School is a Waste of Time, Pt. 1

Don't make everyone go. At least not physically.

This is part 1 of a two-parter. Part 2 is here.

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Here’s something I bet most people don’t know about school: during an average class period, students spend less than half the time actually learning. I don’t mean being taught to — taking notes or filling out a worksheet or making a bullshit poster — I mean learning. Like learning learning. Hard learning. Sustained reading, formal writing, difficult problem solving, engaging in constructive discussion, or, depending on the class, making something.

Because this is how lessons work. When teachers sit down to plan their lessons, they (theoretically) start with what’s called a “learning goal” or “objective.” A learning goal, to put it as straightforwardly as possible, is the specific thing you want your students to be able to do or understand by the end of the lesson. For some reason, they are menacingly difficult to write, and most are a convoluted mess.

But here is a pretty straightforward (and traditional) learning goal for a high school poetry lesson: “Students will be able to interpret the theme of Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’” You know that poem. Two roads diverged in a blah and sorry I could not travel blah I took the one less traveled and that has made all the blah blah.

Now. Everything that happens in that lesson must lead students to achieve that learning goal. If all students, by the end of the lesson, are unable to interpret the theme of the poem, then that lesson, strictly speaking, is a failure1.

Sounds simple, right? Just get the students to read the poem, right? Talk about them theme?

Well, no. Because here is where things get complicated. You can’t just hand out the poem and tell the students to read it and then ask them what the theme is. It wouldn’t work. Some students flat out wouldn’t even do it, while some would read the first stanza, declare poetry officially stupid and then turn their attention to something else. Others might soldier through but, unassisted, get tripped up over the language — “diverged,” “trodden,” “hence” — and, if not completely misread the poem (“traveling brings opportunity”), then in the very least return a superficial analysis (“it’s all about the journey, not the destination!”) And still others, those precious do-gooders who would do anything for you, who spend all period reading the Chinese yellow pages if you asked them to, might put their heads together and bang out a decent thematic statement, but given how notoriously tricky the poem is — the poem’s about self-delusion, not individualism, as most people think — they’d still probably get it wrong2.

Here’s how the lesson would actually look in practice. First, you’d have something called a “bell-ringer or a “warm-up” where students might answer a question thematically related to the lesson or meant to connect the topic to the their lives: When’s the last time you had to make a tough decision in your life? Or You’re standing at a fork in the road. One path is overgrown while the other is worn. Which path do you take? Why? That kind of thing. This would take 5 minutes. Then you’d have students “share out” their answers. (Teachers, annoyingly, ask students to “share out” answers, not “share.” Do not ask me why.) This would take another 5 minutes. Then there’d be business to go over, the agenda to review, attendance to take, homework to collect — another 5 minutes — followed by a passing out of the poem and a couple minutes of the students contemplating the title, or possibly reviewing what they remember about reading poetry. Again, another 5 minutes. Then, a first read (silently or out loud by the teacher depending on how much he likes the sound of his own voice), a “quickwrite” or “flash write,” where students record initial questions or comments or things they notice, and another share OUT. That’s another 5 minutes or so. 

Where are we at? We’re 25 minutes into the lesson and just now approaching the learning goal, and that’s assuming everything runs perfectly, which of course it never does. For there will always be an unannounced fire drill I mean active shooter drill (ha! ha! ha!), or a stupefying misunderstanding from your students (“what’s a fork in the road, sir?”), or a stack of poems that has vanished into thin air, or a Smart Board on the fritz, or good old-fashioned indolence, or Mr. Stevenson and his necromantic ability to sap students’ desire to live, or Jeremiah who needs a pen again and this is the second time this week and you lose your cool and spend five minutes lecturing the class on the importance of preparedness and go off on some weird tangent about how you were a Boy Scout, or the cafeteria served mozzarella sticks and the kids are leaning at an angle suggestive of a very prolific Thanksgiving feast, or maybe the guidance counselor pops by to make a cheery announcement about Career Day, or maybe there’s a recession or a War on Drugs, but whatever the case, something will happen that will require you to pivot, regroup, improvise, or scrap the whole damned thing and start over, which every teacher has done many times, and usually follows a quiet moment of you, the teacher, staring out the window fighting back tears as you consider how much easier it was when they all just cleaned chimneys, before you pull yourself together and turn back to the class with a smile that would embarrass a real estate agent, saying, “Know what, guys? I’m thinking today’s not a good day to read a poem…”

But let’s assume for argument’s sake that all goes (reasonably) well and the biggest disruption you have to deal with is that someone farts. Fine. At about this time, with your students comprehending the literal meaning of the poem, most teachers will have planned a longer activity meant to lead students to a deeper understanding of Frost’s poem. This might be a systematic close read or a small group discussion and would culminate with an “assessment” or “Exit ticket” that might take less than 10 minutes and which is the thing the students have to do in order to prove, in this case, that they accurately interpreted the theme of the poem. The teacher will take these home and based on the students’ answers, drink heavily, or not. 

If the class is 50 minutes long, far less than 50% of those minutes feature students engaged in hard learning which, in this case, would be sustained reading, a bit of writing (though not really “formal” writing), and possibly a bit of constructive discussion.

Now, obviously, there’s no one way to teach this lesson, and every teacher will approach it differently based on their own strengths as well as who they have in front of them, but no matter how you cut it, most of what has to happen in the class are activities designed to control and engage a large group of students who, by their very nature and sheer number, are antsy and emotional and, like all human beings, seek to avoid doing the hard thing. There is simply no class on earth that will enter a room in an orderly fashion and eagerly and obediently dive into an old poem without a little bit of cajoling and/or leash yanking, and those activities — those meant to control and engage — tend to take up an inordinate amount of class time.

Classes, in other words, are basically the one hour flight from Nashville to Memphis: you spend more time driving to and from the airport and standing in line at security then you do actually flying in the air. But the drive to the airport and the security line are as critical to your actual flying as the flying itself.

If that sounds cynical and grim, all this time spent on engagement and control, it’s really not. Even on the worst days, most teachers’ classes fall closer on the spectrum to Dead Poet’s Society than A Clockwork Orange. Which is why teaching is so exhausting, and why American public schools -- and by extension, American society -- are a miracle. 

But, so what? Why go to such great pains to explain all of this?

Well, there’s one group of students for whom all of this is completely unnecessary. Who simply do not need to be controlled or engaged. Who do not need “bell ringers” or “Exit tickets” and do not need to see themselves in what they’re learning. They actually will just take a copy of Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’ and read it and then tell you what the theme is. And they’ll do it in about 20 minutes, not 50.

And they don’t need to be in school. At least not physically.

My argument is that we shouldn’t make them.

More on that in the coming days.

Photo credit: Eastman Johnson, The Girl I Left Behind Me, ca. 1872, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

1

Since no teacher is ever able to get all of their students to achieve their learning goal, every single lesson is essentially a failure. In no other profession, to my knowledge, do the practitioners routinely fail at the thing they are charged and trained to do.

2

Not a bad thing. If students too easily achieve your learning goal, they’re not being pushed hard enough. Hence why most lessons are designed to fail. See footnote #2.