A universally accepted way of defining courses and credits pervades US education, defied only by rebels who insist that education requires painting outside the lines. Attached to the dominant pattern, unfortunately, are qualities I’ve described collectively elsewhere as the Learn and Lose System. Together the features of the system convince students to discard what they have learned. Course is over? I’m done with it! Think of each of the following influences as a brush stroke painting a picture. Note what the picture declares to students:
1. Courses begin and end by plan.
2. No expressed intent to retain a body of knowledge.
3. No complete hard copy to keep.
4. Teaching of small pieces not integrated.
5. Recognition-based tests.
6. Personal interest usually irrelevant.
7. Pretest reviews designed to improve scores.
8. Scheduled tests that encourage cramming,
9. “Final” exam ends effort.
10. Learning and non-learning dismissed equally.
Given these standard features, a student reasonably concludes as follows:
Well, I’ll be done with this soon, and can clean out my locker and throw away these assignments. Parts of the book were interesting, but you can’t keep the book. They don’t ask us to write what we learned, so I don’t really have any way to hold onto what I learned. I suppose I’ll remember pieces here and there but it wasn’t something I was interested in anyway. We were lucky that the teacher reviewed for us what would be on the test, so just studying for a weekend I got a passing grade. Since I’m not going for a scholarship or anything, my grade doesn’t matter as long as I graduate. There’s no way to go back and fill in or correct anything I get wrong on the final, so I guess ‘final’ really says it. I’m finished with this subject, and they won’t ask me about it again. I got the credit for my transcript, though, and that’s all the matters to me now.
The sequence of influences tells students to 1) learn superficially because you won’t keep it long anyway, and 2) rely on the school to make you appear educated. 3) To learn anything deeply you’ll have to fight the system, but 4) fighting the system is a waste because it constantly drives you on to the next thing anyway.
How might the Learn and Lose System interface with emerging or newly hatched Common Core Standards?
A possibly helpful influence is that carefully sequenced courses are more likely to dovetail new presentation with prior knowledge, resulting in better assimilation. But to the extent just that different information shows up on Tuesday than used to while Learn and Lose conditions persist, we can expect similar outcomes as before—except now on information we think is more important.
The cognitive error, the mediocre thinking, the limping pedagogy that tolerates this situation is the assumption that superficial familiarity is an adequate aim of education, and that courses under Learn and Lose conditions produce learning deep enough to meet the social purposes of education. Not so. This view is indefensible, demonstrated by the nationwide concern over the lagging progress of certain demographic groups, dropout numbers, and the vast scale of resistant, uncooperative attitudes students often manifest. The system we’ve sustained for decades is unsatisfactory, an assessment agreed on by the proponents of Common Core Standards. My fear, however, is that they fail to acknowledge the superior poisoning power of the Learn and Lose System over any curriculum. For Common Core Standards to achieve their promise will require reconfiguring the Learn and Lose System into the Learn and Save System. Once students notice how their effort directly gains them a lifetime resource of comprehensive knowledge, they will inhale whatever is put in front of them hour by hour.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at email@example.com.