Are We Too Busy Schooling?

Blogger’s Warning:  I’m cranky today.  That means this post is like 20 percent truth and 80 percent emotion.  Take it for what it’s worth.


Can I ask you an uncomfortable question:  How excited are your students about being in school?  Do they regularly get lost in their learning, surprised — maybe even disappointed — when the bell rings to end the class period or the day?  Can you feel a sense of relaxed joy when you walk into your building?  Do your students smile and laugh often?

Or are they just counting the minutes until the end of the day?

(click here to enlarge, download and view original image credits on Flickr)


Here’s why I ask:  I don’t think my kids care about my class.

There.  I said it.

Don’t get me wrong:  They are a GREAT bunch.  One of the best that I’ve had in years.  They come to school ready to listen and ready to follow directions and ready to finish any task that I put in front of them.  But they are also ready to bolt the minute that class ends.  I know they care about ME.  It’s my class that they can’t seem to stand.

That bothers me.

On the bad days, I feel like a Busker — fighting for attention and hoping to entertain just long enough to get kids interested in my lessons.  On the really bad days, I feel like a taskmaster — doing little more than keeping the peace and enforcing the rules for 50 minutes at a time.  I rarely feel like a mentor or a coach or a role model or any of those other beautiful terms that we use to describe the Mr. Hollands or the Dead Poet Society teachers that we love to make movies about.

And it ain’t like I’m not TRYING.  In fact, I think I try pretty darn hard.  My lessons are full of hands on activities.  I use technology as much as possible.  I’ve got a collection of quirky takes on the topics in our required curriculum that generally leave kids wondering just long enough to get my hopes up that I might have them hooked.

But in the end, I’m still teaching a required curriculum.

Whether my students like it or not, we are going to spend the next 120 days marching through content that someone else decided was important.  And I won’t deviate too far from those requirements out of fear of failing to cover everything that I was supposed to cover.  Even though I work for good people who want my class to be creative and inventive, the pressure to comply — a function of the “accountability culture” that has had education in a professional death-grip for the past decade — feels all too real to me.

Imagining and inspiring and wondering and questioning are a remnant of a simpler time when we cared about “the whole child.”  That kind of stuff happened in open classrooms.

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

My guess is that MOST kids experience that same forced march through the required curriculum in every class, every day, every year from kindergarten to twelfth grade.  

Need proof?  Ask yourself this:  When was the last time that you created space for students to study something — ANYTHING — that they cared about?  When was the last time that you gave them a real choice in what they were going to learn or when they were going to learn it?  And I’m not talking about “you may choose to create a poem or write an essay or make a comic strip to demonstrate mastery of the content in today’s lesson” choices.  I’m talking about “the next thirty minutes are yours.  How would you like to spend it?” choices.

The stakes are too high for that kind of genuine ownership over the time kids spend in our schools, aren’t they?  

We’re too busy schooling.



Related Radical Reads:

Being Responsible for Teaching the Bored

How Engaged are YOUR Students?

The REAL Board Bored of Education


17 thoughts on “Are We Too Busy Schooling?

  1. Altitude

    I love the questions you’re asking and I think most teachers out there ask these same questions from time to time (it’s nice to know that the great Bill Ferriter asks these questions too from time to time ;). I think the hardest part might be the feeling that my teaching isn’t connecting (or meaningful, relevant, etc) but not knowing what to do about it or how to change. I wonder if it’s possible to find a balance between teaching the prescribed curriculum and teaching to the heart of the student…

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Altitude wrote:

      I wonder if it’s possible to find a balance between teaching the prescribed curriculum and teaching to the heart of the student…


      First, Altitude, you made me smile with your “Great Bill Ferriter” line! There are TONS of other adjectives that people use to describe me on a daily basis — so hearing “great” was a refreshing change of pace!


      Second, I am beginning to think that it’s NOT possible to find a balance between the prescribed curriclum and teaching to the heart of the student. How’s that for a “burn it down” kind of statement?

      Here’s why: Perhaps most importantly, the prescribed curriculum is MASSIVE — which means that to get through it, we have to sprint from the first day of school to the last. There’s no real room for the kind of reflection or deep thinking or happy tangents that are a part of the best learning experiences. In fact, I know that I often cringe when kids ask a great question because I feel the instant tension between wanting to move forward with their wondering and “getting through” the curriculum.

      The other challenge is that (1). we have chosen to assess mastery at the lowest possible levels (read: with knowledge-driven multiple choice questions) while simultaneously attaching the highest possible stakes to those results. That leads to teaching that is stripped of heart — not to mention brain. Instead of asking challenging questions and asking our kids to answer them, we are asking easy questions and keeping our fingers crossed that our kids remember them.

      So there’s nothing about our system or our priorities that encourage the kind of teaching that you describe.

      Could we say to hell with it and teach to the heart anyway?

      Sure — but wouldn’t it be nice if the people who govern schools actually accepted responsiblity for the conditions that they have created?

      (Can you tell that I’m still fired up over this stuff?!)


      1. Altitude

        I appreciate your honesty and your willingness to ‘burn it down!’ I’m beginning to wonder if you need to decrease your more “tempered” side and more tightly embrace the inner “radical.” This being said, I’m not sure if this would do anything to reduce the adjectives thrown your way…so maybe never mind 🙂

        Many years ago a former district superintendent told me something that I’ve never forgotten when it comes to the prescribed curriculum that freed me from its clutches (tyranny?). He told me that it’s impossible to meet every single prescribed learning outcome and that they were more guidelines than rules. When I heard this I felt like the great rock that Sisyphus was cursed to carry uphill for all eternity had suddenly been cut free! Does this sentiment expressed by a former superintendent express a truth about all curriculum everywhere? I would like to think it does.

        Another question I have (in response to your mastery, assessment, heart thoughts) is this: At what point does what we know about learning and teaching trump an overbearing curriculum? In many ways this speaks to the heart and integrity of a teacher. How can teachers continue to operate in a system that seems to deliberately undermine good teaching and learning by overwhelming them with too much content? Something has to give, and if heart is getting trumped overwhelming expectations, that is the death of education. Is it perhaps necessary to say ‘to hell with it’ in order to develop the critical, creative, reflective citizens we want to see in the world; and to save ourselves in the process?

        I think it might be…

        As a side note, the ministry of education here in BC is in the process of developing and implementing a massive shift in what teaching and learning looks like at a provincial level. I think you might need to look for a teaching job out here!


  2. Gabriel Nunez-Soria

    Thank you Bill. Sad that while reading this I think about, well maybe I can present this to my staff after we get through this or that, and then realize I am falling into the very trap that you are describing.

    I participated in your self-assessment break out session at the PLC conference in San Diego, and I am so thankful for your energy and everything that you are sharing.

    Thank you!

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Gabriel,

      Thanks for the kind words — and for recognizing the trap! I think we would all be better off if we worked to spot that trap and step away from it when we see it.

      And that self-assessment session is my favorite! I hope you dug it as much as I do. That work is the most important work I do in my classroom by far.

      Rock right on,

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  4. Robert Schuetz

    Loving me some Cranky Bill this morning!

    I don’t write posts for numbers. I am sharing a couple of my posts echoing, supporting your question.
    The majority of our lives are spent learning “informally”. Making decisions, learning about consequences, problem solving become part of our daily lives. As I explain here; it’s time to invite informal learning into the classroom, or simply redefine classroom. Life-wide learning is a concept I embrace as much as lifelong learning. In short, life-wide learning invites all of our experiences into a personally created curriculum – true personalized learning. Pedagogy shift is only a start, more educators need to be learning more about heutagogy. “Students as Entrepreneurial Learners”;

    Thanks for providing this communication/learning platform – keep it real!

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Bob wrote:

      Life-wide learning is a concept I embrace as much as lifelong learning. In short, life-wide learning invites all of our experiences into a personally created curriculum – true personalized learning.


      Love this, Bob.

      What blows me away, though, is that we rarely create opportunities for this kind of learning in schools even though we ALL know that it matters.

      That’s stuck in my craw right now. Think about it: We ALL know that the schools we have aren’t the schools that we need, and yet we continue to double down on failed practices. What’s up with that?

      #sheesh. Maybe I’m still stuck in Cranky Bill Mode!

      ; )

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  6. Michael

    So true Bill. Amazing to think that schools exist, or should exist, to help develop/inspire/create/empower life-long learners, yet most of us don’t trust our students to be in charge of their own learning for even a portion of their day or week. However, cranky or not, you are not alone, and your students are lucky to have your efforts on behalf of their learning.
    You are fighting the good fight, and because you are sharing your trials and tribulations, it is helping others. For example, I am referencing your EML post “What Motivates Learners? Freedom” in my presentation to change my school’s schedule to try to get “formal” time for students to have autonomous time for us to support what they want to learn.
    No matter the outcome, it will take time to change things. Heck, even in Finland they admit- “If you start now, your development
    will likely bear fruit after three to five years, when the organisational thinking is ripe for new development ideas.” (taken from another EML post). I think 3-5 Years!!! We can’t wait that long. However, because you are doing it now, just think- your students are already 3-5 years ahead of everyone else.
    Keep up the great work and thanks for honest post.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Michael wrote:

      Amazing to think that schools exist, or should exist, to help develop/inspire/create/empower life-long learners, yet most of us don’t trust our students to be in charge of their own learning for even a portion of their day or week.


      This. Totally this, Michael.

      Unless we are willing to set aside time for students to own their own learning, We should all erase “life-long learners” from our mission statements.

      Love that.


  7. Cale

    Hello my friend..

    I read this and shake my head, because I know what kind of teacher you are, and how much you care about the experiences that your students have in your classes. Right now here in BC, we are in the midst of adopting and implementing a competency-based curriculum with significantly less content outcomes than any previous document. It will truly be a game-changer for learning for our students and teachers, and I can only imagine what a teacher like you would do for students given the opportunity to go a mile deep rather than a mile wide.

    Keep doing what you are doing–we are all watching and learning from you regardless.

    And if you see this note as a shameless plea for you to teach my kids here in BC, you know me even better than I think you already do. 🙂

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Cale,

      Sorry for the slow reply! I’ve been slammed all week long.

      And my only hope here in the States is that guys like you who work in systems that are progressive can produce results that are unquestionably better than the crap we are producing. Maybe THEN we’ll get to the point where change is possible in our system.

      Long story short: I’m counting on you.

      Finally, one day I’m going to work in your system. I have to retire first — seven years — but then I’m packing up and moving out of here.


  8. teacherdebra

    Great post! You hit it right on the head with what is happening in many schools. My daughter is in high school- she does it well and pretty much hates every minute of it (not her teachers, not every subject, just the school of it) counting down the days until it ends. As a teacher, this is so upsetting for me. Where is the love of learning for learning’s sake?

  9. Meg Ormiston

    Cranky or not Bill you are spot on AGAIN with this post! I’m watching my college age son Danny follow his passion for photography with his drone, and he is learning so much about how to to create, build, publish, share, and interact with others it is awesome! Danny has to turn all of that off and go to school each day with no choice or creativity. It should not be like this for any learner! Keep being cranky it is making all of us think! Shameless plug for Danny on YouTube Ormi33 #WeGetToPayforThat

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