School Stinks

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You know what I remember most about school?  Waiting for the bell to ring at the end of the day.

school clock

The sad thing is that I liked learning.  I’ll admit it, I was and still am, something of a nerd. I’ve always liked to read and discover new things.  So why did I spend the end of every school day watching the second hand on the clock with rapt attention?

Of course I was never alone in this practice.  If you get a chance to visit a high school sometime, watch the students’ faces as the clock approaches dismissal time.  They look like sports fans watching a last second field goal for the national championship.  It’s up, it’s close.  Will it go in? Yes!  It’s good! It’s good!

Now for the sake of comparison, let’s consider an elementary school.  Watch a classroom full of 1st graders as the day ends.

“Ok children, put away your crayons now.  Come on, put them away.  Scottie, don’t eat your crayon, now put it away.  Children please!  For the love of all things good and holy, please put your crayons away!”

stressed emotional expression clipart

Of course most of the class continues to doodle about on their projects.  Teachers and assistants scramble to get the kids into their coats and boots and onto the bus.   Next year the students will leave school a little quicker.  Within a few more years they’ll look forward to getting out of class.  And by the time they reach high school their heads will throb for the last 40 minutes of school, a pain released only by the comforting ring of the dismissal bell.

Why does this happen?

Why does school stink?

Some people say, “Hey, kids are kids.  It’s only natural.”


To buy that argument you’d have to believe kids stop enjoying the process of learning and discovery somewhere around 5th grade.  Well I’m hear to tell you, that just isn’t so.

If you don’t believe me, watch 5th graders when they’re not in school.  Let them loose in the yard and see what happens.

Look, there’s little Johnny climbing the tree.

“Hey Dad, look what I found!”  He hops to the ground and runs up with a live tree frog.  “Isn’t it cool?”

Kid with tree frog

Little Johnny will plop the hapless frog on the picnic table to watch it use its chameleon like powers.  Once the frog matches the picnic table, Johnny will stick it to the side of the house and watch this natural miracle again.  Then, with an inquisitive mind he’ll stick it to the window.  Will the frog turn invisible?  He doesn’t know- but he wants to know. Curiosity is a powerful thing.

Children always have a thirst for knowledge.  They want to know about the frogs in the backyard, how the car engine runs, how to program the computer, and a million other things.  But when they get to school they turn into slack faced zombies.  Why?

Being a former teacher myself I think I’m qualified to offer a few ideas.

I think the first problem is that we stop teaching kids and start telling them.  Learning is a process of discovery.  When we get to the point where we lecture students every day, they stop learning and start memorizing- and memorizing is boring.

It also seems like we stop teaching kids what they want to know.  We tell them what we want them to know, and what we think they should understand.  What’s even worse is that we don’t even tell them why we think they should learn it.  Some teachers don’t even know why they’re teaching it.  It’s in the book and it’s in the curriculum, so it gets taught.  Simple as that.

Frustrated with these barriers I decided to use a little innovation.  Lucky for me my college education program was starting to question long held assumptions about teaching.  The school I taught in was starting to do the same and was supportive of some of the new ideas being introduced to schools.

It was a great opportunity.

So what did I do?


I reminded myself everyday that in school the students are the customers.  I’m there to serve them and to help them make the most of their own lives.  It was a philosophy I worked into everything I did.

When I met a new student I’d sit down with them and ask, “What do you want to learn?  What are your goals in life and how can I help you get there?”

The student and I would work together to shape their own education.  Every day the student did homework that was related to their goals in life.  The student who wanted to own a boat store did math problems made from the prices and financing options in a boating catalog.  The student who wanted to be a psychologist did English work by reading from a psychology book and writing essays about what he learned.

If we studied something as a group the students took ownership of their learning.  Covering the bombing of Pearl Harbor I asked the students what they found most interesting about the attack.  Some students were interested in the battle plans.  Others were interested in the aircraft or the ships.

With those interests in mind I set them loose.  Two weeks later the kid interested in the battle plans gave the class an exciting half hour presentation of the battle of Pearl Harbor.  He filled the entire chalkboard with maps and diagrams.  The students and I were enthralled.

Kids interested in the ships and planes made models and gave equally fascinating presentations.  By the time we finished the subject, every student in my class understood not just what had happened at Pearl Harbor, but why it happened, how it happened, and how it shaped their lives today.

Now I consider myself a better than average speaker, but there’s no lecture I could give that would teach them what they taught themselves.

Before some of you scoff and suggest this will only work with self-motivated learners who already love school, let me share something with you.  The students I mentioned were juvenile delinquents in a state program.  Many of them hadn’t been to school in years, they hated it so much.

All I had to do was tell them to be ready to share something they learned and get out of the way.  I’m here to tell you, whoever says kids aren’t motivated to learn is just talking nonsense.

Before I left teaching I was touched by what some of the students shared.  “I love school now, Mr. Heisler. No one ever cared about what I wanted to do with my life.”  It was almost enough to make me forget guys don’t cry.

Now there was a clock in my classroom, but it sometimes went unnoticed.  It wasn’t unusual to hear a student say, “Hey class, hey Mr. Heisler.  Look at the time.  We’re late for lunch.”

It was a heck of a thing to see.



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