Why School?: A Conversation With Will Richardson


Earlier this month, I attended the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Teachers of the Future conference at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia. It was the single most rewarding experience of my career—never had I met such a collection of bright, passionate, and progressive educators.

We tackled difficult issues, ranging from effective use of classroom technology to how to engage more teachers in online forums. NAIS President John Chubb even spent a morning with us, learning about our ideas on making a positive difference.

Two weeks later, I still can’t shake the belief that what most teachers do, and the ways most schools operate are not only antiquated, but also sharply antithetical to how 21st-century students acquire knowledge. More and more, our students are discovering how to use the Internet for self-directed learning, geared to individual interests.  A disconnect exists between how and what students learn in school, and what skills and knowledge they will need to succeed and function beyond a classroom.

To show that I’m in good company, my fellow Teachers of the Future suggested that I read Will Richardson’s short but insightful book, Why School?  How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere.

“Based on visits to hundreds of schools in the past few years, I’d estimate that 95 percent of them are doing little or nothing to truly prepare their students for the world as it currently exists,” Richardson writes. “Connecting and learning with other people online, distinguishing good information from bad, creating and sharing important works with the world: None of that (and a whole bunch of other stuff I could mention) is on the test. And sadly, therefore, we don’t value it. It finds no place in our classrooms.”

I couldn’t agree more. Educators are doing too little to make learning relevant. To change this, we must first reconsider much of the traditional curriculum. I enjoy teaching history, but I’m not naïve. After completing the final, most students will not remember the Gilded Age.

And why should they?

How will that knowledge help them succeed after college? I’m not suggesting that a basic understanding of American history, or any subject for that matter, isn’t a worthy mission. But we need to place an equal emphasis on allowing and encouraging students to explore and share their own ideas—and strengthen a passion for creativity and individual inquiry.

All the same, I reach out to ask Richardson if students might suffer from an emphasis on individual-based inquiry, especially at the expense of not learning as much traditional content:

“We make choices about what we want kids to learn,” Richardson says. “They need to learn Shakespeare. They have to learn algebra, because if they don’t get those things from us, they’re not going to get than anywhere else. Even though we know, I think, in our heart of hearts that not everybody needs two years of algebra or not everybody needs calculus, we think that we need, as a school system, to make sure they get it— just in case they pursue that direction they need that type of information at some point. My kids live in a different world now. The reality of it is, for most adults, if you went back and had them take that Algebra II test, we’d fail miserably, because it’s just stuff that we’ve never used—and we never will use.”

With the advent of Web 2.0, Richardson reaffirms my belief that teachers are no longer the only source of classroom knowledge—and not even the best.

“It’s not just, ‘I’m going to impart the knowledge to you’ anymore, because Google is going to do a better job of that than you can,” he says. “Basically, it’s, ‘How can I help you develop the dispositions that you need to really be patient, to be persistent, to deal with failure, to embrace failure, to embrace change?’”

Our role as teachers will need to change to resemble that of a coach or mentor. We will need to guide students to pursue worthy questions in the context of areas that interest them. In that learning environment, I see no place for expecting students to memorize mountains of data—especially when doing so won’t cultivate creativity, passion, and innovation. It also makes no sense to quiz students on minutia that a Google-search will easily provide.

Richardson tells me about her daughter’s experience taking United States History in high school. For the final, she had a100‑question, multiple‑choice test: “Can my daughter do something with that knowledge? Can she actually create something?”

It’s no wonder that so many students are bored and frustrated at school. In an age of innovation and self-discovery, for the most part, we subject our students to scripted learning. This has to change.

Interview transcript

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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