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by Will Richardson
Parent, author, speaker, and educator

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September 14, 2016
What Students Really Remember Learning in School

by Will Richardson
Parent, author, speaker, and educator

I came across a quote in my Twitter stream the other day that reminded me, once again, of what may be the biggest problem we have in education. It’s from John Holt, author of a number of books about learning and children, and also someone who is admittedly held at arms length by many in our profession. He writes:

"It is as true as it was then that no matter what tests show, very little of what is taught in school is learned, very little of what is learned is remembered, and very little of what is remembered is used. The things we learn, remember, and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, nonschool parts of our lives.” (How Children Fail)


Holt was no great fan of schools in general, and many consider Holt to be the father of the homeschooling and “unschooling” movements. He saw schools as places that destroyed children’s love of learning via the focus on external rewards and the regimented structures of curriculum, assessment, and more.

For the record, I tend to agree. But having said that, to quote my friend Gary Stager, “schools are where the kids are,” and while homeschooling and unschooling may find appeal in certain families, they are alternatives that, in the near term at least, will not scale. To be blunt, our society as a whole is too dependent on the child care functions that schools provide. And for many kids, schools may be the only places where they feel safe and cared for. In other words, schools aren’t going away any time soon.

But whether you love schools or hate them, whether you want to make them better or make them different, whether you think that they are irrelevant or that they are fully preparing our kids for the lives they will lead, we cannot escape the truth of the Holt quote above. And there is a simple reason why we cannot escape it.

Because we own it.

Say it this way: “Very little of what I was taught in school did I actually learn, and very little of what I learned do I remember, and very little of what I do remember do I now use. The things I’ve learned, remembered, and used are the things I’ve sought out or met in the daily, serious, non school part of my life.”

This is absolute truth for most of us. It’s the absolute truth for most educators. Let’s just be honest for a moment, ok?

Yet, we continue to perpetuate this story for kids that says if you want to learn something, you need to be here, on this particular day, with these particular kids, who are your same age and from your neighborhood, to be with this particular teacher, to go through this particular curriculum, at this particular pace, to be assessed in this particular way, to be told that you have, in fact, learned it. By our actions, we also tell them "you will have little or no choice in the matter. The work will have little relation to your individual lives. It will play no meaningful part in what happens outside the classroom. These things are not of concern, because we really don’t care whether you learn things for the long term. As long as you score a 70 or better on this quiz on the Periodic Chart of Elements, you have learned it.” And on.

But this isn’t really what we believe about how kids, how people learn best, is it? Really?

It can’t be. Because this is not how we ourselves learn best.

Time to Change the Narrative
This now matters more than ever because of two things. First, the Internet has made this the most amazing time to be a learner ever, and the learning we do on our own is in the process of rendering the old school narrative of learning to be ineffective at best. And second, because knowledge and information and teachers and technologies have become so ubiquitous, the world now values more the ability to continually learn than it values a credential that says you “learned” something at some point in school. That credential, that grade, used to provide some guidance in a world where there were few options to actually see a particular student learn or apply what the learned in real time. But in the new transparent, easy to share world, learning and working “out loud” online is quickly becoming the expectation.

In order for schools to best serve our children in this moment, we need to focus on creating conditions where developing them as learners is our highest goal, conditions that would rewrite the current narrative of schooling so that, in fact, kids do remember most of what they learn in school, and they can apply it in meaningful ways when they get older. They remember how to learn. They remember the joy of creating. They remember to be curious and persistent and collegial, because all of these things support them as deep and powerful learners in their lives.

In that way, we could write a compelling update to John Holt:

"The things we learn, remember, and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, school parts of our lives."

That would be pretty cool.

Will Richardson is a parent, author, speaker, and educator who has been writing and blogging about the intersection of modern technologies and learning for two decades. Find him at @willrich45 on Twitter, and at and

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  • I LOVE this post! I have homeschooled for the better part of 14 years. I LOVE education and learning how we learn. My kids are in school this year for the first time for most of the them and the second time for two of them. They have thrived in school. They love so much about it, but I so much want what Holt talks about—meaningful learning that stays with them. I just started a master’s program but only for two weeks—why? I felt those same feelings that I was just paying a lot of money to jump through hoops! I’ve taught for 14 years, dealt with a dyslexic child, done apraxia and auditory neuropathy, adhd, and more. I’ve dealt with math phobias and all kinds of learning issues and that’s with just my 7 kids. I started an online private school and learned way more than a business degree or any amount of marketing reading could teach me. I’ve learned so much from what I had to learn to accomplish my goals and yet much isn’t recognized because there’s no “certificate” to show for it. In fact, I find the field of education to actually be the worst at expecting papers and jumping through hoops rather than what a person knows and can do. I appreciate your candid thoughts because I too want to “be where the kids are” someday and so I’ll jump through the hoops, but I know that what I will really bring to the table will be everything I learned in the “non school parts of my life.”

    srnash on September 15, 2016 
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