Learning is Hard

One dark evening a man was on his hands and knees under a street light looking through the grass.
A pedestrian asked what he was looking for.
“The keys to my car.” replied the man.
Having some time and feeling helpful, the pedestrian joined the man in his search.
After a while, with no success, the pedestrian asked: “Where were you when you lost your keys?”
“Over there by my car.” the man gestured.
The pedestrian was puzzled. “Why are you looking for them here?”
The man without keys explained: “The light’s better!”

Why is it in education that we continually look for answers in the wrong place?

We give homework, tests, and assignments then grade students on their work.  When they don’t measure up to our expectations we encourage them to develop better habits and we talk to parents, then we move on to the next unit.  We decide the trouble lies somewhere in the work ethic of the student, the lack of support from home, or the general difficulty the student has “doing school”.

We shine the light on their ability to follow our rules and search for remedies that will allow the student to get “back on track”, neglecting the complexity that is human life.  Rather than meaningfully understanding the needs of students and responding to them, we focus on the limited time we have with students in class and expect them to figure out what they need to improve on their own.  

We seldom look for ways to deeply understand and connect with students and the ways in which they learn.  Once they are beyond the door of our classroom, it’s on them to do the learning, and if they can’t handle it, it’s their own fault.  Why is this the case?

Learning is hard.

True learning is hard and messy and takes a lot of time.  Honestly, thinking about a hypothetical classroom in which my most struggling students receive A’s gives me a panic attack because of the chaos, coordination, and deep focus it would take for me to help them find success.  The same can be true about searching for keys in the dark: it can seem impossible, but if that’s where you need to focus your attention, it appears to be a waste looking anywhere else.

I’m not arguing that it is the job of the teacher to do everything for students.  I’m simply arguing that giving them a C on a paper with comments is not enough for a student to do better on the next paper.  Earning a D on a math test and saying “you need to study harder next time” doesn’t help a student prepare for the next test.

I don’t have an answer to this dilemma, but I think it is important to admit just how difficult learning actually is and take one step toward embracing the messiness that is teaching.  It is time to stop looking at test scores and expecting students will change on their own.  It is time to stop looking under the street light and expecting we will find our keys.


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