Teaching Opinion

Five Ways Schools Can Kill Learning

By John D. McNeil — October 28, 2008 4 min read
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Leaving aside the question of whether or why schools might want to kill learning, the simple fact that some of the prevalent school structures and practices do is worth greater study in this age of standards and accountability. Here, then, is my list of five practices that may be the most harmful:

1. Placing students of a given age together in a classroom, and sequencing classes by age as grade levels.

The false assumption that there is a common age for various developmental stages, and thus there should be common expectations for achievement within a grade, has negative consequences for both the slow and the fast learner. As recent payment-for-results programs have revealed, teachers in graded classrooms tend to focus on the middle learners, whom they see as more likely to gain from instruction. They know that the bright students already are performing at or above grade-level proficiency, and that effort with those who are lagging will not bring results commensurate with the instructional investment.

The range of abilities within a 3rd grade classroom is likely to be as great as the range of abilities in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades combined. Further, the concept of “grade level” has multiple ambiguities. Measures to determine grade-level performance presume that the learner knows what is being asked of him or her, as well as what would count as an acceptable answer. Placement is subject to the variation in whatever achievement test has been chosen to measure a narrow band of expectancy. There are accounts of schools’ using test variation for non-educative purposes—adopting, for example, the Metropolitan Achievement Test, with its lower norms, when more-inflated performance is desired, but using the more demanding Stanford Achievement Test when the school wants larger numbers of children to be eligible for financial assistance as underperformers.

2. Limiting opportunities for students to receive help from their peers and teachers in how to make their work better.

Constructive feedback is especially important in the early phases of learning something, when the novice is trying to understand in order to learn. Harm is done, especially for those most unfamiliar with relevant content and behavior, when school policies and practices expose novices to competitive practices—ranking, letter grades (on the curve), unclear criteria for defining and judging learning tasks and student work. Competitive practices, founded on the principle of scarcity not abundance, are best considered as options after students have acquired an acceptable level of performance and are able to work independently. Even then, these practices might be evaluated for their influence upon continued performance levels of motivated and nonmotivated students.

3. Forming homogeneous groups of students in which individual competition dominates. Bright students placed in classes made up of equally bright students, and expected to learn under competitive conditions, will not achieve as well as they would as members of heterogeneous groups with a normal spectrum of students engaging in cooperative learning; that is, in a group that follows the proverbial “Alpine climbing rules,” where all advance or none advance, and where all share ideas and explanations in a helpful manner.

4. Limiting local teachers’ authority for content selection, and for deciding how that content will be presented to students. Prescribed textbooks that are oriented to 50 different sets of often-questionable state content standards, together with weak teacher preparation in subject matter, make it difficult for teachers to exercise intellectual authority. Such authority includes both the ability to identify the powerful knowledge worth centering on and the freedom to exercise a variety of pedagogical skills in making the key concepts of that knowledge meaningful to particular students.

5. Stifling the transfer of common-use high-level thinking. When they are in out-of-school situations, most students use high-level skills of argumentation naturally. They demand logic, evidence, and convincing explanation as they debate with friends or family members the events and influences in their everyday lives—sports, fashion, media, politics. Yet in many math, science, social studies, and other classes, students are not raising questions or applying their critical skills. Learning is suppressed, because there are few opportunities to pursue problems that invite multiple solutions, or to engage in the kind of discourse that enhances their understanding. Exploring an academic subject’s uncertain answers to important questions in their own lives might make these learners want to continue its study. But that chance is lost in most directed classrooms.

Recent international investigations of the lifelong learning effects of schooling, most notably by the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, reveal that the motivation for further learning in prestigious subject fields, even among the highest-performing students, is often minimal.

Reversing that alarming finding—and rooting out the insidious ways in which schools can kill learning—is a defensible goal for every educator.

A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2008 edition of Education Week as Five Ways Schools Can Kill Learning


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