Why Students don't learn: the nature of Doing School


Why Students don't learn: the nature of Doing School


"When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all."                                               —Paul Simon, “Kodachrome.”

"Learning should be learning, not memorizing, doing something to get a grade, and then forgetting it three periods later, and it should be enjoyable and sought."        — Natalie C., student

When you think back to your experiences in school, what comes to mind?  For many people, (including most teachers, I expect), being in school is generally a positive thing.  It is a place to socialize, even if this happens primarily outside of academic classes.  It is also a place where students who are ready to learn are given the resources and the time to do so.  Successful students get regular, positive reinforcement in the form of grades and praise.  It is not uncommon for a student to find a teacher, or several, who has a powerful, even life-changing effect.

When I talk to people about their academic experiences, however, they commonly tell me that it was not so rosy.  They can relate to Paul Simon’s critique in the quote above.  Regardless of how exciting or unhappy their social lives were, they remember the boredom of sitting in classrooms, doing endless busywork, and cramming for tests only to promptly forget the material.  For all too many people, the word that's incorrect in Simon’s statement is not “crap,” but “learned”—the problem is not the curriculum itself, but the fact that so many students learn so little of it.

There is a scene in the movie “Peggy Sue Got Married” in which Kathleen Turner has been transported back in time to her high school and finds herself doodling through an Algebra test.  When her teacher demands to know the meaning of this behavior, she stands up and declares, "I happen to know that in the future I will not have the slightest use for algebra — and I speak from experience."   The class around her, shocked at her bluntness, responds with laughter and applause.  It’s funny because it feels true.  Someone finally said it out loud.

But reading Hamlet or learning Spanish vocabulary, discussing the fall of the Roman Empire or even solving Algebraic equations, are not in and of themselves meaningless.  There is something about school that makes them feel meaningless.  It’s the process that is flawed and counterproductive, precisely because it leaches the meaning out of school and makes it feel like a pointless exercise for so many students.

It is here, in the academic arena, that school often becomes something that no teacher intends it to be.  It becomes the wasteful and ineffective enterprise that I call doing school.  Students often perceive the process as artificial, arbitrary, and largely meaningless.  They feel the content they are covering has little relevance to their lives.  For them, doing school is going through the motions of learning in order to satisfy the requirements of teachers.  

As we will see, doing school has serious consequences in the lives of all students. Students who are successful at doing school are rewarded with good grades, a bumper sticker announcing “My child is an honors student”, awards at ceremonies at the end of the year, a high grade point average, and access to the best colleges.  Unfortunately, they also learn learn a distorted sense of motivation which creates its own problems.  

For others, doing school can have devastating effects.  Students who are not successful at doing school face poor grades, low self-esteem, isolation in tracked classes with other “bad” students, and disciplinary action.  They respond quite naturally with anger, withdrawal, boredom, incessant socializing during class, and falling asleep.  They act out, drop out, or become class clowns.  For many “bad” students, these are self-protective acts to fight off the label of failure. 


2.1 The View from the ground

2.1 The View from the ground


"At the time we’re stuck in it, like hostages locked in a Turkish bath, high school seems the most serious business in the world to just about all of us.  It’s not until the second or third class reunion that we start realizing how absurd the whole thing was."          —Stephen King

"Students cheat, lie, copy, BS stuff, and generally see learning as a burden rather than a gift."      —Julia M., student

I was a high school science teacher for many years, the last 23 of which were in suburbia.  My students included children from some of the wealthiest families on Chicago’s North Shore — and some of the poorest.  At the time I retired, a full third of the school’s students were on the school lunch program, meaning that their families were low income.  The school’s population was split almost exactly between white students and students of color.

During my career, I had conversations with high school students of every level of academic achievement, every race and ethnicity, and every socioeconomic background.  I found there was an amazing consensus about how they viewed their academic experiences.  Here, in my words, is a brief synopsis of what they told me over the years:  

Learning is not the central purpose of school.  Teachers want to make students cover the curriculum.  For students who care about school, the purpose is to get good grades.  Students who don’t care just want to escape unscathed.  Learning isn’t on top of the list for anyone.

The battle of wills between teachers and students has a game-like quality.  All teachers use grades to reward and punish and to motivate their students to cover the curriculum.  “Good” students are better at figuring out how to do what each teacher wants and get rewarded with good grades.  Each teacher makes up his own rules about how the game will be played in his classroom. 

The student’s job is to do the work that the teacher requires, whether or not it is meaningful or useful.  How it gets done isn’t as important as turning it in for credit.  Most importantly, a student needs to remember what was just “learned” long enough to do well on a test.  Remembering it after that only becomes important if there is a cumulative exam at the end of the semester, but, of course, it can always be “relearned.”

When they are finished with the curriculum at the end of a course, students don’t have much to show for it.  They don’t remember much of the content they “covered.”  In other words, they didn’t learn very much.

In part, this is because the actual content they are covering feels arbitrary and meaningless to them.  They often don’t know why they are being made to do what they are doing. They don’t see how it has anything to do with their lives.

In my experience, this disturbingly jaded point of view is, more or less, how most students feel.  They are made to go through the motions of learning.  They are doing school.  Honors students are good at doing school; failing students aren’t.  But regardless of their level of success, they believe that doing school has little to do with learning.

In contrast, the hundreds of teachers I have known, almost without exception, believe that the central purpose of school is for students to learn.  There is a huge gulf between what students and teachers think school is for — that is, why they are working together.  As a result, despite the often heroic efforts of dedicated teachers, many students remain dissatisfied and disenchanted about school.  They are commonly driven by motivations that have little to do with learning and personal growth.   

This chasm between beliefs is a central feature of the experiences of both teachers and students.  Teachers are often judgmental about students who seem motivated solely to get good grades (“grade-grubbers”), or who are flat-out bored by the curriculum (“slackers”).  Students often feel their teachers are disingenuous, even hypocritical, when they insist students are there to learn. 


A simulaton of learning

A simulaton of learning


It is important to recognize that doing school looks just like learning, so much so that it consistently fools teachers, who tend to be smart, thoughtful people.  

Think about a classic scene:  students are sitting in rows, staring ahead while a teacher presents new material.  Are they learning?  Perhaps.  But it’s likely that some of them are thinking about other things, or texting their friends with their phones hidden below the desk.  When the teacher asks a question, a few students may raise their hands and respond, but they are the students who are good at doing school and who already know the answer to the question.  The students who don’t know avoid eye contact with the teacher and hope someone else will be picked.  At some point, the teacher asks, “Any questions?” but the students who do have questions are unlikely to publicly admit they don’t understand, and the teacher moves on, thinking everyone has mastered that material.

Doing school is a simulation of learning.  Like all simulations, it may look real, but is missing the very heart of the matter.  It doesn’t enhance learning; it replaces learning with activities that feel hollow and pointless to students.  Of course, doing school isn’t the only thing going on in classrooms, but it plays a prominent and detrimental role in the intellectual and personal lives of far too many students.  If we are to deal with this damage, we have to first admit that doing school is imposed on students.  They did not walk into kindergarten believing that they should get as many points as possible or that cramming for a test is a useful exercise.  Teachers, administrators, and parents bear the responsibility of creating that reality, no matter how well-intentioned they may be.  We now have the obligation to undo the damage and create an alternative that does a better job of helping students fulfill their human potential.

To do that, it is essential to understand the nature of the problem.  What exactly is doing school?  What does it look and feel like?  Why does it happen?  And most importantly, how can it be replaced with a form of education that will actually nurture learning for all students?

We must become anthropologists and observe the strange rituals and customs of this little society to see what makes it tick.  It’s exactly because doing school looks so much like true learning that we need a way to discriminate between the two.  Just as a field guide for bird watchers describes the markings by which one species can be distinguished from another, the following sections will help us find the distinctive “markings” that will allow us to know doing school when we see it.  Only then will we know why schools are the way they are, and how they serve so many of their students so poorly.


Academic materialism

Academic materialism


"School always seemed like a factory and a place to get a rank and to get into the best college."      —Zach M., student

Another symptom of doing school is that, for many students, getting good grades is their driving motivation.  This is especially true of successful students.  They avidly pursue any avenue for boosting their accumulation of points.  They engage in legalistic wrangling over their test scores.  Here are some of the defining features of such academic materialism.

Training for the rat race

There is a relentless, insatiable quality to the pursuit of grades.  A flow chart of activity in school might look like this for many students:

Sadly, this repetition cultivates a preoccupation with accumulating good grades in the minds of successful students.  For some, it becomes an obsession.  I have dealt with students who were desperately unhappy, even weeping, because they didn’t get enough points on a test to get an “A”.

This intense training lends itself to a posture towards life that is, in my opinion, unhealthy and fundamentally addictive.  It places the meaning of what the student is doing firmly on the outside.  The issue of external motivation will be explored in great depth in this book, since it is, ironically, a principle barrier to genuine learning.

Grades are the fuel that drives doing school

Grades can be viewed as a form of bribery, designed to pressure students into doing school.  If you doubt that, ask any teacher or student what would happen if grades were removed from school completely.  The answer is clear — very little work would take place.  Doing school would grind to a halt. 

Unfortunately, like all bribes, grades pervert the motivation of both the briber and the one being bribed. 

Grades quantize learning: they are the currency of doing school.  They objectify and monetize the learning process.  Recent experiments in actually rewarding learning with cash are merely taking grades to their logical conclusion.  Academically successful students are often greedy about points in the same way that materialistic people are greedy about money.  Teachers often disparage that greediness, but I think that is blaming the victim;  it’s important to always remember that school is where students learned that greed.  

The competitive urge

Another aspect of academic materialism is that it encourages competition.  The end of the school year at my school brought a slew of awards ceremonies.  The science department awards alone took over an hour and involved several hundred students.  Every department did something similar primarily to recognize the students with the best grades.

This competitive urge is internalized by successful students who strive to have a higher grade point average and class rank than their peers.  They know that these factors may well determine which colleges they may get into.

The symptoms of academic materialism will be familiar to every teacher: arguments over grades, over how many points a student gets on a test, the perpetual question of “what do I need to do to get an ‘A’?”  The legalistic battles that occur to determine a grade to the second decimal place have nothing to do with learning.


Meaningless Effort

Meaningless Effort


"Nearly every student finds that large portions of his curriculum are for him, meaningless.  Thus, education becomes the futile attempt to learn material that has no personal meaning."  —Carl Rogers

"High school, my friends tell me and I agree, is generally a soul-sucking experience.  Maybe that is too strong.  But it reeks of futility.  For people who do not inherently get pleasure from A’s and high-percentile test scores, it is teasingly depressing.  Going to what is ostensibly an institution of learning only to experience its reality is like inheriting ownership of the Cubs only to realize that you have to spend all your time worrying about marketing and merchandise.  Maybe this is harsh.  It isn’t that I take nothing from the classes I take—the majority, I enjoy on some level—but that it seems we’re putting an awful lot of time into something that is not accomplishing a whole lot and which generally provides painfully similar experiences."               —Daniel H., student

"Your class is the only one that I know of that has actually made me learn the material and not just regurgitate it when tests come up."      —Dave J., student

Another prevalent symptom of doing school is the amount of work that has no intrinsic value or meaning to students.  This comes in many forms.  Three of the most obvious are described here.


Very few students, when asked, believe that they learn much while cramming.  The overt intention is to answer more questions correctly on the test and thereby get a better grade.

This is not a small matter.  “Good” students put serious effort into cramming and feel that they have been successful if they do well on the test.  Cramming can be one of the most stressful activities of doing school, because if a student hasn’t actually learned the material, he has to work to store what can sometimes be a great deal of information in the course of a few hours and hope that he will be able to call it up the next day.  It can be nerve-wracking.


Doing school generally involves doing lots of busywork.  This can be defined as work that is unrelated to learning and has little or no meaning for the student.  Work can become busywork for a few reasons reasons.  First, for “good” students, it is busywork because it is redundant.  When a student already understands a concept or is proficient at a skill, being made to practice it further is boring and repetitive.  

Equally problematic is work that has no context.  All too often, much of what students “learn” are disjointed factoids, devoid of any relevance.  In other words, the work feels meaningless, and the student goes through the motions without much hope of comprehension.

Few teachers I know would intentionally require their students to do pointless busywork or have them cram for a test without actually learning the material.   Nonetheless, from a student’s point of view, that is exactly what much of assigned work feels like, and many believe that this is the true intent of teachers.    

Many teachers aren’t aware that work they are assigning is busywork for at least some of their students.  This is due in part to a lack of communication, combined with the normal posture of students to not offer feedback to teachers about their experiences.  Ultimately, the broad powerlessness felt by many students takes the shape of resentment and stubborn silence in the face of issues that might easily be fixed.

I have met teachers who know that the work they are assigning will be busywork, but don’t recognize the corrosive effects it has on student motivation.  They may acknowledge that the work they are assigning will be busywork for some of their students, but they dismiss it with “It’ll be good for them,” or “A little more practice won’t kill them.”  This is a symptom of a lack of empathy.  There is no question that if they, the teachers, were required to do busywork on a daily basis they would resent it, as would anyone.

Cheating will only get you so far until sooner or later it comes down to whether you really understood the material or not.            —Thea T.


Students often have a hard-nosed pragmatism about doing school.  According to my students, copying homework from a friend is a common occurrence.  Remorse or guilt rarely come into it: cheating is seen by students as a victimless crime.  Because turning the work in to get points is at the center of doing school, this is simply part of the game.  Doing school is doing exactly what the teacher requires.  In this game, the ends justify the means.

Consider this: if a person were truly intent on learning, cheating would be of no use whatsoever.  Copying homework, bringing a cheat sheet into a test, or getting the answers beforehand — the only possible reward for cheating is external: credit, or points, or avoiding a teacher’s negative reaction.  It certainly has no effect on how much a student learns, except to transform the learner into a less trustworthy person.  


Acts of resistance

Acts of resistance


Power struggles with students can be the bane of a teacher’s existence.  Students can act in unpredictable, sometimes volatile ways, with behaviors ranging from subtle sabotage to outright confrontation.  Some students are particularly adept at finding a teacher’s “buttons” and pushing them.  

I served as a staff developer for a number of years.  Once, when I was observing another science teacher, I watched as several young men in the back of the room found a way to torture their teacher.  They would take turns making an unpleasant and distracting sound whenever he turned his back to them.  To be perfectly honest, it was interesting, even entertaining, to watch his reactions.  At first he soldiered on, pretending it wasn’t happening, but eventually he lost his patience and erupted in anger.  Needless to say, we had a number of conversations afterward about how to better deal with the problem.

Such acts of disrespect and defiance are symptoms of student anger.  They are angry about being made to do school, or perhaps because they aren’t successful at it.  Graffiti carved into desks and chairs, trash left on the floor, sabotage of lab set-ups — these are all symptoms of doing school.  Even intentional, inappropriate socializing can be driven by disrespect for the teacher and the process. 

Other, more passive acts of resistance can appear as disengagement, boredom, and resentful or rude behavior.  Even falling asleep in class can represent a desire to be removed from the situation, although that can obviously also be due to other causes.

Doing school does not lend itself to feeling like “we are all in this together”.  As we shall see, the compulsory edge of doing school can feel oppressive.  A great deal of inappropriate student behavior is the result.





In order to understand why students act the way they do in schools, we have to put ourselves in their shoes and empathize with what doing school feels like to them.  Here, then, are some of the factors that shape their experiences. 


The factory model

Modern education was shaped by social forces well over a century ago when the predominant model for the new, urban, centralized school system was that of a factory.  The teacher was a foreman, overseeing the work of students, who moved through the assembly line of school.  The idea of “first assemble the chassis, then the motor, then the doors” became “algebra during first period, followed by English, followed by history.”  

The mechanical structure of high school can lead both students and teachers to feel as though they are cogs in a large academic machine.  It is a dehumanizing experience.  The structure lends itself to the mindset that teachers are there to efficiently deliver content to the students.  There is little room in this model for socializing.  Indeed, many teachers I know feel teachers should start their agenda the very first moment of the class,  because not doing so is wasting precious time and less curriculum will be conveyed.  

The crush of time  

Let’s consider the experience of a typical successful student:  

Scott races to his first period algebra class.  He enters and is given a problem to solve.  The class goes over the homework.  He understood the homework and finds the review boring.  The teacher introduces a new skill.  Scott practices it, gets it, and is assigned thirty problems to do.  He nearly finishes them in class because they are not challenging.  The bell rings and he rushes to his history class, where he sits down and is told what to do.  This continues until the last class, when he is finally able to go to basketball practice and have fun.  

Bells ring and students march from one class to the next.  At my school, the day is chopped up by bells (actually an unpleasant buzzer) sounding no less than 32 times every day.  At the end of every period, students become restless when there is a minute or two left.  As the second hand (and every classroom I have ever been in has a large clock with a second hand) sweeps towards 12, students start packing up to leave, stuffing notebooks, papers and books into their packs.

Unless a teacher insists they don’t, students will often line up at the door with a minute or two left.  When the bell rings, they are off like a shot.  Then, in my school, which is an enormous building, they have exactly five minutes to do whatever needs to be done and get to their next class.  For many students, this entails an intricate choreography of when to stop at their lockers, how many books they need to bring, and what passing periods will allow enough time for a bathroom break.

It’s not only students who feel this pressure.  Teachers, too, choreograph their days to the second.  When to make copies, go to the bathroom, grade the papers, and prep for tomorrow are tightly constrained.  When the bell rings and the class starts, the teacher is on.  No matter what is going on in his life, no matter how he is feeling, all eyes are on him, and there is nowhere to hide.

I ran into a fellow retiree and asked her her favorite thing about being retired.  “Going to the bathroom any time I want,” she said.  “And not having to listen to those damned bells.”

After my first year of teaching, I returned temporarily to the engineering firm I had left in order to become a teacher, and the biggest shock was the overwhelming sense of the expansiveness of time, the ability to strike up a conversation whenever I wanted, the feeling of being aware of time to the nearest hour instead of the nearest second.

Compulsory education  

In general, students are told what to do from the moment they arrive at school until the moment they leave.  They have no voice in the matter, which they resent, as any person would.  They experience autocratic structures, sometimes benign, sometimes abusive.  Eighteen-year-olds — adults — have to ask permission to go to the bathroom.  They experience a lack of ownership of the learning process.  

Paulo Friere talks about the “banking” model of education, where students are thought to be empty checking accounts that teachers deposit knowledge into.  The downside of this, of course, is the control that is needed to create that structure.  It “transforms students into receiving objects.  It attempts to control thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power.”

When parents shadow their students for a day (which I highly recommend, by the way, not just for parents but for teachers as well), they come to better understand how tightly their child’s behavior is controlled.  They move from one class, where the teacher tells them what to do for the whole period, to the next, where another teacher will do the same.  School tends to be an autocratic structure.  Occasionally, students are given the fake or insignificant power of choice.  What role in this study group would you like to choose?  Which of these six topics would you like to pursue for an independent study project?

Doing school is preoccupied with controlling student behavior.  In my school, there was a system in place that dealt with tardiness by issuing a detention.  Even if the student was eight seconds late, he would have to go to the nearest security personnel and get a piece of paper saying he had been cited.  Long lines required those students to wait, sometimes as much as five minutes, to get that slip of paper and have their ID registered in the computer. 

When that student finally arrived in class, he had missed the start of the class (often including the instructions about what is going to happen), and he entered in a distressed or angry state.  Obviously, this is not good for his ability to learn.  

Believe it or not, this scheme was actually an improvement over the previous system, where a student who was late was required to go straight to a detention center and miss class altogether, teaching students the school’s true priorities: punctuality is more important than learning.  (This happened to my daughter exactly once.  It left her in tears.)

Being successful at doing school requires compliance on the part of students.  For a certain subset of “bad” students, academic success is seen as a form of selling out.  “Good” students who are successful are seen by this group as jumping through the teacher’s hoops, and are believed to be lacking integrity, to put it politely.

“Nearly every student finds that large portions of his curriculum are for him, meaningless.  Thus, education becomes the futile attempt to learn material that has no personal meaning.”  Carl Rogers 

The content is a foreign land  

One of the toughest challenges for teachers, especially veteran teachers, is to remember what it is like to not know the content that’s being taught.  It is difficult to empathize with a student for whom these new ideas and skills are completely alien.  Imagine walking into a room and being handed a musical instrument that bears no relationship to any you have ever seen before, and after a brief description of the name and history of the new instrument, being asked to play a scale.   

There is often no relationship between this new content and the learner’s life (or even if there is, it is not part of the curriculum), and therefore, by definition, the content feels meaningless.  A student who excels at doing school can manage to remember enough isolated factoids or skills to do well on tests.  It does not mean that he has internalized this foreign place.

Visiting a foreign land can be exciting, but it can also be frustrating, particularly if the trip goes on for too long.  Not having a clue, not seeing the meaning in what you are doing, not knowing how to get out of the current uncomfortable situation — these are all stressful, even traumatic experiences. 

The shallow culture of doing school  

If we can define the richness of any culture, it would have to include the complex, interwoven differences among its members, the openness of the connections between them, the fullness of the experience of being part of that culture.  A rich culture would engage all its members and encourage an exchange of different points of view, different strengths and weaknesses.  It would honor, even celebrate, the range of variations in what its members bring to the table.  

A typical classroom has an impoverished culture.  When a student walks inside, he is, like all human beings, living a full complex life.  He has likes and dislikes, outside commitments, problems at home, stresses and joys.  But in many classrooms, there is only room for a thin slice of this whole person to be shown.  What is valued, in the words of Sir Ken Robinson, is the part of him that is “from the neck up, and mostly on one side.”  All the rest of him, of his rich complexity, of his personality, has little or no place in the classroom. 

As a result, the connections between what a student is nominally learning and his real life are meager or nonexistent.  Meaning is made of those very connections.  Without this, the content that is meant to be learned is condemned to be meaningless.

Similarly, teachers walking into the classroom have rich, complicated lives that are not visible to their students.  Students are often shocked to bump into teachers outside of the classroom setting — going to a movie, say, or shopping in a supermarket.  It is as though the student has never imagined that the teacher is a real human being who does normal things when he is not in the classroom.  As a result, the teacher’s experience is also made less meaningful too.