Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Why Go to School?

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Why Go to School?

Article excerpt

If the purpose of our schools is to prepare drones to keep the U.S. economy going, then the prevailing curricula and instructional methods are probably adequate. If, however, we want to help students become thoughtful, caring citizens who might be creative enough to figure out how to change the status quo rather than maintain it, we need to rethink schooling entirely. Mr. Wolk outlines what he considers to be the essential content for a new curriculum.


LAST YEAR my son's homework in second grade was 400 worksheets. The year before, in first grade, his homework was also 400 worksheets. Each day he brought home two worksheets, one for math and one for spelling. That was two worksheets a day, five days a week, 40 weeks a year.

The math was little more than addition or subtraction problems. The other worksheet was more insidious. My son had 15 spelling words each week. On some days his worksheets required him to unscramble the spelling words. On other days he had to write a sentence with each word. And on still other days he had to write each spelling word five times. The school was teaching my 7-year-old that the wonderful world of learning is about going home each day and filling in worksheets.

Actually, that was his "official" homework. We were given permission to give him alternative homework. In place of his spelling worksheet, we set up a writing workshop at home in which he was free to write something real, such as a letter, a poem, or a story. Unfortunately, this was often a struggle because Max wanted to do "school." He learned at the ripe age of 7 that he could whip out those spelling sentences without a single thought, so that's what he usually insisted on doing.

My son's worksheets are a symptom of a far graver educational danger. More than the practice of a few teachers, they represent the dominant purposes of schooling and the choices of curriculum in our nation. We are engaged in fill-in-the-blank schooling. One of the most telling statistics about our schools has absolutely nothing to do with standardized test scores: on a typical day most Americans 16 years old and older never read a newspaper or a book. (1)

My son's experience of school is little different from my own when I was his age. My schooling was dominated by textbooks, teacher lectures, silent students, and those same worksheets. And it is identical to what my current teacher education students endured when they were in school and also to what they see today in their clinical experiences. My college students are, by their own admission, poster children for our factory-model 400-worksheet schools and their superficial and sanitized curricula.

We are living a schooling delusion. Do we really believe that our schools inspire our children to live a life of thoughtfulness, imagination, empathy, and social responsibility? Any regular visitor to schools will see firsthand that textbooks are the curriculum. A fifth-grader is expected to read about 2,500 textbook pages a year. For all 12 grades that student is expected to "learn" 30,000 pages of textbooks with a never-ending barrage of facts, most of which we know are forgotten by the time the student flips on his or her TV or iPod after school. Far more than reading to learn, our children are learning to hate reading. More than learning any of the content, they learn to hate learning.

Will those 30,000 pages of textbooks and years of sitting at a classroom desk inspire a child to be a lifelong reader and learner and thinker? Who are we kidding? I'm inside schools a lot, and I usually see what John Goodlad described a generation ago in his classic study, A Place Called School. After observing classrooms across the country and more than 27,000 students, he wrote, "I wonder about the impact of the flat, neutral emotional ambience of most of the classes we studied. Boredom is a disease of epidemic proportions.... Why are our schools not places of joy? …

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