the work of learning

Recently, Alfie Kohn tweeted an older article of his, “Students Don’t ‘Work’ — They Learn.” Sounded interesting, so I went and read it.

Kohn’s main point is that work-related language  encourages thinking about education in ways that are detrimental to student learning. This work-related language pervades education discourse – “homework,” “seat work,” “get to work,” “classroom management,” “investing in education,” needing students to be “competitive” in the economy, and so on.

Work language leads to conceptualizing education primarily in terms of (1) its instrumental value, as a means to an end, and (2) as measurable using quantifiable products. (1) is bad because focusing on education’s instrumental value causes us to neglect learning as intrinsically valuable, contributing to the living of better lives over and above material success. (2) is worse, because focusing on the products of education causes us to support education policy that produces these products rather than policy that actually facilitates learning itself. Combined, the outcome is a school full of unhappy students who varyingly summon, or fail to summon, the motivation to collect grades and test scores that may, or may not, pay off only in the future. Troublingly, learning is not primary in this picture. Kohn recommends that we move away from the work-related language as a way of helping us to move away from the work-inspired policy that the language engenders.

I am really of two minds on this article. On the one hand, it sounds essentially correct to me. Learning isn’t just like work, neither is it play, it’s a different kind of activity that has its own goals, methods, and rewards.

On the other hand, though, I remember my parents using work-related language to describe school, and I don’t think it harmed me. In particular, I recall being told that my purpose in life, for the time being, was to be a good student. As such, I was excused from much other work – I wasn’t required to do alot of part-time work outside of the home, as many teenagers are, and I wasn’t even required to do alot of work at home – “chores” were virtually nonexistent. I was a pretty good student, and I generally produced the results that were being asked of me. I didn’t balk at being told that school was my job, because it was clear to me that everyone has to have some work to do and if mine weren’t school then it would have to be something else.

Having read Kohn’s article, I would change one important aspect of my parent’s message, however. It’s quite different to say that learning is a child’s job than to say that school is a child’s job. Learning shares some of the positive features of work: not always easy but you can make progress, involves effort and skill, often goal-oriented. But school mostly shares work’s negative features: getting bossed around, lacking autonomy, being scrutinized and criticized, just wanting the day be done already.

If I had a kid, I would not hesitate to tell her that learning is her job – the primary task with which she should concern herself, and that developing herself is her work, in the sense of being her contribution to the world for the time being. But, be careful not to forget that school is only tenuously related to learning and becoming educated. Jumping through the hoops of school may be a necessary evil, but to take doing that in itself as one’s job or purpose does not seem likely to result in life satisfaction.


  • Well put. This goes to the discussion Eli and I were having on his blog, too. He made the case that if all the students in a class are capable of mastering the material, then they aren’t being challenged at all, and they should be.

    In the article you describe, I think (2) is also very bad because even if we conceded (1) to be true, the actual product of education is notoriously difficult (on many of the meaningful margins I’d argue impossible) to measure. So treating education like it’s supposed to have a measurable output tends to result in curricula being focused on what can be measured–namely, standardized test results.

  • Spot on. Reminds me of a quote I read somewhere that goes approximately like this – “do we test what we value, or do we value what we can test?”

  • Or the story of the drunk who lost his keys in the dark, but looks for it near the street light because it’s easier to see there :D

  • […] 28, 2010 Yesterday, I discussed the issue of whether work-related language is appropriate for describing learning. Here’s another language in education controversy that has made it into the news […]

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