Schooling is not the same as learning

Image of a primary classroom in Colombia
Photo: AFP

By: Nancy Palacios Mena
Professor in the Faculty of Education

Universidad de los Andes


For a long time, it has been shown that simply going to school does not mean that children will learn. This should be fundamental; however, it is not the case for many education systems throughout the world. For example, the results of applied tests given to Colombian students have demonstrated that after eleven and thirteen years of schooling, the intended outcomes have not been achieved and students have deficiencies in reading, writing, mathematics, and other areas.

This is, in fact, one of the main concerns established in the World Bank’s 2018 World Development Report, which was recently presented in the Universidad de los Andes. “Throughout the world, hundreds of millions of people become an adult without being equipped with the most basic skills that they need to be able to get on in life. Many of these have gone to school, but they still do not have the necessary skills to correctly count the change after making a purchase, read the doctor’s instructions, or understand what an election campaign is promising. They are even less able to have a rewarding career or educate their children,” states the report.

Shortcomings in teachers and school director’s training and motivation, inefficiency in the design and implementation of education public policies, continuing with inefficient teaching methodologies, and the poverty in which many families are living are some of the main reasons that many schoolchildren are not achieving the expected learning outcomes.

Faced with this situation, there have been many theories that have advocated ending with schooling as it is today and replacing it with alternatives such as using technology or home-schooling. But these alternatives do not themselves guarantee better learning outcomes if the social and economic situation does not guarantee access to one or the other.

If this is the situation, then the best option is to reform the school system we have rather than abandoning it. However, this requires the commitment of and decisions to be made by multiple actors that together will establish the following: robust public investment that is well used for the education sector; the guarantee of recruiting the highest-quality teachers and directors, fair pay, ongoing training, and a stimulation system that helps to keep the teacher motivated; implementing pedagogical strategies that continuingly promote better learning outcomes, the end of politicking, and the guarantee that technical professionals will be kept on who have broad knowledge in the education sector in the entities that are in charge of education. These are just some of the urgent actions necessary to make sure that going to school means learning.

Finally, without denying the importance that the other factors mentioned have, one of the conditions that lead to results in the classroom is both teachers and educational institutions being committed to their work and dedicated to making important changes to teaching. When there is clear determination to leave behind the traditional form of teaching, that is essentially characterized by the student’s passive role, it becomes a challenge for the teacher themselves to continuously demand more from the student.

The goal is that year-by-year the students achieve much more complex structures of thought and understanding and knowledge that is more sophisticated, pertinent, and that has more meaning. In other words, the objective is to guarantee the construction of knowledge.


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