How We Learn, The Waller Scholars


Devoted to Creating Change through Conversation

Two years ago, as I planned for the first few weeks of school, it occured to me that my students, all Freshmen in college, were the products of No Child Left Behind, a policy that has dominated political thought on education for the past eight years. The law was put into effect when they were only ten years old, so all but four years of their education were spent working towards achieving high test scores.

I had been noticing a new focus emerging on campus. In the past my students had delighted in the Italian language, eager to understand the subtleties of a culture.  More recently, though, our conversations centered around what to memorize for the test. My students resisted open-ended activities.  They wanted hard-fast rules and study guides.  At first I created these guidelines and tried to appease them until one class of students sent me in a direction I could never have predicted.

When I decided to teach a seminar examining and comparing Italian and American education, never did I imagine that I would be driving a van filled with students to the actual schools we were studying. What started out as a careful examination of two cultures and their educational systems turned into a quest to understand our own system -- what was working and what wasn't.

We spoke about education and majorities, minorities, standardized testing -- who it fails and who benefits, affirmative action, active learning, teaching to the test, and how to meet national standards without doing so.  As I listened to my students' stories, a new picture of American education emerged in my mind.  I began to ask my children and husband, students, colleagues, family members, friends, and my community difficult questions, questions that I thought might make me look uninformed, stuck, naïve, confrontational, and I took my students to the trenches, to the real schools and we asked why. Why are there so many students left behind? Why are we teaching our students to memorize rather than explore? Why are minorities bussed into schools from great distances? Why are there testing scandals in Georgia? How do we learn anyway? We began to get dirty, rub our faces in these questions. As the semester unfolded and I had conversations with my students, my view of education would be forever changed. What did it mean to explore our world? I would stop teaching from my textbook and really find out. We will only be satisfied with our education, with our lives, when we ask difficult questions and learn to explore them at levels that challenge our world view.

The next generation is already asking these questions, waiting for us to courageously meet this challenge with them.

Christine Ristaino