Stop bawling into our ears...

“What did you learn in school today?” The very question annoys most students and flusters many parents when they receive the resulting answer: “nothing.” Why is it that we expect there to be something to tell, something “learned” every single day in school that can be distilled into a couple of sentences at the dinner table? What is wrong with just experiencing the day?

Often, school is a petri dish where students absorb ideas, create connections, and exist, as nomadic herders do, simply wandering and watching. Often, things happen that will affect learning months or years down the road – a middle school student writes a free verse poem, struggling to find figurative language that resonates without rhyme; years later, he discovers Walt Whitman in a high school English class and truly understands how that new form -- free verse -- evolved.

In 1580, Michel de  Montaigne wrote:

"Our tutors never stop bawling into our ears, as though they were pouring water into a funnel; and our task is only to repeat what has been told us. I should like the tutor to correct this practice, and right from the start, according to the capacity of the mind he has in hand, to begin putting it through its paces, making it taste things, choose them, and discern them by itself; sometimes clearing the way for [the pupil], sometimes letting him clear his own way. I don’t want [the tutor] to think and talk alone, I want him to listen to his pupil speaking in his turn."

Teachers (and parents) who think for their students, presenting them with information that will be requested later on a test or in an essay, are side-stepping the goal: an engaged mind. Only through offering enticing tidbits, through allowing students to take charge of what is important, what is interesting, what is true for themselves, can learning last.

The question is never just, “what did you learn?”  It is more intricate, involving specifics, and unexplored thoughts. It is, essentially, poetic: “who are you now; how are you different than you were this morning?”

first published by Marie Furnary
7/13/09 on