Where’s the Learning? Five signs your students aren’t really coming back to school this year.

As July draws to a close, seasonal changes are blowing in and so too all the signs that summer is almost over in the US. School is about to begin. Teacher in-service and professional development workshops are ramping up, and the radio and TV are blasting out commercials for back-to-school sales. It’s a rhythm we teachers know, and have known for years. For many students, however, the experience is probably different from what we remember because they’re not coming back to the familiar rhythms of school. The signs are all there, but the controversial implications those signs may hold for the way we think about back to school may make it harder for us to understand them.

So, what are the signs your students aren’t coming back?

1) Back to school used to mean an end to the unstructured “play” of summer. Realistically, however, very few young people find themselves out of a structured environment in the summer any longer. Yes, there are certainly social equity divides regarding the form these structures take, but at either ends of the spectrum—and all across the middle—students spend far more time under adult supervision when out of school than they did a generation ago. Whether in daycare programs or organized camps and activities, whether with a grand-parent or at a summer job, our students have been learning under adult guidance much of the summer. The teacher in the classroom is just more of the same, so they’re really not coming back to anything all that different.

2) Back to school used to be a time when students returned excitedly to reconnect with their friends. But let’s face it: most of our students, and certainly those over the age of 12 have been connected with their friends all summer long through social media. For those under 12, see the above and think “play dates.” Whether students own their own device or not (they can get on-line at libraries!), the “social scene” that was the first days of school have been replaced by the social media scene that are the first days—or weeks—leading up to school. They’re not coming back to that scene when they come back to school. Many never left it. And for those who weren’t part of it to begin with, coming back to school may only make them feel more marginalized, not less so.

3) Back to school used to be a time when students met their teachers for the first time, and received their materials for class, or their instructions for what was needed. Like the Holidays that come later in the fall semester, these back to school traditions have all been pushed earlier into the summer. Schools send home schedules and shopping lists through various “parent portals,” and the expectation, in many cases, is that students should be done with “back to school” before they ever get there. As in 2), above, those that aren’t don’t find much joy in coming back, for they’ll be coming back already behind.

4) Back to school is often a time when teachers worry about summer learning loss. After all, all those hours spent playing video games make it easy to forget the lessons of the spring, and difficult to get into the lessons of the fall. Right? Wrong. As a former History teacher, I’m forced to admit that hours spent playing any version of Assassin’s Creed probably end up yielding more content-time on the 14th-18th century than any World History Course. Not into history? The same might be said for engineering and collaborating in the hours spent playing Minecraft, another top game for 2014. And, if you’re worried about mathematics, just watch how much time kids spend comparing their scores, or crunching numbers to determine whether they can buy another top game. “Game-based learning” has never had to wait for back to school and indeed, the fact that we’re trying to figure out ways to bringing gaming into the mainstream of education is a sign that back to school itself is heralding a new game.

5) Finally, back to school used to be a time when students “hit the books,” books we could rarely get them to read over the summer. Now, however, students are reading a great deal more informational text on-line as they pursue their own interests; certainly more than they ever would when teachers assigned summer reading. When I asked my daughter about this, she shrugged and said “Sure, it’s more fun when the readings aren’t forced on you.” True, much of what students are reading may be on Reddit, Pinterest, or ESPN, but the point is that they are reading and, quite likely, reading above the grade level material we assign them because they don’t know how to read the things we think they should be able to read. If back to school still means “hitting the books” without much success, maybe its time we stopped hitting the books and situated literacy in the real lives of our students?

I said up front that these signs might hold controversial implications for teachers, and by now you’ve probably disagreed—perhaps strenuously—with at least one of the above five points above. Fair enough. I’ll acknowledge that equity and the digital divide make access to some of this learning difficult for many students, but I would also submit that the number of students for whom this is true is far lower than most teachers want to admit.
Why won’t we admit the reality that we know to be true everywhere but back at school?

Doug Thomas and John Seeley Brown, in their book A New Culture of Learning propose that we need to start thinking about “learning environments” as something much bigger than the traditional classroom, because teachers in the traditional classroom no longer have a monopoly on student learning. We’re one source among many, and we have to compete for market share in a world where students have many more choices than simply switching teachers. To do this, we have to cultivate the whole world of student learning in the small garden plot that is our classroom, rather than try to deny it. To do this, we have to admit that our students have been learning without us for much of the summer.

To teachers, who are used to having a captive market come parading back to school every fall, that’s a daunting challenge. Many of us avoid that challenge by denying students access to the larger information market to which our students are connected 24-7. But that’s getting harder and harder to defend, legally, and harder and harder to defend in terms of our understanding of the way students learn today.

Yes, we teachers are going back to school to work, but our students are not coming back to school to learn, unless we learn to work with them. In my next blog, I’ll discuss how we can learn to map and work the broader learning environment together, as a way of making sure that students continue to come back to learning, not just back to school.

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