Sunday, September 11, 2011

Listerine Learning

"I am not saying, 'If it feels good, it’s good for you', but if we’re doing it right, it should feel good. If we’re doing literacy and language development right, teachers and students should be having a pretty good time. If there's pain, something's really wrong." 
-Stephen Krashen
The loss of joy and a cult of rigor has hijacked our education. What's scary is that the longer we immerse learners in a passive environment defined by worksheets and lectures, the more school becomes something not done by kids but something that is done to them. It's not long until we figure out that it's best to go along to get along.

In his book The Game of School, Robert Fried explains:
In schools and colleges across the nation and throughout the world, students and teachers continuously adopt roles and postures that remind us of uncomfortable visits to unpleasant relatives. We play out our roles as if we have lost the sense that learning is an intensely exciting and enjoyable activity, a necessary and joyful part of our humanity.
Fried says:
When we allow ourselves (or get convinced) to gear ourselves up so as to complete school tasks that have little meaning for us aside from the value of getting them done and over with, we lose touch with our own learning spirit. We become alienated from the natural learning desires and inquisitiveness within us. We tend to become compliant rather than creative, docile instead of courageous, inwardly passive instead of assertively engaged, cynical at a time in life when we should be idealistic. We become game players by reflex, and learners only on occasion.
For too many people, the game of school sounds all too familiar. It's like the learners and teachers exchange winks that say: you will pretend to teach and we will pretend to learn; it won't be all that enjoyable, but it will be easy.

Under these circumstances, is it any surprise that creativity is often seen as nothing more than a refusal to follow directions? Or that students grow up with an acute sense of apathy towards their own learning?

What's worse is that when kids have spent enough time playing the game of school - that is the teacher pretends to teach while the students pretend to learn - they come to think that what they are experiencing is normal; things are at their worse when students, teachers and parents come to see all this as an inevitable condition of learning. In his article on Progressive Education, Alfie Kohn explains:
And then there are parents who have never been invited to reconsider their assumptions about education. As a result, they may be impressed by the wrong things, reassured by signs of traditionalism — letter grades, spelling quizzes, heavy textbooks, a teacher in firm control of the classroom — and unnerved by their absence. Even if their children are obviously unhappy, parents may accept that as a fact of life. Instead of wanting the next generation to get better than we got, it’s as though their position was: “Listen, if it was bad enough for me, it’s bad enough for my kids.” Perhaps they subscribe to what might be called the Listerine theory of education, based on a famous ad campaign that sought to sell this particular brand of mouthwash on the theory that if it tasted vile, it obviously worked well. The converse proposition, of course, is that anything appealing is likely to be ineffective. If a child is lucky enough to be in a classroom featuring, say, student-designed project-based investigations, the parent may wonder, “But is she really learning anything? Where are the worksheets?” And so the teachers feel pressure to make the instruction worse.
Indifferent recall is the rule rather than the exception, and under such an oppressive bureaucracy of teaching and learning we live school believing nothing is wrong while everything is wrong.

Management expert Steve Denning chimed in on the K-12 reform debate with this interview. In a second part to the interview he said:
There is however a difference between hard work that is a grind and dispiriting and hard work that is exhilarating and uplifting. The current system specializes in the former. I believe that it will do better if it shifts to the latter.

Like Krashen and Kohn, I think Demming is suggesting that learning not only can be fun, but it should be fun, and if it's not, we are doing it wrong.

While it's true that Listerine learning passes the day, it would have passed anyway.

So how do we know if a school is engaged in pseudo learning and teaching?

If students, teachers and parents come to find their days occupied with something besides real learning, you can be assured that the Game of School and the Listerine theory of education are in full effect.

Not only is there no need for learning to be painful, but if we aren't careful, joy in learning will be regarded as nothing more than a bothersome distraction.

So where do we go from here?

Robert Fried explains part of the premise behind his book:
My hope is to bring this phenomenon to the attention of educators and learners at all levels; it is most destructive where least acknowledged. Those caught in the Game soon lose awareness of it; it begins to seem like the only way of doing business.
Thankfully school hasn't always been this way, so school doesn't have to be this way. But things won't change unless we are acutely aware of what we're losing when we normalize the Listerine theory of learning and the game of school.


  1. While it may be true that all learning cannot be fun, it does not therefore follow that joyless indoctrination Is a more serious form of learning than the fun stuff. There are aspects of many necessary activities that annoy, frustrate, or bore us. We may have to learn to work through these moments (as they drag on and repeat themselves) but they are not the standard for learning. I like your article very much.

  2. Thids game theory of learning also explains why the obsession for ' scores'.

  3. The clarity you present here is like reading my own thoughts! Both as a teacher and as a parent I am finding it more and more difficult to be involved in the factory model of school that forces children to attend because they have to rather than because they are engaged in learning that is meaningful, creative and inspiring. I hoped for so much more for my child!

  4. I was definitely one who "played the game of school" - and played it well. I could say all the reading words with fluency and expression yet it didn't dawn on me that reading could be enjoyable or have a purpose beyond the workbook.

    For me, the following practices keep students from "playing school":

    (1) Increase the amount of student work time in comparison to teacher talk time. If I'm talking more than 7 minutes, students probably aren't retaining much anyway. Mike Schmoker (_Focus_) discusses solid instruction as being a little talk>student work time>teacher formative assessment as students work. Plan follow-up lessons based on patterns you see.

    (2) Teach students to make their own goals. "At the end of this work time, I will have accomplished..." and "What I'm working on as a writer/reader is..."

    (3) Once students have set goals for themselves, give large, solid blocks of work time.

    (4) Meet with individual students, giving specific feedback on what you see the student doing well and craft a specific teaching point based on the student's next step.

    (5) Make sure students understand why they are doing what they are doing. At the beginning of the year, students make videos for parent night. In the videos, students tell parents about classroom procedures and the reasons they do what they do. I love the a-ha of 10-year-olds when they realize there is a reason we do slate assessments in math most days, reasons we have mini-lessons before and after writing time, etc.

    Janet |

  5. I have my own private school (small - 4 kids), and I have been having this conversation with myself this week after a particularly boring powerpoint on macromolecules, along with the realization that some of the kids have been rushing through the work to get it done (French work springs to mind).

    I left public school specifically because there was little room left for joy, and I have worked hard to NOT replicate that at HoneyFern. It does require effort and constant evaluation and reflection of what is going on in school. If it seems like all we are doing is checking off tasks, or the kids are slowing down or turning in shoddy work, then I look at the assignments, ask for input and/or let them re-design what they are doing.

    We did have a conversation about the fact that some parts of learning aren't thrilling (things like comma rules and macromolecules!!), but I did reassure them that I will do everything I can to help find the connection to real-life and application so they can at least understand why something is important, even if it isn't rainbows and butterflies while we are learning it.

  6. This post couldn't have come at a better time. For the last few weeks, I've watched my students passively complete work that meant more to me than them, and after I collected the work, I realized that it contained very little evidence of real learning. Unfortunately, many of my students have been conditioned to complete mindless tasks; and when they're asked to think critically, metaphorically, etc., they shut down. What Krashen said is true--when there's pain, something is wrong.

  7. Good post Joe. Arrives just as we (down under) receive out annual dose of propaganda from my kids schools on how wonderfully the top 10 kids did in the annual leaving exams - no doubt congratulations to their parents for tr genes they inherited and probably a decent dose of work - but no celebration for the one who did 2, 5, 10 etc ... Percent better than they had hoped - is that not worth celebrating ... While those that got 99.5 whine over a missed 0.1.

    And for all the rest who have played the game and spend so many years wasting on the learning vine ... Well I think the next day the surfs good I think we will be off to beach to learn about wave theory, moons and tides and just live life. This other stuff is way too boring.

  8. Listerine's health information guide is a welcome development. They had help me overcome yellow teeth.

  9. The school of thought is if your lecture or how you teach is not entertaining or at least worth listening the students tend to forget the learning and thus decrease learning.

  10. You have raised some very interesting points. I have stop using listerine because my mouth really does hurt. I have started using natural mouth wash that don't hurt. So far so good. I'm getting the same effect without the pain.

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  11. There is no doubt that Listerine is a very effective mouthwash. But why does it hurt? I prefer using alcohol-free mouthwash, where it gives me same effect minus the sting.

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  12. I've been using Listerine products for quite some time now. Listerine products never fail me in maintaining my healthy white teeth. These products also prevent me from developing tooth decays that can cause severe tooth ache. With these, I will remain loyal to Listerine.

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  13. Even my Dentists in Toowoomba advised me to use Listerine products. They've given me samples of the latest products from Listerine, the green tea mouth wash. It's a great tasting product that gives a long lasting fresh breath.


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