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What Real Learning Actually Looks Like

How do children learn best? It might not look like what you think.

Photo Credit: Andreas Altenburger via


Part One

The main theory shaping traditional schooling says teaching means delivering information. Critics say that’s a poor theory, but its adequacy is so taken for granted that billions of private and taxpayer dollars are being spent, millions of kids and teachers are being battered, and the future of America is being put at risk, by schemes based on the theory. Incredibly, the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top programs were put in place without a single pilot or experimental program to check the validity of the “deliver information” theory.

Like many long-time educators, I think the theory is simplistic at best and flat wrong at worst. That very wise teacher, the late John Holt, pinpointed the problem in a 1984 article in the magazine Growing Without Schooling. “Learning is not the product of teaching,” he wrote. “Learning is the product of the activity of learners.”

When I finally accepted that obvious fact, I stopped delivering information and started giving small teams of learners something difficult to do. I became an advocate of project-based learning (PBL) ( Its merit is firmly established. Research, common sense, and well-performing PBL programs in America and abroad make clear the merits of schooling that allows kids to move beyond the forced passivity of reading and listening, get up from their desks, and undertake real-world, hands-on tasks that teach as only firsthand experience can.

But acceptance is slow. Very slow. The conventional wisdom says teachers deliver information. Teachers are trained to deliver information. Media images of classrooms show teachers delivering information. Powerful people—Presidents of the United States, governors, chief state education officers, Congress, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, the Waltons, and so on—think educating means delivering information. The publishers of textbooks are in the information-delivery business, and the manufacturers of standardized tests create tools to measure how much information is being delivered.

(There’s growing resistance to the testing juggernaut, but mostly because of over- testing, not because the “delivery” aim is being questioned.)

There is, however, a problem with project learning. Schooling that doesn’t teach the usual content of the core curriculum in the usual way isn’t acceptable, and projects don’t do that. They have intellectual depth but not the breadth to cover the information delivered (albeit poorly) by the core curriculum.

So I’ve a proposal—a project so all-encompassing and difficult that learners undertaking it have no choice but to make continuous use of the core subjects. They learn and remember because they’re involved in a project they consider important.

That project: Designing and carrying out a long-term study of the school they attend, and using their growing knowledge of their school to improve it.

Schools have histories, infrastructure, purposes, and problems. They have populations, patterns, and procedures. They have community relationships and responsibilities. They have a culture. The possibilities for description and analysis are vast and varied.

For example, schools use energy—electricity, and probably, directly or indirectly, some form of fossil fuel. Developing real, in-depth understanding of the sources of that energy, how the school uses it, how much it costs, how efficient it is, how it impacts the environment, and so on, doesn’t just lead to geology, chemistry, physics, economics, politics, and other fields, it relates and integrates them in ways not possible when those fields are studied in isolation from each other as schools ordinarily offer them.

Consider: The school models the larger world in all its incredible complexity. Making sense of it has learners doing, with help from professionals, what they’ll be doing for the rest of their lives in their jobs, in the organizations to which they belong, in their neighborhoods and communities, and in their country. It has them doing what all humans, consciously or subconsciously, continuously do—ask themselves, “What’s going on here, how can I make the most sense of it, and put that sense to good use?”