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Learning to Not-Learn

Herbert Kohl is well-known as an educational author (written more than 30 books), an advocate of alternative education, and a proponent that "quality education for all children is a pedagogical imperative and a social justice issue." I was first introducerd to Kohl's ideas through the books The Open Classroom (1963) and Math, Writing & Games in the Open Classroom (1973).

Some time ago, I purchased another of Kohl's books, but let it sit on my shelf for more than two years. Then, I finally got around to reading it...and am now suggesting it for you (i.e. to read, not let it sit on your shelf).

Herbert Kohl's "I Won't Learn From You" and Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment (1994). The book includes five essays.

The essay that impacted me the most is "I won't learn from you," which focuses on the issue of a student "not learning" or "refusing to learn." I expect that most (i.e. all) math teachers have experienced this phenomenon, but were not aware of what was actually happening.

That is, the standard conclusion is that we need to find a new way of getting the student to experience the mathematical ideas. But, Kohl argues that our efforts are in vain, especially by our focus on issues and approaches that are irrelevant.

Kohl argues that some students purposely "learn" how to "not-learn": "It consists of an active, often ingenious, willful rejection of even the most compassionate and well-designed teaching. It subverts attempts at remediation as much as it rejects learning in the first place."

This phrase (supported by the full 32-page essay) hit home for me. Reading and reflecting on it led to multiple images of past interactions with former students. Though the essay explains a lot, Kohl does not suggest solutions...at least that a math teacher could reasonably implement. Rather, Kohl seems to be alerting teachers to the problem, with the plea that we distinguish between "non-learning" and "failure."

Two other essays in the book focus on the need for "creative maladjustment" and "hopemongering" in classrooms, especially if effective teaching is our goal. It is difficult to argue with Kohl's positions, but it is also difficult to implement them in practice...even if correct.

If I have piqued your interest, get the book..and read it (rather than let it sit on your shelf).