Is School In Danger of Becoming Irrelevant? (Part 1)

School Irrelevant

As a teacher, I certainly hope not.

But as I listened to Will Richardson speak over the weekend at the Tomorrow’s Classrooms Today Conference, I couldn’t help wonder. The conference, hosted by Evolving Educators and held at Rider University, focused on the ways in which schools can best prepare for students for tomorrow. And while preparing students for the future has certainly always been a goal of school, the pace of change in today’s society makes predicting what the “future” will look like difficult, if not nearly impossible.

So what can schools—and teachers—do? 

Richardson’s keynote address—titled “Empowering Modern Learners”—offered some guidance. I think the first thing Richardson would suggest is that we simply can’t keep doing the same things we’re doing and assume they will always work. As John Dewey reminded us so many years ago, “If we teach today the way we taught yesterday, then we rob students of tomorrow.” That said, with so many new technology tools out there—and companies peddling their wares—it may be tempting to think that integrating the latest edtech tool means we’re “innovating” our instruction. But as Richardson also pointed out, kids today don’t need digital worksheets. The real question we should always be asking ourselves is this one:

Adobe Spark (4)

How does this tool—or this practice—help to transfer the agency of learning over to the student? It’s a question similar to the one I first heard educator Troy Hicks pose many years ago, and one that I find myself using quite often whenever I consider using a new edtech tool. Hicks asks, “For what problem is this tool the answer?” and “Does this tool solve the problem in a better way?” Asking these questions—and pondering the answers—helps me determine whether I’m using a tool simply for the tool’s sake or using the tool to empower learning.

And really, it’s about empowerment. In his keynote, Richardson pointed out that while engagement is important, ultimately engagement is really only effective if it leads to student empowerment—and taking that one step further, if it leads to to the most important outcome we’d want in education, nicely summarized in Seymour Sarason’s words:

“Productive learning is where the process engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more. Absent wanting to learn, the learning context is unproductive.”

Wanting to learn more. This point was particularly powerful for me. How often, Richardson asked, do our students leave our classrooms wanting to know more about the topic we just covered? Or put another way, how often do they leave our classrooms never wanting to know more?

As an English teacher, I ask myself then—how often do my students leave my classroom wanting to learn more about the author whose book we just studied? How many of them are compelled—by their own natural curiosities—to read another title by that author? In fact, how many of them are simply inspired to read on their own when not required to do so? Do my students read on their own because of their experiences in my classroom (at least, in part)—or in spite of them? A few weeks ago, I watched the opening keynote for the Educator Collaborative Spring Gathering, given by Smokey Daniels and Sara Ahmed. I wrote about their keynote earlier, but as I write this post, I’m reminded of a point that they made about what happens to students’ sense of curiosity when they get to school. From my earlier post:

Citing research from Harvard University, Daniels pointed out that the number of “curiosity episodes” a child has drastically diminishes the longer he is in school. Pre-K students have, for example, between 26-76 curiosity episodes per hour so that “every half minute to a minute, they’re doing something curious.” By the time students got to kindergarten, their curiosity episodes dropped to 1/hour, and by 5th grade, the number is too small to even measure. Daniels cited Susan Engel, the Harvard researcher, with this astonishing observation:

Most children spend their whole school day without asking a single question or engaging in a sequence of behavior aimed at finding out something new.

The transition is like moving from an intrepid explorer to a well-behaved scholar.

Just yesterday, at our District Language Arts meeting, I watched another opening keynote from the Educator Collaborative, this time from Penny Kittle who spoke on “Balancing Core Texts, Book Clubs, and Independent Reading.” I had never seen it before. She pointed out an often-overlooked irony about our conversations regarding student reading loss. We tend to focus on the reading loss that happens over the summer when students aren’t in school. But how many of our students suffer reading loss during the school year?

Put another way, 83% of the time, students’ reading lives are dictated by someone else.

I have often heard students—particularly those who identify as readers—tell me that they can’t wait until school is over so that they can have time to read. “I don’t have time to read during the school year,” they tell me. “I’m just too busy.” That means that for 10 months of the year, students aren’t reading independently. For 10 months, whatever habit of independent, self-directed reading they may or may not develop is put on hold. If students do read independently, perhaps they read for 2 months of the school year—and even then, how much of their summer is spent completing required summer reading assignments? Yet when students leave our high school—and later, college—classrooms, they will have the full 12 months of the year to read independently, or at the very least, the freedom to do so.

Given this freedom, will they read? I wonder. In their book, No More Summer Reading Loss, authors Carrie Cahill, Kathy Horvath, Anne McGill-Franzen, and Richard Allington remind us that we can’t just focus on the summer reading we assign. We need to shift our thinking. Instead, we need to focus on the experiences and opportunities we give students during the school year that encourage them to read during the summer (and beyond).

All of this got me thinking about how much of what we do in school is, from students’ perspectives, irrelevant to the real learning that they do in their own lives. It seems to me that there’s this incredible disconnect between the learning that students do in school and the learning they do on their own. Why is that? This was also one of Richardson’s points during his keynote. A few weeks ago, I was talking to a teacher from another school—an English teacher, mind you—and he commented that it was the reading he did outside of school that made him the reader he is today. He admitted to often skimming and fake-reading his required school assignments and then went home to devour the books he wanted to read.

This is not to say that his experience is necessarily a common one—after all, I know that it was both my in-school and outside-school reading experiences that made me the reader I am today—but I do think we should be asking ourselves how many of our students are like this teacher? I know that every year I struggle with at least one student who fits this description (this year, three students immediately come to mind). These students rarely do any of the reading or work assigned to them, yet I know—I know—that they are voracious readers outside of my classroom. I know because even when they haven’t read the book we’re reading in class, they pipe in during discussion with a connection to other books they’ve read—a connection that is insightful and thought-provoking (perhaps more so than the observations from some of their peers).

Of course, I say this not to defend a student’s refusal to do work that is assigned. I think many of us can attest to doing work as adults that we may not like but still had to do. Is there value in that? Sure, possibly. But isn’t there greater value in authentic engagement? How do we serve that student and others like him? (No doubt that one way would be to offer some choice reading during the school year.) Furthermore, I also wonder about the students who may, in fact, read what they’re assigned, but only because they are required to. Compliance isn’t engagement. And I doubt that compliance leads to wanting to learn more.

So back to the question I asked at the beginning of this (now lengthy) post—what’s a teacher to do? Again, Richardson offered some guidance in his keynote (he also has a great TED Talk). First, we can start by taking a critical look at our beliefs. And more specifically:

What do you believe about how kids learn most powerfully and deeply in their lives?

Only by reflecting on those beliefs—and articulating them—can we make the first step toward modern learning. We also need to understand the contexts in which learning occurs today. Nowhere else in their lives, Richardson pointed out, are students not permitted to take out their phone to find an answer except in school. I think the same can be said of most adult lives, too. So what does that mean for us, as teachers? How do these new contexts—coupled with our beliefs about how students best learn—inform our practices?

More in Part 2…


  1. Wow. This was powerful and really hit the nail on the head for a lot of the anxiety I’ve experienced this year. I think, having taught upper level students for so many years, I easily forgot what it means to be engaged. They’re looking at me, they’re doing the work, they’re participating, so clearly I’m doing my job. However, when I’m teaching the struggling readers, that’s when I know that there’s more work to do. They challenge me on a daily basis (sometimes) on the purpose of the work, the connection to the “real world,” etc. It’s their comments that sit with me day in and day out, that make me question what I’m doing and how I’m doing, and make me want to get better. My summer will be dedicated to just this topic – how to help my students be engaged in working and thinking. I’m still trying to decide if I believe that being a good reader leads to being a better writer or if it’s vice versa; whatever I decide will be where I start my focus for the year in the fall. Lots of thinking and reading to do this summer on just this topic. Very apropos – thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Rachel. Even though I teach a lot of upper level students, I think the challenge with such students is that while they are often more engaged, I have to be mindful of the difference between compliance and engagement. I’m also reminded of something I think Kelly Gallagher wrote somewhere (maybe Readicide?)… I’m paraphrasing, but he reminded us to that while we often worry about the lower level students who don’t read, we also need to be honest about our higher performing students who also do not read—those who are aliterate. It’s tough. As far as your question re:reading and writing. I used to think that reading came first. But I don’t think that’s true. I think students are often writers before they’re readers (or want to write before they want to read), and then as they get better at writing, they want to learn more about writing, which encourages them to read, etc. So whether it’s reading or writing “first,” I’d say it depends on the student,


  2. It is a really sad day when kids say they can’t wait until summer so that they have time to read.. To READ. Thanks for a terrific piece, Tricia. I look forward to part 2.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Maribeth. I used to hear students complain in my early days of teaching about not reading during the school year, and I thought that was on them. I’m ashamed to say that I used to think that if students really wanted to read that they would find a way, even if it meant doing what I assigned on top of that. Only later did I start to realize that students really didn’t have that time, even students who wanted to read—and how much more of a problem was the lack of time for other students? I only wish I had realized my mistakes in my thinking sooner.

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      • I am not sure how this problem can be solved in the day of CC and high stakes testing. I believe part of the problem is summer reading and the lack of choice. We have summer reading requirements all the way down to kindergarteners going into first grade. I also believe, at least at the elementary level, the implementation of RTII ruined reading blocks. I have small blocks of lit instructional time (20 mins) when I have all of my students….Crazy.
        This is definitely an area worth pursuing at all levels. Thanks again for bringing light to it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, summer reading is definitely an issue (as is the high stakes testing, unfortunately). After many different iterations of summer reading, I feel like we are on the right track with our 9th graders, but it took a while. We are allowing Ss to choose from the PA Young Readers Choice List—15 titles! We are also going to the MS to booktalk the titles ahead of time. Hopefully this will be a step in the right direction.


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