Schooling, not education, is what mostly goes on in those places we call schools. for schooling as a rule has little direct relation to learning. When learning does take place it’s usually in spite of, not because of the school. What happened that schooling and education have grown apart? (Were they ever together? Perhaps in schools for adults. Perhaps at Plato's "school" in Athens.)
Education, or learning, is what life and the best schools are all about. Learning, which is life long, depends primarily on just two factors, the teacher and the student.
Now most educational reformers think that by positively impacting other factors, such as class size, length of the school day, standardized testing, school uniforms, disciplined classrooms, progressive classrooms, the degree of school autonomy etc. student learning can be given a boost. It can’t, of course, as has been abundantly shown by the history of failed school reforms.
A good teacher and a motivated student are the only two factors that can by themselves significantly boost the amount of learning that goes on, in school, or more commonly, in life. For learning to take place the teacher (which could also be a good book, work of art, or even the natural world itself… Lincoln's teacher was a book, Darwin's was nature) needs to be both knowledgeable and caring. The student needs to be ready, to listen and to want to learn. Absent either one and learning does not take place.
The tragedy of our schools stems directly from the fact that they are not primarily concerned with recruiting the very best teachers and with arousing the curiosity and interest of their students.
OK, that’s not easy to do, and there’s the rub. But rather than work on the “hard problem” (teacher recruitment and student motivation) we busy ourselves with endless “solutions” to the "soft" or easy problems mentioned above, length of school day, order in the school and classroom etc.
What happened that we have now in our schools so few excellent teachers and so few motivated students? For the first the answer is easy. Our country early on gave its respect, and resulting monetary rewards, to those who care for our bodies, our doctors, to those who protect our contracts, our lawyers, and to those who grow our economy, our business men, not to mention our media and sports celebrities. To those who would “school” our children, care for their minds, we gave, and continue to give as little respect and dollar recompense as possible.
Why we did this is not so easy to answer. Perhaps it was because those of us who made it to the highest levels of power and influence in our country always knew how little our own success depended on what we had done in school. Schooling was a minor factor in our lives so why should we by our tax payments heavily subsidize an industry whose major function seemed only to be holding children safely and securely in a place apart, in school, until they were of age and were ready to enter society.
So in regard to the one factor, the teacher, things will not change until we decide to give the teacher the respect and monetary rewards that the importance of the position (being close to the child during the child's formative years) demands.
What about the other factor, student motivation? What happened that most students in our schools, most often before they reach the fourth grade and ten years of age, will lose their natural curiosity and interest in everything they encounter in the classroom? What happened that so many of them by the time of Middle School have little or no interest in what their teachers are doing and saying?
Many have tried to answer this question. The most common answer is hormones. The advent of puberty. The child’s interest in his or her body, in sex, trumps the beginning algebra, foreign language, history and literature classes. The real question is, given this fact of the child's interest and preoccupation with other than school subjects, why do we act as if it were not so?
The right teacher may somehow get through the child’s growing physical awareness of body and self to the child’s mind. This is what happens to those children with particular aptitude and talent for the lessons of the classroom and who are naturally obedient. We call these the "good students" of whom there are always a few in every classroom, their presence enabling those teachers who do remain, to remain. This is not, however, what happens with most children.
Is school destined to fail because it doesn't give proper place and importance to the physical changes taking place in the child's body, let alone to the popular culture that most occupies the child's time everywhere but in school? There are those who would put middle school aged children to work on a farm, especially one with lots of animals, and where bodily functions may be readily and openly observed and discussed. And there are those who would bring popular culture into the classroom. But both "reforms" have failed to make schools also a place of learning.
Most of all in regard to the second of our two factors, the child’s motivation to learn, we need to give the child a lot of slack, and not pretend that the child is with us when he's not. We need to take into account and deal with the fact that the child is only a little bit with us in the classroom and a lot more somewhere else. The classroom lessons in math, science, literature and history while endlessly fascinating in themselves are probably of little or no importance, probably boring, to the child.
What is important to the child, especially in the tween and early teen years, are the “life lessons’ that they are experiencing all the time. These “lessons” may stem from their close contacts with their friends, from the many hours spent with their games, from the music, films and other forms of the popular culture that surrounds them, from their trips to the mall, shopping and just hanging out.
It's not at all that children are not able and ready to learn. In all the respects just mentioned they are far more knowledgeable than we are. There is no question about their ability to master what interests them. Ask them about the things they are curious about and are motivated to learn, their music, their computers, their video games, their interactions with their peers, and they will quickly lose us, as we lose them in our classes, but in this instance because of our absolute ignorance of what they are knowledgeable about.
Children are of course learning all the time. That’s what being alive means. It’s just that very little of that learning goes on in the places we call schools.