How “school” can kill the desire to learn

I used this image in one of my classes earlier this year and thought I’d struck gold. I actually had but, sadly, the school “system” quickly tarnished it and gave me clearest indication that school, which is intended to increase our students desire to learn, in it’s institutionalised form can actually do the opposite.

I’ve been encouraged to use stories and stimulus materials to pique the student’s curiosity and to use the stories behind the pictures to challenge their thinking and actions. As the Olympic games were bearing down on us, we were doing a unit in our elective sports science class about “Issues in Sport”. I thought I’d use this famous image of the 1968 Olympic Games 200m Podium to discuss the place of sport in society and whether their is a place for protests in sport or at the Olympics.

As the students entered the room I had this image up on the wall waiting for them. At this time, I gave them no information about what it was, when it was or what was happening. I simply asked the students to do two things:

  1. Write down everything they observed in the image
  2. Write down any questions that you have about the image

It was slow to get started but with a little bit of prodding the students really got going, they were calling out the things they observed and others were writing down ideas they were hearing from other students, they were asking me lots of questions and I just told them to record all the questions they had. They’d wondered why they were wearing gloves, why they had no shoes, why were they facing the way they did, what was the badge they were all wearing and plenty more.

Once the observations and questions started to dry up, I shared with the class the key details: that it was a picture taken at the 1968 Olympic Games after the 200m Sprint. Once the students had this they were then able to go and find answers to the questions. The next 20 -30 mins was some of the most enjoyable moments of my teaching year. Some of the students had found footage of the race and were watching it, others were finding answers to their questions. All 18 students were ‘hooked’. They were calling out the answers they found “The two Americans were banned from going to the Olympics again. Why was that?” Good question, write it down was my response. “Peter Norman never represented Australia again after this either. Why wasn’t he allowed to compete? He didn’t make the salute.” Good question, write it down.

This went on for the remainder of the lesson. It was pretty to watch.

Then the bell rang.

I didn’t have my class for another 3 days. As they came in, again I had the same picture on the wall. The immediate response from most students was “What? Are we still doing that?”. The break had killed their enthusiasm and curiosity. It had drained all momentum that had been built as we worked toward talking about why human rights were important enough to these athletes that they’d risk being banned from competition and why an Australian who wasn’t living amongst the racial tensions of the USA at the time would stand up for the same thing. Or what we’d be willing to stand up for?

It made me realise it must be so frustrating for students to go from one lesson to the next regardless of where they are up to. To be fully immersed in a learning experience and have to stop, pack up and move to another lesson and start again.

I’ve got no answers to make it right other than to say that it’s broken. So much of our schooling is institutionalised and constructed to fit in the “timetable” to make it easier for teachers to work but how much of what we do is set up to make it easy for the students to learn and enjoy learning?

As someone who doesn’t have the power to change things, I can only ask the questions. I don’t even have a solid answer to my own questions really, but it’s becoming clearer how much of what we are doing is actually making it hard for students to grow in their love for learning.

4 thoughts on “How “school” can kill the desire to learn

  1. I feel the pain, and like you don’t know how to shift the smelly carcass of traditional school structures into something that supports quality learning. And I’m guessing traditional leaders don’t get it, “it’s too hard to change”. The simple answer is that we need passionate people like you to move into “positions of power” and make the movement toward change. The real answer is a lot harder and more complex that that, I suspect.

  2. I can relate to this post in so many ways. In a post about 3 ways to sabotage learning I wrote:

    Control the learner. Make sure the school schedule is designed with minimal input from the learner. Allow the learner to think they have a say in their leaning by letting them pick a couple optional courses but otherwise be sure to keep their input on what they learn and how they learn to a minimum. Learning should be fractured and compartmentalized so that subjects appear isolated, unrelated and irrelevant. Course outlines and curricula should be published by distant authorities and mailed to the schools. Lesson plans should be standardized by a PLC and laminated.

    I had a student once write this about school bells:

    School bells, the most ridiculous invention on earth. Some people want to spend a certain amount of time on certain subjects, for example; if I prefer math more than social, shouldn’t I have the right to stay as long as I like at math, and as long as I learn something and don’t screw off? No, instead, a inanimate, ringing tin can have the right to tell me what to do, where to go, and make decisions for me. A piece of metal has more authority than a living human being! Truthfully, this thought makes me feel small, and without any say. I think students should have the right to learn what they want, when they want, wherever they want and however they want to do it! If I could take health and science classes all day I would. Why? Because I am facinated about how things work, especially the human body. As for social, i don’t especially want to know what happened all those years ago. I’m also not saying that social is pointless either, many people find the past very interesting, just not me. School’s purpose in my eyes is to prepare you for the future, so why not be able to tune your studies to what you would like to become?

    1. Joe,
      Thanks for taking the time to read and reply. What great insight from the student. I wonder how many of them actually think that but just haven’t been able to, or don’t have the platform to express it? It’s such a challenge in trying to work out how to overcome some of these barriers to learning so that we can start to make change.
      Hopefully, the discussion will start or continue in schools all around the world and changes can be made.

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