Classroom Learning, an Oxymoron

I’ve often written about just how little is learned in the classroom. Well, here’s the best explanation I’ve seen as to why this is so. I take the text (and explanation) that follows from the Introduction to R. Barker Bausell’s book, Too Simple to Fail.

Introduction: Obsolete from every perspective

Thirty-five students sit facing a single teacher. The teacher has just provided a brief but coherent introduction to a new topic, but one portionof her class couldn’t follow what she was saying because they have had too little previous instruction on the subject at hand. Another portion of the class is terminally bored because they had previously learned 90% of everything the teacher said (or will say during the upcoming school year). A third contingent is distracted by two misbehaving boys seated at he rear of the room.

Recognizing these problems, and hoping to reinforce the main points of her lecture, she reseats the two boys on opposite sides of the room and has all the students open their textbooks to read the same page. Unfortunately, the same part of her class who  couldn’t follow her leture along with a significant portion of the students who were distracted, also has trouble reading the textbook. And of course the students who already knew what she was talking about already know everything contained on that particular page in their textbook.

Sensing that something is amiss, the teacher decides to vary her routine a bit and have everyone come to the front of the room and sit on the floor surrounding the chalkboard. Following a few minutes of jostling and confusion, the class then watches a student attempt to solve a math problem based upon what has just been taught and read about (by some). This particular student fails miserably and can’t follow the teacher’s attempts to help him “discover” his error. The remainder of the class isn’t at all interested in this process since some of them would have never made such an egregious mistake, some of them can’t follow the teacher’s explanation, and some simply  aren’t paying attention.

Later, with the students back at their desks, the teacher poses a question to the class on the topic. Some students raise their hands whether they know the answer or not; some wave their arms frantically because they are sure they have the correct answer (or simply want the attentionn); and everyone else waits for either the correct or the incorrect answer, or pays more attention to the myriad other competing activities that are constantly  going on in the classroom, somewhat analogous to a cocktail party in which we stand in a crowded room with  sounds and conversations going on all around us and must decide to what we will direct our attention and to what we will only pretend to do so.

What these and most other classroom instructional activities have in common is their mind-boggling inefficiency, the amount of time they consume, and the fact that at any given point in time only a portion of the students involved will be a actually attending to them—either because the instruction isn’t keyed to their particular needs or they are free to attend to competing activities that they find more interesting. And as if all of this were not enough, the teacher herself is most likely ill trained for her job. She probably graduated from a university-based school of education, which may have been staffed by faculty  who knew very little about how to maintain order in a public school classroom, make instruction relevant for as large a percentage of such a classroom as possible, foster learning under typical classroom conditions, or even how to teach the types of content she is now charged with conveying. And if teaching children to read is part of our teacher’s duties, she may have never even been given a cursory lesson on basic phonics instruction. In fact, it is possible that this teacher may never have enrolled in a single course that actually prepared her to teach children to read, to  write, or to understand mathematics—perhaps because her faculty were never taught that themselves. An accident of history, perhaps, due to the discipline’s early thinkers (such as Herbert Spencer, John Dewey) who were less concerned about increasing the amount students learned than they were about the philosophical and social implications of schooling. Or, of later popular theorists such as Jean Piaget, whose work would ultimately  wind up having no recognizable application to classroom instruction.

But returning to the 35-student classroom, our intrepid teacher realizes that she can’t spend any more time on this particular lesson and must move on whether everyone is ready or not….

The sad truth is that no one knows just how little value classroom instruction adds to the children’s education….

I would encourage you to read the entire introduction, if not the book. The Introduction is included in a free “sample” download from Amazon’s Kindle App, either on Android or iphone smart phones.

Now you’ve all probably had the classroom experiences that the author, R. Barker Bausell is describing. Did you at the time, or have you since, asked yourselves how this sort of thing could still be going on, at least since my own experience in one of the “better” classrooms at a prestigious private school some 60 years ago?

OK, perhaps not the “horror” of it as Marlow might say, but the inefficiency, the horrible waste of one’s time, in many instances one’s best time, that time of childhood that could have been so rich in learning experiences.

How children might best learn, and what they are learning, with or without us, ought to be at the very top of our educational agenda. But instead, perhaps because we had to do it ourselves, we go on placing our children during some twelve years of their lives, the very formative years when so much could have been accomplished, into the very same classrooms that Bausell is describing. Hélas!

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