Forget about learning? I know that sounds like strange advice coming from a teacher, but think about this: Have you ever tried looking at a faint star in the night sky? If so, you know that gazing directly at it will cause it to disappear. It is only by looking a little off to the side that you can actually begin to see it.

This principle applies to other areas as well. For example, we all know that the more we strive to find happiness directly, the more it tends to elude us.  It is only when we stop trying so hard to be happy and start doing those things that really matter to us that happiness comes as a wonderful by-product. The same is true for finding love, developing friendships, enjoying music, riding a bike, etc. The more we focus on the mechanics of the activity, the more awkward and difficult it becomes.

Contrary to the way we often do things in education, this is the case with learning as well. John Dewey suggested that we “give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.”  In other words, learning is a natural by-product of meaningful action.

So what kinds of actions will naturally produce the learning we are after? I am thinking of things like:

  • Exploring
  • Questioning
  • Discovering
  • Creating
  • Connecting
  • Understanding
  • Challenging
  • Risking
  • Excelling
  • Caring
  • Playing
  • Laughing

These are just a few ways of interacting with the world and with each other that naturally lead to growth. Our job is to create schools and classrooms that nurture these experiences. For better or worse, they are not conducive to easy measurement or standardized prescriptions. In fact, they are more likely to be destroyed by our well-meaning attempts to force or quantify them.

My 17-year-old son and I were talking the other day about the experience of achieving excellence in something that matters to you. He is an avid (and very talented) video gamer. After our conversation he texted me that “it’s not about being the master, it’s about the feeling of pushing yourself and expanding the range of your abilities. When you’re truly passionate about something, your drive shouldn’t stop at being the best. It’s about the pure excitement from just experiencing it. I don’t get driven to keep playing my games because I’m good at them.  I’m driven to play them because I feel this wonder and love for whatever game I’m involved in.”

Passion? Excitement?  Wonder?  Love? These are not experiences we typically associate with school, but why not? Maybe if we focused less on “learning” in the traditional sense and more on doing things that bring our children alive, then these would become the norm.

As we move forward into the new year, let me leave you with a suggestion for evaluating what our students are doing in their classrooms. I call this the Five-Way Test (inspired by the Four-Way Test of Rotary International and by the Marysville School District mission statement):

  1. Does it engage?
  2. Does it inspire?
  3. Does it empower?
  4. Does it connect?
  5. Does it respect?

When we can answer “yes” to these questions, then we can trust that the learning is taking care of itself.  Happy 2019!

Jim Strickland is a teacher at Marysville Getchell High School’s Transition Program and an advocate of Student Centered Education. He can be reached at

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