What Seth Doesn’t Know about Schools

Poking through my feed reader last Friday, I stumbled across this great Ted talk by digital pioneer and provocateur Seth Godin. 

In it, Godin argues that our schools need to change drastically if they are going to properly prepare today’s kids for tomorrow’s world.  Traditional practices that we’ve relied on for decades — think spending significant amounts of time memorizing important content or ideas — are worse than outdated.  They are completely irrelevant.



(download slide and view original image credit on Flickr)

Now don’t get me wrong:  Godin’s argument aligns nicely with everything that I believe about teaching and learning in the 21st Century.

The lessons that matter the most to our students have nothing to do with memorizing isolated bits of knowledge simply because (1). Isolated bits of knowledge can be accessed almost immediately by anyone AND (2). In a rapidly changing world, it is simply impossible to keep up with which isolated bits of knowledge are important in any given discipline.  As college dropout Dan Brown explains in his Open Letter to Educators, information is worth almost nothing in a digitally connected world.

But here’s the hitch:  I’ve spent the past two months encouraging my sixth grade science students to memorize the definitions of essential vocabulary words. 

Not only do I believe that a foundational understanding of key words will help my students to be more fluent scientists — kind of like having a foundational understanding of basic multiplication facts helps kids to master increasingly difficult math concepts — I know that the tests that our state uses to determine whether or not students have “mastered” the content in my classroom are full of knowledge-based multiple choice questions.

No one is measuring the kinds of higher-level collaborative behaviors that Godin — and most teachers I know — believes students must master.  No one ever asks whether my students can develop and then conduct an experiment that answers an interesting question.  No one ever asks whether my students can engage in a cycle of collective inquiry with their peers designed to build new knowledge together.  No one ever asks whether my students can identify – -and then draw conclusions from — patterns or trends in scientific conversations.

The ONLY thing that our current tests — which students take without ANY learning supports or digital connections — measure is the ability to remember basic facts. 

Heck — one prototype question asks students to explain the difference between oceanic and continental crust using the terms mafic and felsic.  Can YOU answer that without Google’s help?


According to test writers — and by default, the policymakers who have decided that multiple choice tests are the best way to hold teachers accountable for student learning — definitions really DO matter.  As a result, my kids have packets of vocabulary practice worksheets that they’re grinding through right now — and while I’m convinced that memorization isn’t a skill we should spend a ton of time celebrating, I’m also convinced that the kids in my room who know every word inside out before our exam will earn better scores than those who don’t.

Do I brag about the memorization work that my kids are doing?

Nope.  But I’m not ready to demonize it yet, either — especially in a high-stakes world where my job status depends on the scores that my kids turn in on knowledge-driven end-of-grade tests.


Related Radical Reads:

Walking Moral Tightropes ISN’T a Reform Strategy

How Testing Will Change What I Teach Next Year

The Monster You’ve Created


6 thoughts on “What Seth Doesn’t Know about Schools

  1. Bryan Lancaster

    Disregarding tests for a moment, is there a way for two people to carry on an intelligent conversation in any sort of (even ever-so-slightly) specialized without each holding an iPad with 3G access?

    Doesn’t memorization just sort of naturally happen when we’re exposed to things that interest us? My son’s in 6th grade, and has had to memorize vocabulary words throughout the year. When one of his words comes up in conversation, he defines it and uses it in context, and our younger son uses it, too. He’s been actively using them ever since…

    Will his efforts help a teacher keep his or her job through an elevated test score? Maybe, maybe not. But more importantly, does his broadened knowledge enable him to perhaps comprehend or think more deeply about things?

    How does what we do as teachers help future adults think critically or deeply?

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Bryan wrote:

      Maybe, maybe not. But more importantly, does his broadened knowledge enable him to perhaps comprehend or think more deeply about things?

      – – – – – – –

      I’m with you Bryan — and I do think that we naturally memorize content in the fields that we care about. That goes for kids too. Ask most middle schoolers about the cheat codes for their favorite video games or the lyrics to their favorite songs, and they’ll know all of ’em inside out.

      The worry, though, is that the current system of accountability in our schools — which is truly hard to set aside because it literally governs every decision that we make because the stakes are so high — rewards memorization above all else. That means our lessons tend to drift away from the unmeasurable and yet equally important skills — things like learning to collaborate and design investigations and to solve complex problems — because those things aren’t tested.

      It’s kind of like an invasive species, to borrow a science concept. Because success is defined as knowing handfuls of vocabulary words, teaching vocabulary words has pushed out anything other than vocabulary instruction from our classrooms.

      Does this make sense?

      I’m not arguing against the role that memorization can play in building fluency. Instead, I’m arguing that when all we measure is the mastery of isolated vocabulary words, we miss out on other skills that are just as important.


  2. renwickme

    Interesting post Bill. I tend to share your thinking. It seems people slide toward one end of the spectrum or the other when discussing 21st century/modern learners. Seth appears to be at one of the extremes. While I enjoy reading his posts, I still value “knowing” certain terms and concepts. They provide the essential foundation that allows learners to be creative and innovate. It helps to have some fluency and automaticity with the skills that are required within an area of continuous focus. If students are driven by interest and guided by relevance, a little memorization and conceptual understanding will only come naturally in students’ investigations.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Matt wrote:

      If students are driven by interest and guided by relevance, a little memorization and conceptual understanding will only come naturally in students’ investigations.

      – – – – – – – – –

      There’s the key, isn’t it Matt. When student interests define the course of study, memorization will come out of a desire to be more fluent in the field of their passion. The reason that memorization is a waste of time in most cases in schools is kids are memorizing stuff that’s irrelevant to them. Their purpose for memorizing isn’t to develop fluency with key content in their fields of interest. Their purpose is to pass the test.


      Now we’ve got to find a way to figure out what is important enough for EVERY kid to learn — or we’ve got to find ways to be comfortable with a more customized set of learning outcomes for every student.

      Thanks for this…

  3. Mark

    Wow – this hurts. To think your job status depends upon you largely, in essence, wasting the kids’ time.

    You seem to know what’s right for kids and what’s not. Act on it or this job will kill you.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Mark wrote:

      You seem to know what’s right for kids and what’s not. Act on it or this job will kill you.

      – – – – – – – –

      But here’s the thing, Mark: If I do act on it, there’s a very real chance that I lose my job — or at the VERY least, any kind of professional status or due process protection.

      So “doing right by kids” means putting my own family’s security at risk.

      Doesn’t is suck that those are the only two options that I have available to me?

      And shouldn’t communities demand a system where teachers aren’t forced to choose between keeping their jobs and doing right by their students?


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