Academics: What’s it good for?

Moose Jaw-20110829-00007Academics. Most of our current school system revolves around it, and yet, I think it falls miserably short of what our kids need. To be honest, I think our academic system of education is highly overrated, at best. At worst, it destroys a number of our kids.

Hear me out. I’m not saying that our kids shouldn’t learn to read, or do math, or develop other valuable skills. But too often, the focus of our kids’ school day is Content with a capital C, with little connection to why it matters. Instead of learning together, many of our students spend hours filling in worksheets or copying down lecture notes that they could google in 30 seconds.

Too often the lectures they listen to are boring and irrelevant to their lives. And from my experience, most of this content is simply memorized, spewed out for an exam and then quickly forgotten. But beyond this, there’s often only one right answer, which frequently cultivates in our students a fear of failure.

Schools value hoop jumping

For the most part, kids who we consider “academic” tend to be good hoop jumpers. They’ve figured out the system and can navigate their way through the predictable demands of the system. But they are seldom truly engaged. Rarely are they transformed by their learning. They’re going through the motions.

Research shows that some of the least engaged students are the highest achievers. Think about that. They do well because they know how to “do school.” Is this really the best we have to offer them?

What if you’re not “academic”? Most of these kids pass through too many years of their young lives feeling like they don’t measure up. Feeling stupid. And for some, it radically alters their trajectory of their adult lives. Unfortunately, too many students have to recover from school once they graduate. Is this really what we want for them?

I used to teach this way

In all honesty, I have to admit that I used to believe in this academics-oriented system. For too many years my students sat in straight rows. I asked the questions. I had the answers. I controlled the learning.

The truth is I did this because it’s what I knew. It’s how I’d been trained. It’s what I saw replicated in universities and in other teachers’ classrooms. I sincerely believed that good grades mattered.

I’m an English teacher, and I subscribed wholeheartedly to the belief that the pinnacle of success in English was the ability to write “the essay.” But I’ve radically changed my position. I’ve come to believe that the traditional essay is one of the most useless things we teach our students.

Recently, I’ve started to ask people I know, “Do you ever write an essay?” I’ve never had one person say yes. I wonder how many teachers, except those who are taking university classes (or writing an opinion piece like this), ever write true essays. If I may be so bold, I wonder how many English teachers frequently write essays.

I’m not saying our kids shouldn’t be able to write. On the contrary, I think our students should be able to argue gracefully and persuade powerfully. They also need to know what they believe and why. I simply think the essay is a medium that has outlived its usefulness, at least in high school.

Academics for the academicians

I’ve come to realize that being “academic” doesn’t tell you much about yourself. It tells you you’re good at school, which is fine if you plan to spend your life in academia, but very few of our students do. It doesn’t indicate whether or not you’ll be successful in your marriage, raising your kids, managing your money, or giving back to your community. All things that matter much more than being good at school.

School should be a place where kids can discover what they love. They should be able to ask the questions that matter to them and pursue the answers. They should discover what they are passionate about, what truly sets their hearts and souls on fire. They should discover they can make a difference now. Above all, they should leave school knowing what they are good at.

Today, I think most kids graduate only knowing if they’re good at school or not. Often our students have many talents; they just don’t fit in our current curriculum because their talents are likely not considered “real knowledge.” And what is that? In the Biology curriculum that I’ve taught for the past several years, one of the objectives that my students need to know is earthworm reproduction. Really? Out of all the things we could be teaching a 17-year-old about biology, someone (a whole panel of someones, we can guess) decided earthworm reproduction was essential?

Our students lose their curiosity

We are born curious. Babies explore their environments to learn; they do it naturally without being told. Three-year-olds constantly, at times annoyingly, ask, “why?” And yet, by the time my students arrive in Grade 10, they have all but lost their curiosity. Consequently, when I get a new class of students, we start by unlearning.

We begin by imagining what school could be, instead of what they’ve known for 10 years. Only then can we move into the work that will help them become lifelong learners who truly enjoy the search for answers, rather than the mark at the top of their exam.

Recently I’ve been reading Amanda Lang’s The Power of Why. In it she states:

Curious kids learn how to learn, and how to enjoy it – and that, more than any specific body of knowledge, is what they will need to have in the future. The world is changing so rapidly that by the time a student graduates from university, everything he or she learned may already be headed toward obsolescence. The main thing that students need to know is not what to think but how to think in order to face new challenges and solve new problems (p.14). 

Learning how to learn and fail and learn some more

Our school system doesn’t need to create kids who are good at school. Instead, we need to create an environment that engages learners, fosters creativity, and puts responsibility for learning where it belongs – with our students.

Instead of rote learning, teachers need to use content to teach skills. We need to build environments that allow our students to get messy and build things. Places where students learn how to learn, and know how they learn best. Where students engage in significant research, and learn how to identify credible resources amidst a plethora of information that, at times, may seem overwhelming.

Furthermore, our students need to be able to problem-solve, innovate and fail over and over again. Throughout all of this, our kids should be collaborating with each other, as well as virtually with students across the globe. They need to be able to communicate powerfully using the mediums of print, photography and video.

Three questions to guide student-driven learning

3-questions-160As I’ve worked with my students, we’ve come to realize they need to be able to answer three questions, regardless of what we’re researching:

• What are you going to learn?

• How are you going to learn it?

• How are you going to show me you’re learning?

How they get to this last question is often their decision. And what they come up with never fails to surprise me.

My classroom hasn’t always looked like this. But over the past three years we’ve shifted to a constructivist pedagogy that has transformed not only my thinking, but my students as well. Now we learn in an inquiry, PBL, tech-embedded classroom.

The journey at times has been painful and messy, but well worth the work. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that my students will often exceed my expectations, if only they’re given the chance.

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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10 Responses to Academics: What’s it good for?

  1. Pingback: Purpose of Schooling | Notta Stuff

  2. I agree!

    I teach elementary school ( grades 4 & 5) and I really struggle with how to do this. Particularly with English. Between board mandates, content bloated curriculum & *shudder* test prep, I have a hard time using inquiry. I don’t even know how to approach it in Language Arts.

    Any suggestions or website/blog recommendations?

  3. Scott Hazeu says:


    My perspective has been making similar shifts, and I’m following a path that resembles the one you’ve been travelling. Your three questions to guide student-driven learning cut to the heart of inquiry learning–very helpful and accessible. They are a tool that could be used in class tomorrow (and will!) thank you.

    I’m very interested in your experience with assessment and reporting in an inquiry, PBL classroom. While messy on occasion, my classes’ forays into student-driven learning have been quite successful. I’ve been very confident in the learning the students have demonstrated (as have the students). However, while we all agree that everyone is learning and achieving at a generally higher level, the reporting/assessment of that learning has been the most difficult part of the transition. The school’s traditional, assessment-based grades reporting hasn’t been an easy fit with a class that isn’t one-size-fits-all. Can you relate? How have you approached assessment and reporting in your classes/schools? Perhaps a blog post in the future will emerge from my questions.

    Thank you for the your work and your willingness to share.


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  9. mkoshea says:

    You could not be more correct about school and what we ask students to do. Education not about learning but about winning or losing a game. If we are going to truly teach students, we need to completely change the rules of the game. Your ideas would go a long way towards accomplishing that.

  10. Brittani says:

    Hi Shelley,

    I am in my final year of Education (high school stream, with teachables in English and Biology – we sound a lot alike in more ways than one) at Brandon University. I came across your blog because my Internet for Educators professor, Mike Nantais, recommended it, and I am sure glad he did. What you have written here about inquiry-based and problem-based learning mirrors my thoughts on the future of education, exactly, and I am so thankful to have read it. I am thankful because I feel that in many high school classrooms, including some of the ones I learned in (only 5 years ago) and some of the ones I’ve student-taught in, this style of teaching and learning has not quite been accepted – which is too bad, since I know the consequences of academic hoop-jumping from first-hand experience.

    I was always thought of as being an academic student through both high school and my undergrad degree. My whole self-concept was based around my ability to get good grades in school. It wasn’t until I entered into the Faculty of Education that I began to realize that “academic” is not synonymous with “skilled” or “intelligent.” I mean, sure, in order to jump through the hoops presented in school, one needs to be smart enough to know the system, literate enough to read the textbooks, and resilient enough to memorize the content – but these skills are not the skills I realized I would need if I was going be successful in my Bachelor of Education degree, and then eventually as a classroom teacher. During my student teaching placements, in between teaching my students, I was also re-teaching myself how to learn and what to learn. I realized that I did not truly understand many of the concepts outlined in the curriculum, because when I learned them in school, they were memorized, spewed out on an exam, and then forgotten almost immediately, as you say in your blog post. Skills that should have been built up in school, like critical-thinking, creativity, logical reasoning, collaboration, and independent thinking, were skills that I had to develop on my own.

    It is wonderful to know that a real, live teacher is putting inquiry-based learning into practise, and is being recognized and celebrated for it across provinces. It is very reassuring for someone like me, who believes in the theory, but has not yet had the opportunity to put it into practice.

    Thank you,

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