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A New Focus for School Reform: The Student

Helping students to acquire the motivation and skills to learn is essential

Another school year is beginning, and America continues to struggle with the same vexing problems in education. For example, the American educational system poses unique dilemmas including diverse students, curricular choice, and even the purposes of education. Given the persistent and discouraging results in trying to improve our educational system, it is time to seriously rethink our ideas about school reform.

The most overlooked and most important aspect of education reform is the student. This long has been the case. Writing in the early 20th century, education theorist, John Dewey, argued that “the center of gravity is outside the child. It is the teacher, the textbook, anywhere and everywhere you please except in the immediate instincts and activities of the child.”

Jean Piaget, who first championed the understanding of children’s cognitive development, also stressed the importance of the student’s role in education. As Piaget stated, “Knowledge is not given to the passive observer, rather it must be discovered and constructed by the activities of the child.” Although others can help, ultimately, knowledge is created by the student alone.

It is time that we look at the school experience through the eyes of the students. It is also time to think beyond the usual reform targets and consider students as a focus of change.

Interestingly, children possess natural “instincts” to construct knowledge, a fact easily observable before they go to school. Most of this learning occurs naturally, directed by the child’s own curiosity and needs. Children actively explore their world, asking questions about those things that are meaningful and important to them. They proceed at their own rate and, if they choose, can keep practicing until they judge that they have mastered an activity.

When a child walks into a traditional schoolroom, however, profound, unintended, and seldom acknowledged changes take place. The teacher now teaches the student. At that moment, the student begins to turn over the responsibility for creating knowledge to the teacher. Whereas before they were independent, active, and self-directed learners, students become passive and dependent. Jerry Farber went so far as to suggest that schools are coercive and exploitive, encouraging students to become timid, apathetic slaves and authority addicts.

Because of their very nature, schools mostly are set up to serve the needs of the system, teacher, and administration and, as a consequence, the classroom is fraught with unintended obstacles that cause problems for students. For instance, students generally are treated the same regardless of background. Students generally are not in control of what they learn or the amount of time they need to learn. They study for tests stressing memorization and work for grades rather than to satisfy their own curiosity. In many ways, schools are crosswise with their own purpose, making it difficult for students to learn.

To be sure, school requires a different kind of learning than the mostly practical learning of childhood, with its reliance on direct everyday experience. It greatly expands the breadth of knowledge to include abstract and conceptual ideas. It ultimately requires students to adopt new theoretical ways of thinking and analyzing experiences and to think critically about the world in which they live.

These systemic challenges go a long way in explaining why so many students struggle in school. Many students never overcome them.

Here, we can learn from other cultures that have had more success in education. According to Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg, “The first six years of education are not about academic success. . . It’s about being ready to learn and finding your passion.” Put another way, an ancient Buddhist proverb states that “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Much of what we can do to improve education, then, is to help students to be ready to learn. We would do well to focus on systematically empowering and preparing students to thrive in any classroom. Much more emphasis should be placed on preparing children behaviorally and socially for the classroom experience. Much more could be done to help students to build on the natural curiosity they show before they enter school; remain active, self-directed learners; overcome obstacles that interfere with learning; navigate the challenges of abstract, critical thinking; and learn the skills and strategies necessary for academic success. Governmental agencies, school administrators, teachers, and parents all play vital roles in helping to prepare students to thrive in school in these ways.

Although it may require some difficult and significant changes in how schools operate, developing independent and responsible students that are ready to thrive in any educational setting is the right place to invest our efforts and resources. It would give new meaning to the quote, usually attributed to Mark Twain, “I never let schooling interfere with my education.”

This article was co-authored with Dr. Myles Johnson. Dr. Johnson is a retired faculty member in Psychology at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Andy Tix, Ph.D., also often blogs at his site The Quest for a Good Life. You can sign up to receive e-mail notifications of new posts at this site.