the curriculum is truly important the student’s questions will lead us to it. Usually it does. Aside from that I load their environment, both physical and digital, with enough curiosities to spark the kinds of questions I would hope they would ask. The questions I ask most frequently are, “What do you want to learn about?” and “How can I help you today?” But, justifying this methodology to school managers who see learning as synonymous with knowledge and knowledge as something that can be handed down from teacher to student as if they were empty vessels waiting to be filled is hard if not impossible. Consequently, I often get comments when observed like, “I don’t understand what is going on here but I wouldn’t ask you to change it.” to “what you are doing is incredible but you need to work on….” and then they hand me the Charlotte Danielson rubric clearly outlining the things they didn’t observe in my class. I’ve come to realize that very few people in charge of most schools and most departments of education know little about how people actually learn. We are required to post our lesson objectives on the board. Mine always reads: Students will set their own goals and work toward achieving them. And those two students playing video games in the corner, they made those games but did anyone who came to observe bother to ask?

      I am starting to wonder how much longer I can find a place in this profession where I can do what I do. But then what we assess today isn’t doing anyway. Doing and do-ers are on the way out. How many industrial technology, family and consumer science, art, music, drama, creative writing, poetry, graphic design, and computer programming courses are there anymore? Where they do exist they exist as places where students mostly study others doing, not doing themselves. We don’t want doers, we want consumers. We can pay workers in China $150/month to do our doing. At least if the students do well on that standardized test we will know that they have consumed the curriculum and objectives someone else set for them.

  6. We do have learning spaces that emphasize hands-on inquiry, critical thinking, collaboration, and authentic, “real world” problem solving. We do have learning spaces that spark students’ imaginations and enable them to be interested, engaged learners. Imagine taking everything you have learned and creating a 300+ yearbook from scratch. Or, creating relevant content daily for a student news website. Or, writing an opinion article for the entire school to read. It’s called journalism. It’s called student media. Journalism is the 21st century English.

  7. In addition many kids already think that much of school has no relevance. Check out this post from one of my students. Although I don’t agree with all of it, she expresses what many of our students may think.

  8. While there is still a lot of room for improvement in integrating technology into some of our programs, career and technical education is a place where we “have learning spaces that emphasize hands-on inquiry, critical thinking, collaboration, and authentic, “real world” problem solving”. There needs to be a balance of “pounding the nail” and using the technology that will undoubtedly be required in a majority of professions.

  9. WE all know this is true, and so do the students. But parents – who are in the best position to press for change – don’t care, as along as Johnny makes the honor roll, aces the SATs, and gets into a good college, where his education will be only modestly more relevant. The parents won’t know for 5 years that Johnny is utterly unprepared for the working world, and they will mostly blame the college.

  10. good Blogs for those students who argued any questions!

  11. I am so glad that we are beyond arguing about whether or not technology should be integral in the teaching and learning process. We’re certainly not where we want to be in terms of relevancy, but we’re heading in the right direction and our focus is on teaching and learning with the tools. I feel bad for those of you who are stuck in the standardized test quagmire. As an international school we have much more flexibility with our curriculum and assessment practices. I can tell you that the journey into creating relevant learning in today’s classroom is an exciting one.

  12. Just when you didn’t think teaching high school students could not get any harder… Now they don’t care due to thinking their education is irrelevant to their future. I disagree. I think whether or not you use the materials in class you are learning skills like discipline and work ethic.

  13. Great article! I have been handcuffed as a reading and language arts teacher by the expectations of my department, “mentor” teachers, and administration. As a new teacher I was expected to teach the literature that the school has been teaching for years. I am appalled that my students cannot construct a sentence, but since grammar is not tested on our state test, we no longer teach it. I am currently an unemployed teacher who may loose my home within a year. But I can’t return to the same kind of situation I was in before. My students and I BOTH thought what we were doing was irrelevant.

  14. Schools are in a VERY sorry state these days. Students hire people like me to ghostwrite their essays for them. Some students hire me to take ENTIRE COURSES for them! And then ghostwriters like me have to worry about some guy in India taking our jobs.

    Parents are so obsessed with achievement for the sake of achievement that many people have lost sight of the purpose of education. This has prompted many suicides actually in the Menlo Park area.

    The work I do is totally unethical, and as a writer I see it as a stepping stone/stop gap to something bigger. But you should see some of these parents…they don’t care; they just want their kids to succeed at any cost.

    John Taylor Gatto has a video from the 80’s I believe where he is shown taking students into work-places and treating them like adults.

    The entire concept of school needs to be re-designed and re-created. Students should be encouraged to learn the things they love and be given real world responsibilities.

    Schools were DESIGNED to eliminate creativity and create obsequious worker-bees. They were funded by Carnegie and Rockefeller. If you still buy into the modern-education myth you are behind the times. The whole thing needs to be re-thought.

  15. absolutely love this article and agree completely! We are not raising thinkers, we are not teaching our kids how to survive and thrive in our capitalistic society. Instead we penalize them for thinking out of the box, require them to follow directions under an overly controlling, mind-numbing haze, force them to memorize ridiculous facts rather than understand big picture concepts and how they relate to our current world. I’m in my 50’s and I can’t believe how much of the curriculum is exactly the same as I was taught over 40 years ago. We’ve had a half century of progress, history, incredible technological change, and they are still teaching the same historical curriculum in elementary school that they taught 40 years ago. My son’s third grade teacher even handed out worksheets that still referenced the USSR, years after the soviet union dissolved. I am absolutely disgusted, discouraged. As an employer, I know first-hand how hard it is to find good employees, reliable, dependable, capable of problem solving, thinking for themselves, and working independently. We have got to bring our education system in line with our societal needs. We are teaching irrelevance, stifling our kids interest in learning and their confidence and motivation. We’re raising generations that are so bored, they don’t want to do anything but be sports or movie stars, or drug dealers. Special interests and huge bureaucracies keep change from happening, all to the detriment of our kids and our society. And with college tuition skyrocketing, what are we doing? Limiting higher education options, pricing out the middle class……Thanks for writing something I totally agree with. May like-minded people stand up and maybe together we can make changes before it is too late for generations of kids and for our country as a whole.

  16. Just thought I would share another students point of view on school. Not saying whether I agree or disagree but thought it is an interesting read and adds to the discussion.


  17. It’s not the tools that make learning relevant. Critical thinking and good writing don’t actually require anything more than pencil, paper, and text. Whether the students feel that what they’re learning and doing is boring and irrelevant has everything to do with teacher and curriculum and nothing to do with tech. It can also be interesting to ask students how they experience technology; for example, do they prefer reading on paper or screen? The results may surprise adults. There’s also some pretty compelling evidence mounting about the effectiveness of taking notes with pen on paper. If we’re genuinely concerned about good learning, we can’t dismiss that feedback and evidence.

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