Three Learning Observations

Meeting the Seal

From a recent keynote presentation an online conference called Toddle TIES by Alfie Kohn, three excellent observations that stuck with me.

First, this observation about the math curriculum used in most American schools.

Everything that’s learned, all the knowledge and the skills, are in a context and for a purpose. 

So, for example, here’s a question I love to put to math teachers, as they’re the most likely ones to get it wrong: which fraction is larger, 2/7 or 5/13?

And the correct answer is: who cares!

And if you ever forget that that is the correct answer to that question, you are likely not to do your best as a teacher.

Again, this doesn’t mean that fractions or ratios don’t matter. It means you haven’t given me a reason to care.

You learn to read by reading. You learn arithmetic in the context of trying to figure out something that matters to you like how fast am I growing. Or how many people here have birthdays in the summer. Or how in the United States can you lose a presidential election even though most people voted for you. And so on.

As someone who for 18 years tried to help middle and high school students learn math, I can tell you that we spend far too much time on the mechanical processes and not nearly enough on the context.

Anyway, Kohn also says we focus far too much of the students’ attention on the wrong thing. 

Most of the time kids, especially kids in the middle years and especially, especially kids in the primary years, should not be thinking about how good they are at learning. If they’re all being tied up with meta cognitive stuff, and focused on their growing skill as readers, they’re not thinking about the book.

The more they’re focused on their performance, the less excited they are and the less thoughtful they are about the learning itself.

Whenever kids are thinking about a test coming up or something else where they have to prove that they’re good enough, that casts a shadow over everything they’re learning. Because learning for learning’s sake is completely different experientially than learning in order to impress a teacher, please a parent, or score well on an exam.

We constantly push the idea that we want kids to be “lifelong learners” and then spend far too much time in school on drilling material they don’t care about and won’t remember after the test.

Finally, Kohn returned to one of his favorite topics, homework. Specifically how homework is basically useless as a learning tool.

No research, to the best of my knowledge, has found any benefit to any kind of homework for kids until they’re about fifteen years old. And newer, better research calls into question the necessity or even value of homework in the high school years.

But no research has ever justified making kids work what amounts to a second shift when they get home from a full day at school.

And when I present this evidence to people, and again homework is just one example, and say “why would you do this when it’s not best practice and [there’s] no good data to support it”, the only answer I tend to get is a version of the gooney, which sounds like this “well, they’re gonna get homework in a few years. They’re gonna be graded in a few years. They’re gonna be given tests in a few years. They gonna be required to do this on their own in a few years.”

“Those things may be pointless and unpleasant, but if we want to prepare kids for pointless, unpleasant stuff later, we gotta start doing pointless, unpleasant stuff to them right now.”

Unfortunately, Kohn’s presentation is no longer available online, but you can find more of his ideas in his books (I highly recommend “The Homework Myth), the essays on his website, and on YouTube.


I wonder how much that little girl learned from observing that sea lion swimming in the pool at the National Zoo.

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