By Shelley Wright

Academics. Most of our current school system revolves around it, and yet, I think it falls miserably short of what our kids need. To be honest, I think our academic system of education is highly overrated, at best. At worst, it destroys a number of our kids.

Hear me out. I’m not saying that our kids shouldn’t learn to read, or do math, or develop other valuable skills. But too often, the focus of our kids’ school day is Content with a capital C, with little connection to why it matters. Instead of learning together, many of our students spend hours filling in worksheets or copying down lecture notes that they could google in 30 seconds.

Too often the lectures they listen to are boring and irrelevant to their lives. And from my experience, most of this content is simply memorized, spewed out for an exam and then quickly forgotten. But beyond this, there’s often only one right answer, which frequently cultivates in our students a fear of failure.


For the most part, kids who we consider “academic” tend to be good hoop jumpers. They’ve figured out the system and can navigate their way through the predictable demands of the system. But they are seldom truly engaged. Rarely are they transformed by their learning. They’re going through the motions.

Research shows that some of the least engaged students are the highest achievers. Think about that. They do well because they know how to “do school.” Is this really the best we have to offer them?
What if you’re not “academic”? Most of these kids pass through too many years of their young lives feeling like they don’t measure up. Feeling stupid. And for some, it radically alters their trajectory of their adult lives. Unfortunately, too many students have to recover from school once they graduate. Is this really what we want for them?


In all honesty, I have to admit that I used to believe in this academics-oriented system. For too many years my students sat in straight rows. I asked the questions. I had the answers. I controlled the learning.

The truth is I did this because it’s what I knew. It’s how I’d been trained. It’s what I saw replicated in universities and in other teachers’ classrooms. I sincerely believed that good grades mattered.

I’m an English teacher, and I subscribed wholeheartedly to the belief that the pinnacle of success in English was the ability to write “the essay.” But I’ve radically changed my position. I’ve come to believe that the traditional essay is one of the most useless things we teach our students.

Recently, I’ve started to ask people I know, “Do you ever write an essay?” I’ve never had one person say yes. I wonder how many teachers, except those who are taking university classes (or writing an opinion piece like this), ever write true essays. If I may be so bold, I wonder how many English teachers frequently write essays.

I’m not saying our kids shouldn’t be able to write. On the contrary, I think our students should be able to argue gracefully and persuade powerfully. They also need to know what they believe and why. I simply think the essay is a medium that has outlived its usefulness, at least in high school.


I’ve come to realize that being “academic” doesn’t tell you much about yourself. It tells you you’re good at school, which is fine if you plan to spend your life in academia, but very few of our students do. It doesn’t indicate whether or not you’ll be successful in your marriage, raising your kids, managing your money, or giving back to your community. All things that matter much more than being good at school.

School should be a place where kids can discover what they love. They should be able to ask the questions that matter to them and pursue the answers. They should discover what they are passionate about, what truly sets their hearts and souls on fire. They should discover they can make a difference now. Above all, they should leave school knowing what they are good at.

Today, I think most kids graduate only knowing if they’re good at school or not. Often our students have many talents; they just don’t fit in our current curriculum because their talents are likely not considered “real knowledge.” And what is that? In the Biology curriculum that I’ve taught for the past several years, one of the objectives that my students need to know is earthworm reproduction. Really? Out of all the things we could be teaching a 17-year-old about biology, someone (a whole panel of someones, we can guess) decided earthworm reproduction was essential?


We are born curious. Babies explore their environments to learn; they do it naturally without being told. Three-year-olds constantly, at times annoyingly, ask, “why?” And yet, by the time my students arrive in Grade 10, they have all but lost their curiosity. Consequently, when I get a new class of students, we start by unlearning.

We begin by imagining what school could be, instead of what they’ve known for 10 years. Only then can we move into the work that will help them become lifelong learners who truly enjoy the search for answers, rather than the mark at the top of their exam.

Recently I’ve been reading Amanda Lang’s The Power of Why. In it she states:

“Curious kids learn how to learn, and how to enjoy it – and that, more than any specific body of knowledge, is what they will need to have in the future. The world is changing so rapidly that by the time a student graduates from university, everything he or she learned may already be headed toward obsolescence. The main thing that students need to know is not what to think but how to think in order to face new challenges and solve new problems.” (p.14)


Our school system doesn’t need to create kids who are good at school. Instead, we need to create an environment that engages learners, fosters creativity, and puts responsibility for learning where it belongs – with our students.

Instead of rote learning, teachers need to use content to teach skills. We need to build environments that allow our students to get messy and build things. Places where students learn how to learn, and know how they learn best. Where students engage in significant research, and learn how to identify credible resources amidst a plethora of information that, at times, may seem overwhelming.

Furthermore, our students need to be able to problem-solve, innovate and fail over and over again. Throughout all of this, our kids should be collaborating with each other, as well as virtually with students across the globe. They need to be able to communicate powerfully using the mediums of print, photography and video.


As I’ve worked with my students, we’ve come to realize they need to be able to answer three questions, regardless of what we’re researching:

  • What are you going to learn?
  • How are you going to learn it?
  • How are you going to show me you’re learning?

How they get to this last question is often their decision. And what they come up with never fails to surprise me.

My classroom hasn’t always looked like this. But over the past three years we’ve shifted to a constructivist pedagogy that has transformed not only my thinking, but my students as well. Now we learn in an inquiry, PBL, tech-embedded classroom.

The journey at times has been painful and messy, but well worth the work. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that my students will often exceed my expectations, if only they’re given the chance.

This post originally appeared on the Powerful Learning Practice blog.

  • I like this… thanks for sharing!

  • King Rat

    The article is Crapola from the outset. All subjects are disciplimes. They discipline the mind and provide psychologial toughness for young people. No more feminizing. The education has been dumbed down enough as it is!

    • jesus.

      Pardon, but how do you mean “feminizing the classroom”? People fall behind with the current system of learning – too far to catch up, oftentimes. In my experience, this group of kids is predominantly male, and the fact that thngs are “dumbed down” does not mean that all students are able to understand it. As a high school senior, I am admittedly frustrated with the pace of curriculum this year, as these changes set in, but the “academic” kids are not the ones being valued anymore. School boards are creating a lower level of intelligence, and it’s scary that the next generation is being raised without knowledge of the world’s facts. These are the things that have kept me from pouring confidence into this idea. I’m sure we’re of common mind, but your description of classrooms as girly and stupid is not very academic, in itself.

  • patty eljaiek

    I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve seen the results in classrooms that embrace the idea of actual thinking. It is an uphill battle though against years of doctrine. Students themselves get confused and sometimes they seem distrustful of new techniques and approaches, but more times than not they rise to the challenge. Thank you !

  • Bob Lee

    I don’t agree with the premise at all. It is the same logic that gave us “new math” and ‘phonetic spelling”…..it is crapola to the nth degree.

    • Tim

      Why, Bob? You are going to have to persuade me better than that. We have just as much, if not more evidence to suggest that the current methods don’t adequately prepare all learners for the “real-world” when they leave their formative years of education. We waste learners time doing menial tasks and using old methods that aren’t effective. As a result, students end up being good “hoop jumpers” as indicated in this article.

  • Bob

    Why, Bob? You are going to have to persuade me better than that.

  • SarahN18

    I think I’m on the fence on this one. While I do believe that there are somethings that students need to know by rote, such as basic facts, I also believe that our education system is outdated. It was created for an industrial revolution world and does not keep up with the pace of the digital world. I like the three guiding questions listed here. I think that they could be very useful as more and more 1-1 technology makes it’s way into our classrooms. However, without knowing more about the method’s the author used, it’s really hard to determine whether this idea could be replicated in a classroom.

  • Fabio9000

    You can get away with stuff like this in English. I’m sure Mr./Ms. Wright goes to a constructivist dentist and drives a car made by a constructivist engineer who gets her steel from a constructivist factory.

    • Clarence

      I would rather have a dentist or engineer that can think critically and solve problems than one who compliantly jumps through hoops on their way to a degree.

      • CurtisCFEE

        Ditto. And I’d like a dentist and engineer who can do things, and not just tell me about them.

        • ConfusedTeacher

          I’d like one who can do things AND tell me about them, preferably one who has mastered the basic principles of physics, anatomy and mathematics before doing whatever probably painful and possibly deadly thing she might intend to do.

  • Waka

    I have done most basic lines if work as a full time student (it’s hard to keep a job along with priorities) and I do agree with ~90% of your article

    Now that I have tested out of half of my classes and “earned” the paper, I have a hard time getting anything.
    I talk to my younger cousins a few times a month (one is a male senior in HS and his sis is a year after) while the male is a typical boy and the femme is the “prodigy” of the family.

    …it is very hard to mention that you are absolutely spot on when the executive world that has come to be wants what the academy of “scholars” looks for. What proof is a grade?
    While I earned B’s and C’s up to the last year and figured it out at the latest minute.

    …Academy is a cult. Go figure that you can waste your personality in grade school.
    (Master of biophysics from Nova SE and I’m 23yo unemployed living with parents)

    • Justin

      You’re spot on that they don’t care about the paper that much. What they do care about, is what you’re doing with that knowledge. If you got B’s and C’s while advancing your science in other ways, they care about what you can bring to their table. It took me way too long to figure that out. When I did, I started teaching. All the paper does is show that at some point in your life you completed some projects. Without other information to back that up, or to show that you really are passionate and driven in what you learned, it really will be for nothing.

      • D.tron

        Great piece and commentary. What is seemingly absent from the discussion is the “why”. We forget that US EDUCATION was put in place with a purpose other than supplying drones for the Fords and Rockefeller s factories of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. History shows us that the most effective methods of teaching and learning was first established in Greece and modified into the effective “Little Red School house. Todays world of culture and business dictate federal mandates for education… hence we now produce drones for our “factories”… as its enforced through federal stipends to the state and district as long as their (?) ideals and requirements are met via the “proof of purchase” seal of standardized testing…BOO HISS.

        • Conni Starz

          yes soooooo true!

  • Maria

    I wonder why so many people think that school is supposed to teach life skills such as failing and getting up again. It actually is supposed to teach academics. Parents should teach their kids how to be a successful person in other areas of their life. If a kid jumps hoops in school, it is the parent’s and – guess what – the KIDS’ responsibility to change their ways.
    It is not true that much academics will be obsolete. Math and writing, the basics of chemistry and biology, physics, and history… will always be the same.
    While I agree that kids are supposed to get to know pursue their passion, there is a time and a place for that. But there is also a time and a place for memorization and boring basic academic stuff – the ‘content’, otherwise there is no foundation of real learning.
    Learning can be fun but students need to understand that life is not only fun. When they start their job, they are not the ones telling their boss what type of work they want to do, no, the boss will tell them. And it might be boring and not challenging, and they might not be passionate about it. But it needs to be done and someone will have to do it. We need to be careful what kind of expectations we teach our students to have.

    • Lori

      Ahh. Your view explains why I struggled through school up through college. My professors and teachers thought the same as you. Thanks for bringing it to light for me…and why I have chosen better education for my kids.

      • Al

        As a science teacher and former engineering professional (and manager), how do I discuss “force” with students if they don’t understand what we mean by “force” (there is a specific technical definition for a reason).

        As an engineering manager, what do I do when the engineer under my charge doesn’t want to write a report of how she or he solved a problem, because she or he doesn’t like writing that much?

        As a person, how do you know you don’t want to be a scientist (or an engineer, or a writer) if you’ve never explored (sometimes, been forced to explore) the possibilities?

        As a citizen of this country, how do you vote on policies that effect you, if you only have knowledge of things that “interest” you?

        I agree, the idea is not to *only* know “the facts”, but how to think about them, and how to learn new “facts”. However, there must be some common foundation of understanding we all share, or society will be poorer for it.

      • Conni Starz

        Hi Lori, what education have you chosen for your children? Because I like you have also struggled through school, and was bored!!!! I want more for my kids, they are excited and eager to learn I don’t want them to lose that like I did.

    • Discourse Matters

      Sound reasoning and solid response. The basic English, Chem, Physics, find relevance in many industries, and will for many years. As for memorizing, there can be too much of it but some of it is unavoidable. For the politician memory is invaluable. But indeed thinking critically relies on having considerable information in one’s mind that allows us to analyze, compare, and arrive at meaningful conclusions. Using language, written or spoken would not be possible without it.
      And yes the boring element might be there but we get bored with many things, church, our spouses, it might be unavoidable. So it is true, we have be careful what kind of expectations we teach our children to have.

  • Andy

    Those of you who think that rote memorization and high academics through boring lecture is the way school should stay are probably either not teachers or have been so blinded by the way school is always “done” that you can’t see anything else being better. Everything in this article speaks to the direction education is moving in the U.S. and rote memorization and boring lectures will be obsolete. The business world is not looking for high academics they are looking for employees who can think critically, problem solve, and work in teams as well as other 21st century skills. What is the point in having students memorize vocal words for the quiz on Friday and then forget them 10 minutes after the quiz is over? What is the point in having students memorize who the 33rd president is? What matters is molding young people who can apply that knowledge to the world around them. Instead of asking what, where, when and who we need to start asking our kids why and how. These questions challenge them to think and problem solve. But how are they going to get the basic information they need to answer these questions? With the technology we have today our students can look up over half of the information we “teach” them faster than we can lecture them about it. Now we can stop wasting time in the classroom teaching information students can find on their own and dig deeper into the curriculum and find more meaningful answers when we do. Its time to wake up and see the change that is coming. Contrary to popular belief change is not scary, change is good. Change is a good thing, if its not good, change it.

    • Justin

      How do you problem solve without appropriate background knowledge? Do you really want an employee who spends all his/her time looking things up in google because s/he can’t be bothered to remember them? What about when they’re corporate policies instructed to them from managers? Where are they going to look that up? How do you prove you can think critically if you cannot describe those thoughts in appropriate ways? Furthermore, how big do you think the world is, compared to how big your students see the world? Is big the whole town you live in? The whole county? The whole state? There may be access through technology, but the scope of many students continues to narrow and hyperfocus on what THEY enjoy, instead of what they should learn. So are you going to stump them with the big questions without even bothering to check on their ability to answer small ones?

    • DLRJ

      There is a solid body of research that suggests that this idea of critical thinking rather than factual knowledge is a false choice. You can’t think critically unless you have a fact base from which to draw. If you think about it, that is the whole basis of a liberal arts education. Is the information I learned in my comparative politics class useful to me in my current profession? No. But analytical skills I learned when I was forced to put that information to work and, for example, write essays about it has been invaluable–analysis that I couldn’t have done without that base of factual knowledge. There is no question that students need practice in critical thinking, but the idea that memorization is not a useful teaching tool or skill is badly misguided.

    • Pamel Prinzipal

      The big corporate backers don’t want social studies. Heaven forbid kids learn critical thinking via a context that might ask questions about political, social and economic history – they might not want the questions asked that arise from that. They much prefer a semi-mythological contentless curriculum where they can fill in the gaps with “authentic” “real-world” stuff. After all, history, English and the arts have nothing to do with the “real world” do they….

    • Lori

      Sums up my entire college experience…memorize and dump. Repeatedly. Apologists resist change…glad to see you haven’t.

    • ConfusedTeacher

      We have always asked kids “why” and “how.” It’s silly to say this is new thinking. I agree that some kinds of memorization are pointless. But memorizing poetry, for example, has been shown to help us internalize vocabulary and complex language structures. Knowing some of the basic facts is part and parcel of knowing the why and the how. Why and how what, anyway? Naturally, the question must also involve a who, what or where to be interesting. A friend of mine is a huge PBL fan and his units are wonderful. The first two or three weeks, though, look very much like the classrooms we tend to vilify these days — lecture (or at least story) based. He tells the kids a long, detailed story about some event or facet or problem of history — he gives them the facts, and the basic premise. He doesn’t make them memorize or take notes, but he does insist that they have a good grasp of them before they move on. The “project” really consists of the questions the kids find for themselves within this material, and the products they choose as a vehicle to showcase their understanding. This really isn’t so different from what has been happening in schools for many years.

  • pedro

    We discussed this back in Teacher’s College – that was 18 years ago. Nothing new here….

  • ty

    The ability to write an essay gives students two important tools. Firstly, it helps answer the ‘How shall I learn it?’ question. If you understand written academic structure, you can read efficiently and effectively. You know where to look for the opinion, main ideas, etc.Secondly, essay writing ability enables students to show what they have learned, thereby helping to answer the ‘How are you going to show me you are (or ‘your’) learning’ question. Again, they will be able to do this efficiently and effectively if they can write a coherent essay. I’m not saying that knowledge of academic writing structure is the only way of studying or displaying knowledge, but it’s a very useful tool. I would like to hear more about the ways the writer’s students answer these questions.

    I also see rote learning as an essential skill. Sometimes, whoever you are or whatever you do, you need to memorize stuff. However, I think the writer means that ‘rote learning instead of critical thinking’ is a mistake. Perhaps they would agree that ‘rote learning as well as critical thinking’ should be the objective.

    I’d like to know the rationale behind the choice of earthworm reproduction as an essential learning objective.

  • Bipin Mohanty

    By mistake we are considering only academic teaching/learning are helping kids to excel in life. Also marking/recognition is for academic only and little bit on sports. But if you will see all students are equally talented/interested in Art, Music, Dance, Social Work, Design, Photography, Cooking, Gardening, Politics, Acting many more where the want/can excel if we will support. Do not blame academic.

    My question is why ONLY academic?
    Most of the present teachers are not convinced because they are out of academics only.

  • Wendy Burleson

    I agree with the writer in principle; as a high school teacher with two decades of
    experience, I perceive that some students (although I hesitate to say “many”)
    are disengaged in the current system — even Honors students — thanks to the decades-old exam/grading system, and in high school, the fixed-end point of 100 hours.

    However, I do not believe that “academics” are to blame – every discipline involves core concepts and skills requiring mastery before one can think critically and creatively. It’s basic Bloom’s taxonomy, where knowledge and comprehension are the foundations for critical thinking skills. Mastering core content isn’t necessarily meaningful personally to students (although an effective teacher can make it engaging), but it is a necessary step in the learning process. Moreover, as a English teacher, I do see tremendous value in having students compose essays – as long as
    they are not the only written form taught in the course. Knowing how to communicate effectively via blogs, forums, wikis and social media – and various non-written forms of communication – is equally relevant.

    I believe that the artificial construct of the timetable is one major issue. Why must one master Math 10 or Social Studies 11 in six months? Why can’t there be more flexibility for Inquiry-based courses that allow students to build creative and critical thinking skills following these foundation courses? Creative, challenging projects — especially ones founded upon the principles of inquiry-based learning — should not be the purvey of only Enriched and Honors classes.

    Inquiry-based projects help students become genuinely engaged with learning. Recently delivering an inquiry-based Humanities course about my school’s connection to the Great War showed me how deeply engaged students could be when challenged with real-world problems to solve and real world projects – inclusive of a web site showcasing the culmination of their research. At semester’s end, my students wanted to continue developing the project because they were genuinely engaged and motivated; in fact, the course has continued – far past the original 100 hours allotted and in far more directions than I could have ever anticipated.
    Nevertheless, I believe part of the reason these students were able to
    be so engaged and proficient in their projects was their prior foundation in
    Social Studies 11, where they learned the basics about the Great War as well as
    their prior foundation in English 11, where they developed strong writing
    skills – including those in essay composition.

    In British Columbia, Canada, where I teach, change is indeed afoot at the provincial level, and as more knowledge is shared among innovative educators via blogs, Twitter, and other forms of social media, change will continue at the classroom level as it always has. However, on a broader scale, public perceptions are partly what have made the pace of change glacial over the decades. Post-secondary institutions
    and the public often seem to translate “student-driven” as “dumbing down” rather
    than as “moving up” the thinking ladder. I’m not certain how B.C.’s Education plan will address such perceptions moving forward.

  • Luba

    I understand your point of view on the need to engage students better and to provoke curiosity. However, there are a few points I don’t agree with. First of all, the fact that people don’t “write essays” in their lives isn’t a reason not to learn to write them in the first place. That logic implies that school should teach only what you’ll specifically need later in your professional life. I disagree. School is the place that should teach you to think, precisely because you won’t learn it later, in your non-essay-writing life. Writing out your thoughts in a powerful argument and thus learning to shape them is not, as you put it, useless.
    Second, you dismiss academics as being people who go through the motions and aren’t passionate about anything. “That’s fine if you want to spend your life in academia”, you write. Now that is pretty simplistic. If you’re spending a lifetime researching, teaching and writing about a topic, that generally means you’re passionate about it. It’s too bad your article devalues this life choice so quickly.

    • Hester Prinwipe

      Doesn’t the writer see the irony here? This is essentially a thesis-driven essay – where do we learn that soil set – putting together and argument and using evidence to support it is something that you practice by writing essays. The criteria used for grading essays has little to nothing to do with the factual content.

    • Lori

      I assure you that learning how to write an essay has not really benefitted me at all in my life. You can learn how to put your thoughts into a powerful argument and how to shape them without having to write mindless essays that you are turning in just for points to pass a class. I learned how to write very well in high school and college for sure. But there was nothing behind it….since it was just being done for points. No interest, no learning, nada.
      I also have personally seen people who could be labeled as academics who aren’t really passionate about anything and are going through the motions. Seems like you need to step outside of your box and see what’s really going on.

      • ConfusedTeacher

        I find this attitude really puzzling. Saying that “there was no learning behind” any of the things you wrote about in high school or college (where, I assume, you selected your own major out of a plethora of options in the sciences, arts or maths) is like saying you had no interest at all in the best thoughts and achievements of mankind. This is crazy talk. In high school, you probably read Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Bronte, Plath — or any one of a thousand other brilliant authors. You studied physics and chemistry (and probably did experiments too) and learned basic proofs of math. You probably, at least part of the time, selected your own questions (we used to call them theses) to explore in these essays you wrote. If your own questions and the pinnacles of human thinking didn’t interest you, then I seriously doubt any amount of PBL will change that. Don’t get me wrong. I agree that the world is changing. I see the need for tech integration. I think it’s great that we teach in new ways, that we refresh our approach and our profession, because things get old quickly in this world. Unlike some, though, I don’t see any of these things really changing the game. Content? It’s all we have that’s interesting. Who would you rather talk to at a party, someone who knows how to google, or someone who is deeply, passionately versed in some gripping subject — Medieval Bookmaking, perhaps, like the guy I met last weekend — and can draw you into it the way only an enthusiast can? Seriously, people. I can’t imagine anyone more boring than someone who has no interest in content, or anyone lamer than the guy always google checking his facts. I never recognize the high schools people say existed in the past, with “worksheets” and “lectures” and teachers “filling heads with facts.” Mine (and I graduated from a fully comprehensive public high school in 1987), looked and felt nothing at all like that. In any case, give the kids twenty or so PBL lessons, and they’ll be complaining that those too, are boring. Familiarity breeds contempt — a nice bit of wisdom I’ve memorized from the 16th century.

        • Andrew Busch

          Confused teacher, are you in the bay area? I wanna buy you a beer or coffee or both. biobusch@gmail.com

      • Tuesday Desaulniers

        That’s a very nice essay you wrote. I agree that writing essays will not benefit you in life. As long as you have no point to get across, that is. Whether you realize it or not, you wrote an essay. You started with a statement and then you provided background behind it. It saddens me that you wasted so much money on college and didn’t bother to get your money’s worth. After all, your education is yours. To do something “just being done for points” actually misses the points. The numbers mean nothing. You have learned something…your essay proves that.

    • Sandesha

      Writing essays is a part of curriculum not to encourage students to learn it and write it, but it is to encourage them to think on a subject which is often inspired from the world around and be able to express through written
      (essays).The idea is to enhance the writing skills because it is one of the important means of expressing your thoughts. But how teachers perceive the idea of teaching how to write essays, makes all the difference. So more important is to teach teachers how to teach and what is purpose of a topic being introduced in the curriculum. our way of teaching make students academic and cut off from the practical life. They remain so engaged in understanding the school system and the assessment process, that they dont get time to actually study to learn and apply. We have thick books to teach but we hardly do practicals of the theory taught to us so that doesnot actually make students learn the usage of the theory in your practical life. Many of them must have got a good command in the theory of camera design and work. they will answer any question asked in the exam related to the topic. but if ou ask them to do a practical and show it or create a camera, most of them will fail to do it. In maths, we are taught calculus, many of us may be good in maths and can solve any calculus problem. but are we ever taught what is the importance and implementation of leaning calculus in our practical life. ‘there is no use of leaning calculus’ is a wrong notion. everything that is part of curriculum is derived or discovered in this world and does exist practically but is know and confined to the knowledge of discoverer. So methods of teaching need a lot of research and development. However, we have brought changes to everything except this
      elementary part of life.

  • Lovedmum

    I agree. But the question then is how? How do teachers facilitate this kind of engagement in the classroom. How do you actually translate this into your practice? Especially in the absence of technology and funds in classrooms and librarys in many of our schools.

  • Phan Anh

    I like the question: How are you going to show me you’re learning?…and learn to use it

  • HipHughes

    Great piece. My goal has always been to walk the line between both discourses. Allow kids to bring themselves into the classroom, their voices… and then allow them to “play” with the academia in order to express its meaning in new ways. Mix that with student driven knowledge pieces and I think you can bake up some learning. Write the essay with the knowledge you will be creating a movie trailer or podcast or website or comic or cartoon or ….. (insert composition new literacy piece) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p1qzb2b92sA

  • guest

    It’s called a liberal arts education for a reason. And there is a lot of data that shows that writing an essay–that is, being able to analyze of piece of writing–is a skill a lot of 500 companies look for in their candidates.

    • Suzanne

      Are you assuming that most people want to work for a Fortune 500 company?

      • Dirk Gently

        Oh come on. It’s not an assumption, it’s a rhetorical point – even Fortune 500 companies see the value in skills that essay writing teaches, ergo if they see value (when it is often assumed they would not) then perhaps we need a more careful look at all this.

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  • deserteacher

    Genuine teaching involves higher level thinking–creativity, imagination, and the great themes of life These qualities of teaching inspire, validate, and launch students into their own journey of lifelong learner and expression of self-hood. (And at this time I will put in a plug for the study of literature and poetry–the quickest way to higher level teaching.)

  • hard working teacher

    I agree with Maria – parents need to teach their kids about life – work ethic, grit, determination, and other factors that make one successful as a student, employee, and citizen in our society. Unfortunately, there are too many parents that aren’t doing this and additional pressure is placed on teachers and school systems to make up for this.

    I also agree that there are some basic skills that students still need to learn – how to write, how to read, how to do math, etc. Those are things that productive and influential

    people need on the job and in other areas of life. As far as memorizing basic, it’s not just about knowing those answers, but also about being able to do math mentally, to be able to see if answers are reasonable, and to not have to rely on someone or something to do everything for you. Unfortunately, our society has turned into this “everything has to be fun” and “everyone has to be a winner” state of mind. Schools have picked up on this and it seems like it’s almost more about entertainment so the kids will be interested and engaged. There are times in life when it’s not fun – suck it up! There are situations that it’s not a game and you have to be serious. There are times when you have to work hard to get things done. Your boss isn’t going to give you breaks and game time (actually who knows? the way this world is going, that will be expected, too!) and make everything hands on. Sometimes hard work and buckling down is what you need to be a success.
    And, kids are starting to get the impression that they always get to make a choice about everything, that they always get it their way. We are turning our society into one that expects everything, one that thinks it’s okay to do things your way all the time. Colleges and employers aren’t going to put up with this.

  • Joffre (J.D.) Meyer

    Frankly, I read this article because I was an English teacher who moved to a tough part of town–near my college–and had trouble with anti-intellectual, pseudo-friends and bullies. I agree with Luba mostly–the comment giver right before me. I like your point about finding material that has more than one right answer. That’s why I gave two grades on essays: one for grammar and the other for writing. I corrected all the essays for grammar first before checking for content. I felt that the “midterm, final, that’s it” syndrome is a horrible way to evaluate students. So I made sure my Developmental English course was like a football game with an objective exam each quarter; then there were two or three essays each half. Those objective exams had just one right answer. I have a passion for writing essays born in recovering from cerebral meningitis at age 18.

  • Bruce Price

    But keep a clear distinction between what is taught and how it is taught. Just because some teachers have given boring lectures over the years does not mean that the material did not deserve to be taught.
    The trouble with all the loose generalizations in this article is not that they are false (they well may be entirely correct) but that our Education Establishment uses these kinds of generalizations to justify kicking out the last remaining substance in our schools. So finally you have children sitting around talking about the world but never actually learning or knowing anything about the world.

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  • fahrender

    Would you not also ask your students “Why are you going to learn it?”

    (Very good article by the way.)

  • 100% agree. So much so that I even wrote something pretty similar a few weeks back in connection with my business, The School of Creative Thinking. The file is attached to this. Most of what kids seem to learn is designed to be surface learning. Deep learning is not memorisation.

  • Suzanne

    What about all the home schooled children that never set foot in a classroom and do very well in society?

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  • Semicharmed

    Essay writing IS useful, because it teaches you to think critically and in a linear fashion, organise ideas, build an argument and offer relevant support for that position, which is the basis for any intelligent conversation. Essay writing is just the formal task of this process. It pisses people off when they have to communicate with an idiot whose rambling stories meander from point to point without any logical sequence or who can’t form logical connections between pieces of information. At that point in the conversation most people would probably wish the guy they were talking to had done a bit more essay writing.

    “….Hoop jumping paragraph…”

    As a tutor of several years, I’ve dealt with kids of most ages (I primarily deal with seniors) and a wide range of intelligence and achievement. All of this is of course prefaced with the obligatory “in my experience” clause. Firstly, kids that have learned to “do school” don’t tend to be successful just because of their academic transcripts, although that helps a lot, but because they’re smart/mature enough to have figured out that a) there’s value in being good at things b) learning how to work the system is a lot easier than struggling against it. What a tender world it would be if we could all work in Google’s think-tank with segways and nap time and adult sized building blocks where we could let our creativity run wild! The reality is most of us are going to end up in industries where the statistically correct approach to dealing with any problem has already been determined and all we have to do is learn a process, repeat a process.

    Secondly self-directed learning is a bad idea when applied to teenage children. There’s a reason why we don’t let them drink, vote, or make medical decisions. Because on average, children do not assess risk/reward correctly, they have no idea what the real world is like and therefore what to prioritise and if give their own way, would probably waste their time trying to make all of the aforementioned mistakes. Do you know what happens to every kid that I’ve ever tutored when you leave the room for like 60 seconds to take a piss? They all end up on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, (name a social media outlet of your choice), chatting to friends, playing games, looking up porn (all of these are real world examples by the way). I’m guessing none of these things is particularly heavily featured in this utopia of self-directed learning that the OP is trying to dream into existence….Bottom line, children need to be governed, they need guidance, direction and supervision and most of all a curriculum, Do I think the current school curriculum is perfect? Certainly not (I’m a resident of Australia btw). Do I think letting children determine their own curriculum is a viable alternative? If the acceptance of that idea was a star, it would take a billion years for the light of that star to reach me. That’s how far away from accepting that idea I am.

    “…Recently, I’ve started to ask people I know, “Do you ever write an essay?” …”

    As I mentioned above, not writing an essay is not the same as not using the skills that essay writing teaches you. Straw man argument. You’d think an English teacher would know what that is.

    “I’ve come to realize that being “academic” doesn’t tell you much about yourself. It tells you you’re good at school, which is fine if you plan to spend your life in academia, but very few of our students do. It doesn’t indicate whether or not you’ll be successful in your marriage, raising your kids, managing your money, or giving back to your community. All things that matter much more than being good at school.”

    I also didn’t learn how to drive, use a toilet or perform dental surgical procedures at school either and those are useful things. Ever consider that it is not the function of school to teach kids these skills?

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  • Dougie Smoots

    “Really? Out of all the things we could be teaching a 17-year-old about biology, someone (a whole panel of someones, we can guess) decided earthworm reproduction was essential?” – I’m really tired of garbage arguments like this. We’re not teaching earthworm reproduction, we’re teaching some transferrable base ideas and method in biology by using earthworms as a content example – putting something in a context. It’s no better an argument than criticizing schools for teaching multiplication by pretending it’s a standalone subject. When’s the last time someone suddenly asked you, “what’s 6×7?”

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  • Haley Gilmore

    I completely agree with this article. Being a high school student myself, I have realized that many of the subjects being taught to me are irrelevant to what I will need for the future, or the profession I choose to become. The basics are always a must in leaning, but only those we shall use in everyday, and/or weekly, monthly times. Not the skills that we will learn but then forget, because they are not of our interest, nor what we will ever need again. I’m a teenager, and this is my most important time to learn, and figure out what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. I’m not able to do this, sine I’ve done nothing but cram useless information for the past seven years. I still don’t know the basics of living, I do not know how to pay bills, or buy a car, or apply for a job. Yes, my parents have helped me, but shouldn’t we be taught these skills in school. Aren’t these the important things everyone needs to know? I think so. So many times I have been worried about my grades, and I still worry. I shouldn’t need to know some of these things if it is not relevant to my life goals. I believe we should be taught basic living skill and educational subjects for the first two years of high school, and then the last two should to totally based on what we need for college and for the job we would like to achieve.

  • AtlasEd

    Shelley, you nailed it. I just hope you’re able to continue with your new approach in the current educational climate. When I was told I had to make a kite to “teach” expanded form in math just like the other 5 third grade teachers, I knew what “team player” meant. Shortly after, I left teaching BECAUSE there is no room for independent thought, making mistakes, and creativity. Learning happens everywhere, but takes engagement, not standardization to happen. There are a million ways to teach a concept. Too bad the current education system believes there’s only one.

  • George

    Child prodigy explains how he stopped learning and started thinking instead.

  • justin

    my school teaches some useful skills like how to read and how to know math but they also teaches useless skills like ss science both of which i learn for the test and forget for the rest of my life there’s something called a search engine you no longer need to know stuff off the top of your head i even had a teacher tell the class that knowing something isn’t as important as knowing how to find it but besides that they teach these useless skills but they don’t teach how to spell dose that make sense to any one?

  • Jenny

    Shelley, Could you share with us some specific strategies on how to transform a classroom that breeds more “academics” to an inquiry based, tech-embedded classroom? To me, the article suddenly ends when it feels like an open conversation could have started. What was messy? What was painful? I think those are useful to share with all educators who are hoping to transform their classrooms.

  • Dan Dockus

    I agree with you that it is important for students to figure out how to research topics. Writing research papers is one of the best ways that students can learn how to find and cite information. Do you have your students write research papers in class?
    I also agree that with you that schools stress academics more than they stress life skills. Most schools have a guideline curriculum for schools to follow that are made up almost entirely of academics. School administrations do not require kids to take finance or parenting classes, both of which teach important skills for life. What do you think are the most important subjects for students to learn in school?

  • Megan

    I agree wholeheartedly that school should be less about memorizing and regurgitating facts and concepts. Engaging with students is crucial to making school worthwhile. While we have innate curiosity, and there is something to be said for learning for the sake of it, many students are in school in order to gain the knowledge they need for a career. Many kids find classes useless if they don’t pertain to their chosen field. However, there are also things that every functioning member of society should know. Therefore, I agree that learning should be student motivated and allow them to harness their natural desire for knowledge.

  • IDS

    Learning in a community of inquiry is indeed effective. Look also at John Dunlosky’s research on learning: summary notes and highlighting teacher talk or chapters does not produce long term learning.

  • Alice

    I partially agree and partially disagree with this article. I agree in that, creativity in terms of innovative capacity (starting businesses with viable new ideas), is a valuable goal to aspire to – and, simply going through a standard curriculum (even through college), may not lend itself directly to these endeavors (I’m with you on the earthworm comment, for example – people not interested in pursuing that area of biology should be allowed to wholesale “skip” such material). However, I will say that rote memorization – for the majority of people aspiring to have a live-able wage in the corporate world and/or as someone else’s employee – is necessary; it’s not necessary for the specifics learned by such memorization (outside of a math and literary base) – it’s necessary to build a robust memory with which a person, can, say, save time remembering the dozens of acronyms routinely used to summarize various engineering terms on the job (for example). It’s also necessary because it teaches endurance in the face of otherwise boring tasks; 99% of corporate employees live in a very boring world, where they must subjugate their desire for novelty and “creativity” for “productivity” and because the market values this boring task to be accomplished for the consumer. This blog site, for example, was probably made by on-shore and off-shore labor, all slaving away “beneath” their “desired” dream of doing high level, elaborate, elegant coding on some awesome project like Avatar. For every comp sci major working at Avatar – there are the 99.9% of the rest of us eating poopy so we can feed our kids; and the .09% (or more) who are just waiting in line for a job that pays enough to repay student debt (probably not a liberal arts major). I think it’s dangerous to encourage students to pursue what they enjoy; thinking critically is great, but not so critically that you become disengaged from the reality you may not be able to escape. Just my two cents.

  • Owen

    Mrs. Wright
    I agree with most of your opinions on education. I also believe that sometimes teaching can cause kids to lose interest in a subject. My precalc teacher assigns roughly two hours of work each day. I find that this is way too much work and discourages most of my classmates. I would do the entire homework set if it was a more reasonable workload, but I cannot spend that much time each night so I often use the online solutions manual to finish the work. This is one of many cases in our school. Some of my peers who are less motivated have lower tolerances of how much work is assigned and the amount of work done in class. I see kids become sick of the subject purely based on the work that comes with it. They dislike the subject by association to the work that goes with it. Maybe if teachers gave less mindless work and taught about real world thinking, we would enjoy our classes more.

  • Doobin

    Practically everything they teach you in school is completely useless. I used to be interested in everything but being force fed impractical useless garbage day in and day out has really led me to not care anymore. After the 5th grade or so they make everything hard for 0 reason except that the idiots on the school board or whoever can’t think of anything of use to teach.

  • Hero Lancy

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    interesting education tips and insights at https://www.tutorhero.me/blog/post/25/Ten-Free-R

  • It’s been known for decades that most of the traditional teaching styles lead to memorize, take the test, and forget. I’ve had students talk to their parents about this issue and the students come back and say “yep, that’s how it was for parents as well”! Why haven’t we changed this yet?!!

  • mryna

    I get the article. I came from a school where we sat in school all day learning facts and hardly ever any hands on practical skills. By the time you get to college, practical skills and critical thinking are emphasized which you should have had your whole life to build upon. I came into elementary school with a passion for learning and curiosity towards sciences, and school just zapped it away from you.

    • Conni Starz

      same for me

  • Charley Gatchell

    So how do you feel about eliminating Teachers and have students learn everything online? Is this new technology we have just a tool, or will Computers become the Teacher of the future? Just curious

  • Shelly Wright makes several valid points. Without a doubt students lose their curiosity as they progress through our system of education. We must examine our current practices focusing on their impact on students’ short- and long-term learning. Students lose when debate isolated pieces of learning such as writing an essay. Granted, I would take issue with the statement that the essay has outlived its usefulness in high school. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the essay is over-utilized or used when other, equally effective, options are available to enhance thinking and writing skills. However, I believe that Shelly used the essay to make a point and was not arguing that knowing how to write effectively is unimportant. She is suggesting there may be other ways for students to learn this. We do not question our practices enough and I applaud Shelley for doing that and encouraging all of us to do the same.

  • maDaniel

    How can any teaching thts not grounded in who the students are move them frm THE KNOWN to the unknown? How can they be relevantly equipped to appropriate careers if their potential is not analysed for specific talents, ‘leanings’, skills? Learner-centred engagement which dialogues with students on content generated from empirical market analysis of market demands are central to matching WHAT’s taught to what is required by the WORK/CAREER DESTINATION – supply what society and the market needs then we wont have ‘unemployed unemployable’ graduates

  • maDaniel

    #Madaniel Mofokeng @mmofokeng2
    Engaging students’ Critical thinking and inquiry faculties leads to KNOWLEDGE rather than information that they DO NOT/ CANNOT connect to real life situations.

  • Tuesday Desaulniers

    Very good article. I have taken some of it and implemented it in my own classroom. I have also disregarded some of it. Academics do matter. The basics and understanding how to find the answers that you don’t care about are important skills in life. Finding the answers that you do care about is self learning. Also important. A balance between the two is crucial.

  • believer

    Wow, I’ve never read anything that sounds just like me. I’m glad someone sees from my perspective instead of what the school perspective is. I’m only 15 and all that was tearing me down. My teachers try and make me feel bad for not wanting to do their failure assignments that fry my brain. I started to wonder was it only me having bad thoughts of the traditional highschool education because no one understood me. I’m so happy to see I’m not the only one in this train of thoughts.

  • Boomtree01

    I’m not saying that our kids shouldn’t learn to read, or do math, or develop other valuable skills. The focus of our kids’ school day is
    Content with a capital C, with little connection to why it matters. Too often the lectures they listen to are boring and irrelevant to their lives. Most of these kids pass through too many years of their young lives feeling like they don’t measure up. It’s how I’d been trained. It’s what I saw replicated in universities and in other teachers’ classrooms. For More info visits us on Practical skills for kids

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