The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

What Do We Really Learn in School?

on April 19, 2016

Today’s post is a reflection on my experience as a student and how it affected my teaching much later and my strongly held beliefs about education throughout my career and now in retirement.  Although I don’t mention the influence of my experience on my work as a principal, it was a strong factor.  For example, I would never buy workbooks for any of my classes.  When one teacher asked to order them, I told her that, unfortunately, there was no money for workbooks in our school budget.  That was true, not because the school district didn’t allow them, but because I hadn’t put any of our allotted funds in that account.


Even when I was a child in elementary grades I understood that not everything taught is also learned. Every Monday during that time we were presented with a list of spelling words that we were expected to memorize  quickly and were tested on at the end of the week. We accepted the challenge and the test without complaint. But after it was all over we joked that now we had to empty our minds of those words in order to prepare for next week’s list.

Spelling was not the only subject we treated with disrespect. In geography and history, for example, we made no serious effort to remember the facts after our tests. None of us really cared about which city was the capital of Spain or what were the names of the rivers that ran through that country. Although we could memorize those things temporarily if we had to, they did not stick with us. As for history, most of it did not seem meaningful in our young lives, especially the names of presidents other than Washington and Lincoln or the wars other than the American Revolution and the Civil War. I still don’t have the faintest idea what the French and Indian War was all about.

Things were different for us in Math and English because we had to use much of their basics that were taught over the long run in school and in our personal lives. But when it came to such things as grammar rules and diagraming sentences, we cleared our heads as soon as our teachers stopped teaching them. The rules of grammar were of no use in our writing or speaking. As for me, I learned whatever grammatical correctness I have through reading.

When I became a teacher I remembered many of my useless experiences as a student and tried not to repeat them in my teaching. What I wanted to do was to teach things that students would enjoy, remember, and use in their own lives. I believe that writing is meaningful for students if it focuses on things they enjoy or care about. (Please, no book reports or analyses of the themes of pieces of fiction!) Young children like to write fairy tales based on those they have heard or read. They also like to write their own versions of popular children’s books such as, “The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Bad Day” or to turn some stories they’ve read into plays they will perform.

Older students want mostly to write something that will go beyond the teacher’s desk such as weekly parent news letters, articles for the school newspaper, feedback to their teacher on this week’s lessons, letters to the editor of the local newspaper, poems modeled on others they’ve read in class, and a book that is a collection of class writings to be placed in the school library. A popular topic for such a book is advice to younger students about how to make it through high school.

Reading books that reflect their own experience or hopes for the future are the ones most meaningful and remembered by students of all ages. For older students some great pieces of literature will work, such as “All quiet on the Western Front”, “A Death in the Family” and “The Poisonwood Bible” because they cover experiences and feelings they’ve also had. On the other hand, teachers should avoid those books, however classic, that bear no relation to the lives or dreams of young people. Please be wary of “Wuthering Heights”, “Moby Dick” and most of Shakespeare’s plays, however. Most high schoolers are not ready to find themselves in those stories.

Teaching math in elementary and middle school was harder for me than teaching reading and writing because beyond addition, subtraction, multiplication and fractions, I had difficulty making math real and useful for students. What I tried to do as often as I could was to seek out real life problems, such as how long it would take to accumulate enough money to buy things students wanted or what was the distance between our school and places they wanted to go. As often as possible, I also encouraged students to bring in real math problems about things at home or in the neighborhood.

Although I had taken two years of algebra and one year of geometry in high school and a year of what I think was called Trigonometry in college, I was never able to teach any of those types of math or use them in my own life. In my opinion, any math beyond addition, subtraction, multiplication, and, sometimes, long division is useless for most adults in the real world. Moreover, I suspect that most young people use devices for doing even the simplest forms of math today.

The experiences I’ve recounted here produced my philosophy of what education should be and what “learning” really is. Many years ago I invented a homily to express my feelings about what true learning is and isn’t. Although that homily is still awkward in its structure, I cling to it and continually try to make it shorter and more understandable. Any help readers can give me would be greatly appreciated. Here it is: “Learning is not climbing someone else’s ladder; it is weaving your own web from the bits of meaning and usefulness you find on your journey through life.”


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