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Education Opinion

Why ‘Doing School’ Undermines Learning

By Jal Mehta — January 08, 2015 3 min read

This post is by David Sabey, a graduate student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a former middle school English/Language Arts teacher in Las Vegas.

We are failing our students, but not for the reasons that come most readily to mind. More fundamental than issues with standardized tests, superficial curricula, or teachers’ unions, we fail our students by inadvertently assimilating them into the wrong communities of practice. To briefly preview what is to come, I argue that we think we are helping students become part of communities of practice that are associated with the academic disciplines, but we are actually mostly teaching them how to “do school,” which is a community of practice in and of itself.

The term “communities of practice” gets thrown around quite a lot, but many who use it are unfamiliar with its theoretical origins. It was developed by scholars Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in a rather revolutionary reconceptualization of the learning process called “situated learning theory.” Instead of focusing on cognition (what goes on in people’s heads) as most other learning theorists do, Lave and Wenger suggest that learning should be viewed as social activity within a community of practice. In other words, we do not learn primarily by mentally inputting information, but by participating in practices with others. For example, they might say that one learns how to write by doing writerly things with writerly people in increasingly writerly ways, not by accumulating information about writing.

We can see this idea in schools powerfully in courses and clubs that allow students to engage in a practice that has a community of practitioners outside the school walls. Consider journalism. There is a multifaceted and loosely connected community of individuals engaged in journalism in the extracurricular world (i.e., a community of practice). Schools host this community through school newspapers, journalism classes, student newscasts, etc., because at some level, they believe that students will benefit academically from engaging in its practices even if they do not go on to become journalists. For example, a student who acts as the editor of a school newspaper will become a better writer by appropriating some of the stylistic conventions of newspaper-writing.

The potential benefits of engaging in a community of practice are obvious; the downside--which, I claim, is our greatest failure--is not so apparent. Although most schools claim to prepare students for the contemporary workplace, they are only preparing them to succeed within the school system. This is because the activities that dominate students’ time belong to the practice of “doing school” or “getting grades.” Consequently, students are truly learning only the skills and knowledge relevant to those practices--an uninspiring skillset to say the least. At its worst, this means that instead of learning how to think scientifically, students learn how to cram for tests; instead of learning to read and write critically, students read the Cliff’s Notes version of books and repeat the teacher’s ideas. We want our students to develop the knowledge and skills relevant to the larger disciplinary communities, but we only incentivize them to participate in the practices of schooling. There is a mismatch between what we hope our students will learn and the practices in which we ask them to engage.

This failing is not limited to K-12 education; I also experienced this mismatch as a pre-service teacher. In my collegiate teacher training, I kept learning journals, studied theories of human development, wrote lesson plans, etc. These seemed like worthwhile activities; however, they did not prepare me for classroom teaching. I was learning how to be a good university student who was preparing to be a teacher; that was what my mentors knew, and that was also what my peers were being trained to do. It was only once I entered the classroom and became part of a community of practicing teachers that I learned skills like behavior management, engaging students’ interests, and assessing students’ needs.

Our current system is failing its students at all levels because its practices are often not well integrated with the broader communities that they are seeking to induct students into. If nothing changes, we will prepare a generation of students who are expert grade-getters, but amateur thinkers; skilled in schooling, but ill-prepared for the practices of the workplace.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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