Why School? Rethinking Education by Will Richardson

A book review of "Why School" by Will Richardson.

I finished reading Why SchoolΒ by Will Richardson. Like many education books (this is actually an Amazon single), it provides ideas for improving education. Rethinking a process is vital for any industry or company. Education is no different, and schools probably suffer from inactivity.

Richardson makes clear that he’s won’t criticize teachers (and he keeps that bargain), but that he will criticize the system “teachers are mired in.”

Why School? Will Richardson - book review.

The main point of Richardson’s book is this:

Schools were built upon a fundamental premise that teachers and knowledge and information were scarce. That is no longer the reality.

He argues that students should be learning from multiple sources, and not just a teacher. That is true, but assessing information you learn must be carefully laid out. Using wikis (Richardson suggests that) and blogs can be tricky. What is objective writing? What makes a trustworthy website? That information must be taught before students dive in – probably from teachers – and then applied – probably with the guidance from teachers.

Richardson has ideas that could work – and if they did, they would work well. I would venture that most teachers want to teach children and grow in their field as Richardson suggests, but they simply cannot. For instance, he stresses that teachers should go after lessons that students crave, almost to create the curriculum around student interest.

Teachers would like that, but they lack the time. Quite honestly, teachers are probably too tired to create a valuable curriculum for 140 students every semester.

Aside from not considering that teachers’ time is precious, Richardson makes another large assumption:

The emphasis shifts from content mastery to learning mastery. That means students have more ownership over their own learning, using their access to knowledge and teachers to create their own unique paths to the outcomes we, and they, deem important.

I feel as though teachers have stood atop a mountain for the past decades, shouting that the standardized tests and strict teaching requirements hurt students. Teachers have lost freedom and cannot buildΒ lessons that their classes want. Teachers want these things too.

Another assumption is that students will want to learn. First, he uses the example of his son teaching himself Minecraft. Not every subject in school will be as fascinating as Minecraft, nor should it be. Life is not an imaginary, fun world. Second, not all kids want to learn or can learn. What this book is missing is the solution not for his kids, my kids, or my neighbors’ kids. (He acknowledges “our scores reflect our very deep issues with poverty, not inherent problems with schools). Hungry and sick kids, mentally ill and suicidal kids do not want to learn. They want their basic needs addressed. That solution is controversial, and not deeply covered.

“Why School” has ideas about changing education, but they aren’t really new ones. They also aren’t backed by much research. Richardson’s picture needs to be bigger. If public schools are truly to be for the public they serve, the public must be involved. Right now, I would argue the public largely is not. Perhaps this book’s audience should be the public – primarily parents.

Teachers are convinced of the power they can have, of the power of learning, and most will do whatever to get students to the point of understanding that. School boards, parents, and politicians need convincing. Why School could be for them.