School Smarts

Originally published on

School Smarts

Being good at school doesn’t necessarily mean you’re smart. Does that mean the opposite is true? Being bad at school doesn’t necessarily mean you’re dumb?

The answer is yes. Both are true.

I am a hybrid learner. I learn well by reading and having conversations. Now, am I a visual, auditory or social learner? I am equally able to learn in all three ways. That, by the way, is why school was relatively easy for me. I college, as I learned to be a teacher, I came to an important realization: I love learning because the way society teaches us to learn is how I learn naturally. I immediately saw the inequity of my situation and wanted to change it.

The phrase “good at school” means, in most cases, people who are either auditory/visual learners who absorb information from teachers talking and writing on an overhead projector or learners who study incessantly at home using their own learning styles in order to succeed in the classroom.

The second part of the answer to, “What does it really mean to be good at school?” is good grades and test results. Auditory and visual learners who get good grades are not smarter than other kinds of learners who don’t get good grades.

Take some time to watch a group of children at play — preferably in a somewhat structured environment like recess at school, a walk with the class or free time in the Sunday school room. Watch how children naturally absorb the world around them in the way that is best for them.

The other day I walked by the elementary school in my neighborhood as a class of third-graders or fourth-graders came out of the front door. In the front of the pack were about 15 boys (and three or four girls) sprinting across the grass, jumping up to slap the leaves of overhanging branches, and shouting. The second wave consisted of a meandering group of boys and girls who were talking, looking around and picking up leaves, twigs and grass. The back of the class, all girls, stopped around the various plants that lined the walkway leading up to the school.

I remember two students in particular. One boy in the first group had his head thrown back and his arms pumping as fast as they would go. I recalled the feeling of exhilaration that I used to have when I was free of my confining desk with nothing but 20 minutes and an expanse of grass in front of me. The huge smile on the boy’s face told me he was feeling that too. The other student was a girl in the last group who immediately got on her knees and started examining a plant. She had one hand on a leaf and another hand in the dirt, looking up at the teacher with questions already formed in her mind. Throw in the group of chatterers and strollers in the middle and you have a pretty decent spread of learning styles.

Now, what, if anything, were any of them learning? Was the running boy learning anything? The chatterers? The girl bent over the plants? I think you know the answer by now: they were all learning.

The chatterers were learning interpersonal skills as well as information from their peers. The girl with the plant was a classic example of learning, the kind we praise with comments like “apt pupil,” “good student” and “smart kid.”

The running boy was learning as well. Anyone who’s watched professional athletes at work knows that running — and running like Emmitt Smith — are two very different uses of the word. Physical coordination and finesse are not as inherent as we may think. A “natural athlete” still has a lot to learn. Ask someone like Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners if you don’t believe me.

When I taught special education in California, I would take students for a walk when I needed to have “a talk” with them. Get the arms and legs moving, get the brain in a place where it is receptive and you can get through to a hands-on learner. Tell them the same message when they are staring at you like a deer in the headlights, from a desk in a classroom in an environment that they’ve learned to despise, and you get nothing.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that most of my students who had “trouble in school” were visual and hands-on learners. They did just fine when they could communicate in images or hold the lesson in their hands.

My brother was a “bad student” but is a remarkably bright guy. He found his niche in computers and now makes a good living. His most famous quote from high school was:

“Graduation is at 10 a.m. on Saturday… assuming I pass English.”

He did, with a D-minus-minus. He walked on that Saturday and went on to bigger and better (for him) things.

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