This spring I watched my 15-year-old son study for his final exams. In science, as in several of his other courses, studying meant memorizing lists of hundreds of words and their accompanying definitions. By the time he took the exam, he was able to spit back dictionary identifications of terms ranging from saturated carbohydrate to degrees Kelvin. This exercise reduced science to an interminable series of facts devoid of context, and struck him--and me--as pointless. Few of these words held any real meaning for him. He no more knew the workings of science or its purposes at the end of the process than he did when he began to “learn” the subject. He would have been as well served by memorizing strings of nonsense words drawn from Lewis Carroll or generated by computer failure. And yet he--like most of the students in his academically oriented suburban high school--is mastering the words and the courses.
There are lessons aplenty in why some of our nation’s children succeed in high school, and go on to college, careers, and productive lives. Examining these successes may even teach us why our high schools are failing many of their students.
Those content with superficial explanations may simply note that students who work hard master whatever their schools demand. If we hold this position, we can wish away our education crisis by insisting that children apply themselves and memorize the required facts. Former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett long advocated this view, even identifying specific facts as prerequisites for informed citizenship. Our anxious fascination with Japan’s success has led us to note similarly that Japanese schools emphasize rote learning through endless, repetitive drills.
But before we impose lock-step curricula, national exams, and a back-to-basics approach on our less successful high schools, we might consider further why the children of our privileged suburbs-and Japanese children--learn and do well in school. Might it be that these children correctly understand school as a hurdle to be jumped, an obstacle whose mastery brings them parental love, social approbation, and the prospect of adult success? There is little need to examine what these schools teach, because what their students learn often has no intrinsic value; the extrinsic rewards learning brings matter most. Learning happens because students understand that it is consequential in their own lives.
To leave matters at that is to risk failing the poor and often minority children of our inner cities. To say that schools succeed and students learn if their parents are involved, if their peers are similarly engaged, and if their culture values education is to say that schools work when society works. But society doesn’t work that way for many of our children. We can’t provide urban high schools with a mind-numbing curriculum and then blame broken and discouraged families for not motivating children to study it. We can’t tell city children that mastering high-school coursework will bring them the good life when all around them the culture of despair teaches them to minimize their expectations--and to connect few of their hopes with formal schooling.
This is not to say that schools can’t make up for some of society’s shortcomings. Indeed it means we have no choice but to transform schools in order to promote student success. We can make high schools smaller so that they resemble extended families in offering students emotional support; we can link the curricula of these smaller schools-within-schools to rewarding careers, and reinforce that message by regular exposure to real-world settings in which students see adults from backgrounds similar to theirs holding meaningful and well-paying jobs. The burden of proof is on us if we are to convince disadvantaged students that learning is consequential.
We can also apply what we know about consequential learning to the very core of education. We can make learning matter-in and of itself--in the lives of our students. We have only to look at the early primary grades--in city as well as suburbs--to see children enthusiastic about learning and about exploring their expanding intellectual skills. Most 1st and 2nd graders feel good about school--and just as importantly, about themselves-because they know that they are acquiring mastery that matters in the real world. They feel empowered as they learn to read, to add, to subtract, and to figure things out for themselves. This is learning with a consequence; this is learning that happens because children understand that it matters in their own lives.
We ought to imagine this kind of learning in our high schools, urban and suburban alike. Why not build curricula that teach essential skills by allowing students to actively explore their own worlds? Why not teach American history, for example, by focusing on questions about the society in which students live? Why not root biology courses in the life experience of human communities, in relations between recognizable organisms and familiar environments? A curriculum thus connected to the immediate and the specific can command the attention of students as it proceeds to the distant and the abstract. A curriculum that takes seriously the experience of students offers a real prospect of having otherwise unconnected students take formal schooling seriously. The alternative is a curriculum that commands students what they ought to know and national tests that tell us that they haven’t learned it.
A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 1991 edition of Education Week as Learning Happens When It Matters