Their time is occupied, but not their brains


    olsonThe school year has ended for school-age children, but soon they will be studying again, while Facebooking and YouTubing, and searching online while listening to music. Simultaneously.

    While most adults support the act of studying for children (teaches them discipline! keeps them off the streets!), my own three teenage children reported that in preparation for final exams this past spring, they did a lot of stuff that, well, may not be very meaningful in the long run. Their time was occupied, but not their brains. They memorized 180 irregular verbs tenses, memorized Boyle’s law, Charles’ Theorem, prepared for a 90-item multiple choice test on Indian independence, memorized the dates of the Chinese dynasties and memorized all the elements in the periodic table that are soluble.

    In education, we increasingly look at learning in terms of how challenging it is cognitively and emotionally for kids. These exercises are low level, in some cases, the lowest level: memorization and comprehension. Although students do need to spend time some time memorizing some information, it needs to be connected to bigger, higher level concepts and challenges or they very quickly forget it.

    You know that yourself, from your own educational life – and just because you had to do it doesn’t mean it’s good educational practice now. It’s a general problem, one that author John Medina, of Brain Rules [] sums up by saying, if you had to design an environment that was least interesting for the human brain for learning, it would probably be the classroom!

    Why is kids’ time occupied by school, but not turned on in their brains?

    • Schoolwork isn’t designed for the Google/Bing age. We see learning as something you “get,” a product to be acquired. Real learning isn’t like that, and most of what school asks kids to do is acquire information that can now be accessed on the internet. What else should school provide? An opportunity to talk over that information, critique it and understand it more deeply, said one high school sophomore recently.
    • Control isn’t motivating. Controlling kids, particularly middle and high schoolers, isn’t motivating to them. Lots of learning environments are designed, first and foremost, to control kid’s behavior.
    • Kids get too much negative feedback on their work, and negative feedback that is too general to be useful in improving performance. “This was a sloppy essay,” is not as helpful as, “in your first paragraph, you didn’t adequately define your main idea or suggest what the argument here is, and therefore I didn’t have a roadmap for moving through the rest of the paragraphs.” Most feedback on work is very broad and unhelpful. Scantron, machine-graded tests increasingly used in middle and high school, also don’t provide much real feedback on performance, unless you personally get a lot from knowing where you fall on a bell curve.
    • You have to sit still too much in school. It’s hard to sit still all day. Few adults do it. We ask kids to.
    • You don’t get to choose what you are going to learn most of the day. Choice motivates! Lots of school assignments, even if they do offer choice, offer false, superficial ones.
    • We rely too much on superficial tests to judge the value of work. An ocean of evidence supports this, yet we are lining up for more testing.
    • Most kids don’t see the connection between what they are asked to do in school, and the world of work they are going to. And they are probably right! A lot of the connections aren’t very clear. Old-fashioned ideas of authority – doing it because I told you to – aren’t motivating for this generation of students, either.
    • Adults don’t listen to kids. Really listen to them. I observe lots of classrooms where kids are listened to only when they say things that a teacher wants them to say. When kids say things that adults don’t want to hear, they hardly get an ear. They may get a detention.
    • Kids don’t have a real say in how schools are run. Most student government organizations are Potemkin villages – students don’t really have power to actually change things.
    • Teachers are overstressed, and they don’t have enough time to think carefully about their students. (Or themselves, or other teachers.) Schools are often lonely places for adults! Teachers have little time to talk about their work, or think about how to do it better. So they often settle into complaining, which creates more stress. The cycle continues.
    • Students are grouped together by age, not by developmental level, or what they know and can do. Students should be able to move in and out, backwards and forwards, in groups according to their levels of mastery, not based on their age. We should see grouping as aimed at getting kids together for their specific needs at that moment, then regrouping for the next challenge.
    • Human brains are growing all the time, but we don’t act like this in school. In fact, we underchallenge kids and don’t give them enough to do that is real, interesting and important. We don’t encourage making mistakes, another way brains really learn.
    • We undervalue teachers’ work. Being a great teacher is like being a great brain surgeon: you need very high level skills to work on your practice constantly and be supported by a great team that watches you and helps you do better. We treat teachers badly, and this rubs off in the classroom.

    What do kids want from school? What they tell me is they want to learn how to be successful, to have friends, and to have fun. Teachers too. It’s time for big changes in our system, before the next exam.

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    Kirsten Olson, author of Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture, is a writer, educational consultant, and national-level Courage To Teach facilitator, and principal of Old Sow Consulting. She has been a consultant to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Kennedy School at Harvard University, and many large public school systems and charter schools. For more information please visit


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