Why our kids come to school

I had a thought some years ago while visiting with some students at our charter school. It became clear to me that students do not come to school intending to learn. It was a real epiphany for me because I, like everyone else, assumed that kids come to school to learn, and that’s what the kids intend to do when they get to school. But it simply isn’t the case.  As I thought about that in the intervening years I think the kids come to school for three reasons.

1. serve time
2. get grades
3. socialize

I think those are the three reasons kids come to school, and not necessarily in that order. The longer students are in school the more they see school as something they just have to do for 13 years. I have a friend who as a principal would tell kids when they said, “this place is like a prison.”, that, “no it isn’t, in prison you can get out early for good behavior.”

Instead of learning, kids intend to get grades. And believe me, as a career educator, there is very little correlation between high grades and learning. Okay, so that’s probably an overstatement, but not a total over statement. Grades are much more an indicator of compliance, and the ability to please the teacher, then they are learning. I blogged about this before, but getting high test scores and high grades don’t necessarily mean the student learned anything long-term, nor could they use it in a unique situation.  Which to me are the real indicators of learning.

But the real intention of most kids, most the time, when they come to school is to socialize. Part of that is just human nature, we are after all social creatures and our kids have so many peers to interact with at school.  And even if they did come to school intending to learn socializing would still be one of their primary intentions when they come to school.

For me, as an educator, the saddest thing about this is how many of our kids associate “learning” with negative emotions. Too many of our kids think of learning as boring, irrelevant, tedious, and other negative emotions. Over the last many years I have probably asked the following question of over 25,000 people. I have only had four answers in all those years. The question I ask is this, “If you ask high school kids to describe school in one word, what word would they choose?” The answer that I get 99% of the time is “boring.” And in fact, on the slide I use to ask this question I also have the question, “Is boredom a desirable condition for learning to occur?” I know to ask this question on my slide because the answer “boring” is given so often. The other answers I’ve received over the years? Worthless,  prison, and sucks. None of these terms is very flattering.

But that all supports my position, when kids consider learning they see it as a negative. Which is truly sad because learning should be a personally meaningful experience. And if you consider learning, even for kids, outside of the classroom, learning is very meaningful and engaging. Just think about your favorite activity or hobby. You can get lost in it for hours. A students learning experience in school should be meaningful and engaging in the same way.

In fact, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology, has spent his life studying what he calls, “flow.” When Csikszentmihalyi talks about “flow” he talks about a psychological state that is very positive and exhilarating. His characteristics are worth looking at and will do that in a future blog post.

I see this situation as a challenge for educators. We need to change the educational experience of students so that it is meaningful and engaging on a regular basis for them. We do need to discuss the term “engaging” because, as Phil Schlechty has shown us, there are four ways in which students are engaged in our classrooms. That too the conversation for another day.

So what do you think? Think back on your school days and ask yourself what were your intentions when you went to school each day? Leave me a comment, I’d love to know what you’re thinking.

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