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Learning at its Best

I’m Tired of Talking About Education

Actually, I’m not.

I’m going to spend the rest of this essay talking about it.

I am very tired of talking about school, especially with people who think we are talking about education.

Education and school is not the same thing and I can prove it. School takes place for six, seven or ten hours a day. Education takes place 24/7/365.25.

If you don’t know why there is a .25 after the 365 you don’t need more school. Chances are the teachers don’t know either. You, and they, need more education.

Education, a.k.a. learning, comes from asking questions (Hey, Educationontheplate, why is there a .25 after the 365?) and getting, or better yet, finding or developing answer. Go to it.

People are sponges; we learn all the time. People learned long before there were schools and we will continue to learn long after schools finally choke on the curriculum they try to regurgitate and die.


From the moment we are born, and possibly even before then, we are observing, noticing patterns, making assumptions, testing them, revising them and starting over. This may sound familiar to science teachers who call this the “scientific method” and try to teach it to students who really just need to have it pointed out that this so-called method is what they’ve been doing naturally their entire lives.

What students do naturally, what we all do naturally, is learn. 24/7/365.25. We do it with or without schooling and often do it in spite of schooling. Schooling comes with an agenda but learning often does not. As in my life, and perhaps frequently, schooling gets in the way of learning.

It is true in kindergarten where the natural learning and socialization of play has English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scienti...been replaced by reading, writing, algebra and being yelled at for not standing in line properly. All this is to ready students for first grade. Children learn in spite of this.

In first grade students read more, write more, and follow more directions to get them ready for second grade. Children continue to learn in spite of this. Sometimes they’ve already learned that school is not right for them by testing it and finding that it does not meet their needs. When that happens we schoolers tell the student that he or she is not right for school, that they are not meeting the school’s needs for order, discipline and standing in line silently and we start to teach them that they are failures.

This is what school is best at: teaching students that they are inadequate, that they are failures.

They fail to stand in line correctly, form their letters correctly, or form their sentences and paragraphs according to the standards (I wonder what school thought of John Barth, e.e.cummings, Hemingway, Jonathan Safran Foer or, especially, Roberto Bolaño, known for incredibly long sentences, not to mention devastatingly evocative metaphors). They write like writers instead of three or five paragraph automatons and we call them failures.

Learning is free-range, we learn from what we manage to be exposed to; school has a curriculum (math, science, ELA, etc.) and a meta-curriculum (how to stand in line, how to raise one’s hand for permission to speak, the procedure for going to the bathroom).

I work in a school that’s part of a school network that’s part of a school system. That school system is one of 14,514 school districts in the USA (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). I’m willing to bet that at least 99% of those districts have the word ‘school’ in their name and that fewer than .0001 have the word ‘learning’ in their name.

But think about this: No one fails to learn yet many fail at school.

American Education is in the Dumpster

Image by brewbooks via Flickr

I’m tired of talking about school.

I’m tired of thinking about school.

I’ll never get tired of thinking and talking about learning.

Learning is education.

School is something else entirely.


U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, “Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey,”2000-01 and “Local Education Agency Universe Survey,” 2000-01.

For those who haven’t figured out 365.25 yet, a clue: leap years.

 This was cross posted on my personal blog: Educationontheplate
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About Deven Black

I'm a highly curious middle school teacher-librarian for the NYC Department of Education. My other major pleasure is being a husband and the father of a teenager. I've done lots of other things (news reporter, restaurant manager, food writer, etc.) that will show up in my writing from time-to-time. I have strong opinions but I try to keep an open mind. I'm always ready to learn something new.


15 thoughts on “I’m Tired of Talking About Education

  1. This is exhilarating. There is such a stark difference between education and schooling–and I can’t understand why we worship and value one more than the other. Thank you for putting into words the way I feel about what I know is most important.

    Posted by Jennifer Leung | December 28, 2011, 11:28 pm
  2. Exhilarating? Yes! This post will resonate with many here. As an educator who feels the difference between school and learning all too well, I’m faced with a question. At its heart, it’s a question of integrity. If I maintain my role as teacher in a school system that seems to move further and further away from the ideal of being a place of learning, then, in a sense, I live and propagate a falsehood. But if I leave, then I give up on the opportunity to help transform a system that is very much in need of transformation.

    But I’ll put a different spin on things. If we are learning 24/7/365.25, then school is also a place of learning. So is the walk to and from school. So is the weekly trip to the grocery store. Learning is a natural process. School, as an institution, is not. It is crafted by humans, with specific intentions and a specific agenda.

    I think that good things happen in school, and they happen because of folks like you and me and the countless other teachers who work very hard to bring a perspective to the learning process.

    I think that there is a difference between learning reading and writing and being yelled at for not standing in line. Each of these is important in a social context, but each serves different purposes and has different value in our day-to-day lives.

    Your post forces us to ask some questions, to be sure. It encourages us to think deeply about what this place we call school is all about, and why we compel our children to attend for so many years.

    But for me, the main question is about respect. How can we respect the fact that learning is a natural process? How can we re-imagine our schools so that learning is honoured/honored above all else? How can we create learning paths that respect and leverage what we know about learning and about human development so that schools actually resonate with those that walk through the doors every day?

    How can we close the gap so that schools become more vibrant places of learning?

    An opening response to your post.

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | December 29, 2011, 12:13 am
    • Oh, there is no doubt that learning happens in school. Learning one is regarded as a failure is learning as much as finally getting why the Civil War is important today is, and I suspect they are both intended lessons.

      In order to close the gap so that schools become more vibrant places of learning we must drop all the pretenses, all the platitudes, all the vacant or vacuous mantras and mission statements and finally speak honestly about what school is intended to do, what it does, who benefits from it doing what it does, who loses, and why we think this is alright or not. If we determine it is not alright we must then put on our thinking caps and take many risks, try many systems, many methods, many locations, many time periods and see what works for whom to accomplish whatever the heck it is we figure out we want to accomplish. It will be hard, angry, disruptive, displacing and, in some cases, disastrous, but no more so than what is happening to so many students and teachers.

      I think it is time to turn the asylum over to the inmates; lets have students design school — the curriculum, the buildings, the schedules, etc. They can’t do much worse than we adults have done and they might have better ideas.

      What have we got to lose?

      Posted by Deven Black | December 29, 2011, 12:33 am
  3. “Learning one is regarded as a failure is learning as much as finally getting why the Civil War is important today is, and I suspect they are both intended lessons.”

    I totally agree with the first part of your statement, but we’ll have to part company at the concluding phrase. I don’t think that the sorting and stratification that takes place as a result of schooling is intended. But I may just be naive!

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | December 29, 2011, 12:39 am
  4. It is not a result of schooling, it is the method of schooling to sort and stratify. I think it is also the purpose of schooling as it is conceived by the people who control it.

    Posted by Deven Black | December 29, 2011, 12:44 am
  5. I can see where one might get this impression, but I don’t know many who work within the system that would buy it. At least not where I live and work.

    But, I’m open.

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | December 29, 2011, 12:48 am
  6. Really enjoyed this. It got me nodding my head in agreement in many places. I do wonder how we can help the teachers of tomorrow cope with the fact that they carry the burden of ‘teaching the children’ from the wider public but often having their hands tied when it comes to educating.

    Posted by Julia Skinner | December 29, 2011, 4:44 am
  7. Great post, Deven! Love it. I concur. I never get tired of talking about learning and in 2012, I hope school and learning become a better conversation. I know we will make more progress and just can hope policy gets more in tune with learning is and how school can be another place where we make it enjoyable for our students.

    Posted by Shelly Sanchez Terrell | December 29, 2011, 6:50 am
  8. The subjects presented in schools, and the shools themselves may comprise a framework for learning, but not comprise the core lessons that are being taught and/or learned. I go so far as to conceptualize ‘School’ and ‘Skinner Box’ as being of the same species.

    Posted by Brent Snavely | December 29, 2011, 8:43 am
  9. Deven, the most telling comment for me in your post was this one: “no one fails to learn but some fail at school”. So true! And, as educators it’s our job to figure out who are the kids that are “failing” and how can we turn that around. And, sometimes it may mean helping them turn away from schooling towards learning. How to do that if you are confined by school is a challenge many of us face. Might just need to be the topic of another post.

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | December 30, 2011, 10:49 am
    • I agree that for some students, as it was for me, it is necessary to turn away from school to enable the student to learn to his or her potential. Unfortunately, doing this is never easy but, fortunately, technological access to multiple modes of learning is making it more and more possible. What is required, in many cases, is not a total desertion of the concept of deliberate, purposeful, education but, instead, an alteration in the location and mode of providing it.

      Posted by Deven Black | December 30, 2011, 11:18 am
      • Yes! And, that is one of the challenges and thrills of being a teacher. We need to use all of the tools at our disposal and that’s where the power and promise of social networking, in particular, is one way I see to work with kids who are failing at school because school has failed them.

        Posted by Elisa Waingort | December 30, 2011, 5:09 pm
  10. Very intriguing and thought provoking post. I like and agree to all that has been said and commented here. In todays learning “environment” as has been in the past, I see and observe classrooms in which it is resoundingly clear where we as educators are slowing children down and therefore the learning curve or potential that can be achieved during “school time.” If we were only more open and progressive, willing to take more risks, open to rethink our traditional views of what education is, and transform what it is we are doing and or trying to accomplish I think the moon is at our reach! Cliches like thinking way outside the box, race to nowhere, etc… are becoming more and more commonpace and in my mind cleverly correct in their assumptions. Beyond curriculum and contentI I see schools as being invaluable venues with unlimited potential to be and do great things to prepare our children for what they are to face in the real world which is really are purpose, no?

    Posted by Bill | December 30, 2011, 1:07 pm
  11. I’m very interested in kids’ owning the learning design during the “school day” and year, Deven. We have colleagues here who negotiate much more with students than traditional schools do regarding their use of time and pursuits.

    If we wrote a book (say, Subvert this school!), are there any “schools,” students, or student groups you can imagine writing a how-to guide for students interested in taking back their learning?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 30, 2011, 3:22 pm


  1. Pingback: Sea Change In Knowledge and Education - December 30, 2011

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