Most Classroom Learning Sucks

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🗓️ Publish Date
January 22, 2005
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The problem with most corporate/adult learning programs is that they're just like school. And the problem with school is that it sucks. It works against the way the brain wants to learn.The best learning occurs in a stimulating, active, challenging, interesting, engaging environment. It's how the brain works.


The best learning occurs when you move at least some part of your body. The best learning occurs when you're actively involved in co-constructing knowledge in your own head, not passively reading or listening. (Taking notes doesn't really count as being actively involved.)

People complain that their kids can't pay attention in school, then their kid comes home and spends two hours studying the elaborate world of Halo 2. Reading, absorbing, problem solving, using sophisticated mental maps, and on it goes.

When learning is "presented" in a push model, your brain says, "This is SO not important." You're in for the battle of your life when you try to compete against the brain's natural instinct to scan for unusual, novel, possibly life-threatening or life-enhancing things.

Forcing people to sit in a chair and listen (or read) dry, formal words (with perhaps only a few token images thrown in) is the slowest, least effective, and most painful path to learning.

Yet it's the approach you see replicated in everything from K-12, to universities, to adult/corporate training.

Skyler (my switcher-daughter) was fortunate enough to go to a private school until 6th grade. In that school, there were no classrooms. There was no teacher-at-the-front rows of chairs thing. Kids sat where they wanted to do their work--on the floor, on the deck, at the kitchen table, whatever worked for them. There were no lectures, no formal lessons. When kids needed help on a "project", they asked, and one of the teachers helped them. If a few kids were dealing with the same thing, the teacher might take them into what looked like a little corporate conference room, for an ad-hoc session. Even then, the teacher was more like a mentor/guide, and not the "sage on the stage". Kids were allowed to work on whatever they wanted, as long as they were fulfilling, somehow, their goals to include geography, math, language, etc.

And each kid had his entire curriculum custom-made for his personal interests. For the things that turned his brain on. One kid was obsessed with dinosaurs, so with the help of his teacher, he designed his entire first year around dinosaurs. Everything he did was based on learning more about dinosaurs. Math was based on calculating sizes and dates, and making his own categorizations. Language was, well, he had to learn to read if he wanted to learn about his passion. Geography was based around researching the areas where different dinosaurs lived at different times, creating timelines, etc.

Another kid's father frequently traveled on business, and his son was fascinated with hearing the stories his father told about the places he went. So they built a program around the hotel brochures his father brought back. He learned to read the brochures, then to work out the distances between the different hotels, and even make little spreadsheets to calculate expenses and work out budgets, etc.The important thing was that they took the time to discover what the kids were passionate about, and used that as a vehicle for motivation.

Kids aren't motivated about geography. They're motivated by where dinosaurs lived, or where their dad is today. They aren't motivated by arithmetic. They're motivated by how big dinosaurs are or calculating which hotel their dad should visit.

And that's just the first year. By the next year, they've done the dinosaur/hotel thing to death and they're ready for something completely different. The idea of weaving everything—math, science, language, history, geography, whatever—into a framework that capitalizes on the learner's passion was the most dramatic example of powerful education that I'd ever seen. Her school had no grades, and no homework. Ever. It was a leap of faith for most of the parents, that somehow your kids were keeping pace with their counterparts in the "normal" school system, especially since most of us knew that we couldn't afford this forever, and that our kids would all eventually make their way into public schools to finish out.The school did give standardized tests, and the typical score for the kids in the high 80's to 90's percentile against the national average for their grade. Even more importantly, most kids left 6th grade scoring at least two years ahead of their public school (and every bit as intelligent) peers.

The most depressing result of Skyler's transition to public school was when she came home one day a few weeks into her 7th grade, and said, "In real school, they don't seem to like it when you question the teacher..." She was horrified to be labeled somewhat of a troublemaker, because she'd been treated for so many years as a thinking person, encouraged to challenge and question and not assume it was her fault if she didn't understand something. Suddenly dropped into the US public school system, she quickly learned that it's a very different world. She knew more about learning theory and the brain than most of her school's administration, and her tolerance for poor/weak educational experiences was pretty low.

She did have some fabulous teachers throughout the rest of her public school days, but wouldn't you know it--they were always the teachers getting into trouble with the school administration or even parent's groups. In a later post I'll tell you a shocking story about one of her teachers who made the national news, twice, for encouraging students to think--and act-- for themselves. He was nearly fired during a witch hunt that both local and national media seized on (although most later offered apologies when it became obvious what was really going on).

One of the biggest mistakes adult learning programs and learners can make, in my opinion, is to use traditional school as the model. It doesn't work for kids, and it doesn't work for adults. Because it doesn't work for the brain. I know there are enormous challenges and pressures for delivering public school learning (that so many teachers don't have the option or power to change), but most adult education programs that follow the same poor model don't have those excuses. In many cases, adult classroom training looks like school just because that's how it always looks. There are a lot of interesting and wonderful exceptions in the adult learning world, of course, and a lot of novel things being done with everything from arrangement of chairs in the room to the role of the instructor as facilitator rather than "teacher", and I'll say more on that later.

But for the most part, we're still using the same approach that, given the pace of information change today, is even LESS useful than it was in the past. We need a big change.

[Update: several people have asked about Skyler's school--it was Manhattan Academy in Manhattan Beach California. Be sure to read their philosophy section; when Skyler was there they really meant these things. Too many schools have a nice set of bullet points about their values, but putting them into practice is a different thing. Manhattan Academy walked the walk.]