Sunday, June 10, 2012

Is school like work?

Some people suggest that school is like work and grades are like earning money.

Let's pause to take a moment to examine whether this is true.

I have two questions:

1. What do workers do at work?

2. What do students do at school?

I bet most answers look like this:

1. Work

2. Learn

You'll notice that these two questions have two distinctly different answers. This isn't just semantics. Work and school are very different places because working and learning are two very different goals.

Here's why:

At work, the product is the point.

At school, the process is the point.

The purpose of school is not simply to replicate the real world. If it was, we wouldn't need school at all. Instead we could just send our children out into the real world and work. The government could replace the department of education with the department of child labour.

Sounds pretty stupid when we put it that way, doesn't it? This is precisely why saying school should simply be like the "real world" (as if that is a fixed and predictable place) is often developmentally inappropriate.

Children don't go to school to work -- they go to school to learn.

Alfie Kohn writes in his article Students Don't "Work" -- They Learn:
To get a sense of whether students view themselves as workers or as learners, we need only ask them (during class) what they are doing. "I'm doing my work" is one possible response; "I'm trying to figure out why the character in this story told her friend to go away" is something else altogether. Better yet, we might ask students why they are doing something, and then attend to the difference between "Because Ms. Taylor told us to" or "It's going to be on the test," on the one hand, and "Because I just don't get why this character would say that!" on the other. 
Another way to judge the orientation of a classroom is to watch for the teacher's reaction to mistakes. Someone who manages students' work is likely to strive for zero defects: perfect papers and assignments that receive the maximum number of points. Someone who facilitates students' learning welcomes mistakes - first, because they are invaluable clues as to how the student is thinking, and second, because to do so creates a climate of safety that ultimately promotes more successful learning. 
Moreover, a learning-oriented classroom is more likely to be characterized by the thoughtful exploration of complicated issues than by a curriculum based on memorizing right answers. As Hermine Marshall has observed, for students to see themselves as learning, "the tasks provided must be those that require higher-order thinking skills." 
Does a rejection of the models, methods, and metaphors of work mean that school should be about play? In a word, no. False dichotomies are popular because they make choosing easy, and the "work vs. play" polarity is a case in point. Learning is a third alternative, where the primary purpose is neither play-like enjoyment (although the process can be deeply satisfying) nor the work-like completion of error-free products (although the process can involve intense effort and concentration). 
To question the work metaphor is not to abandon challenge or excellence. Rather, it is to insist that work is not the only activity characterized by those features - and play, for that matter, is not the only activity that can be experienced as pleasurable.
The first commenter on this post made an important point about how we do want school to be like the real world without falling victim to the job-place metaphor:

When I say I want learning to be like the real world, I simply mean that I want it to be genuine. I want kids to be out in nature learning about science. I want kids to touch, feel, and engage with the world around them. I want them to talk to adults that are doing good, helping others, or creating art. I want questions asked of these adults. I want museums to be explored. Civil war battlefields to be walked. Engineers to take a few moments to show kids their actual work- their actual plans and processes. I want kids to have the opportunity to learn like you and I do- I flow from one curiosity to the next. 
Or, we can sit 30 kids down at a desk and show them pictures of the world. "Look Billy, this is a picture of a tree. Yes there are real ones right outside this room, but we don't have time for that- study the picture." We can continue to let them read snapshots of careers. Give them math problems that have no relevance to anything they can think of. We have to change- not like child labor and not like learning is a job- we have to get the adults out of the way and let the kids learn- with the adults on the side guiding.

3 comments:

  1. School is not like work for reasons you stated. However, I think you simplify the "real world" part. When I say I want learning to be like the real world, I simply mean that I want it to be genuine. I want kids to be out in nature learning about science. I want kids to touch, feel, and engage with the world around them. I want them to talk to adults that are doing good, helping others, or creating art. I want questions asked of these adults. I want museums to be explored. Civil war battlefields to be walked. Engineers to take a few moments to show kids their actual work- their actual plans and processes. I want kids to have the opportunity to learn like you and I do- I flow from one curiosity to the next.
    Or, we can sit 30 kids down at a desk and show them pictures of the world. "Look Billy, this is a picture of a tree. Yes there are real ones right outside this room, but we don't have time for that- study the picture." We can continue to let them read snapshots of careers. Give them math problems that have no relevance to anything they can think of. We have to change- not like child labor and not like learning is a job- we have to get the adults out of the way and let the kids learn- with the adults on the side guiding.

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  2. Great point, Paul. I incorporated your comment into the original post.

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  3. Thank you for the read. Honestly you covered the topic and broadly examined all areas. If i was to write this i would have done a few things differently myself but you have definitely inspired me to get into the world of blogging. Thanks heaps for the post i really appreciate it. Have a good day and keep blogging my profile

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