What Are Our Students Really Learning in School?

By Ben Bernstein, Psychologist and Author of “Test Success!”

Over the last 49 years, I have had the privilege of teaching at every level of the educational system.  In 1969, during my senior year in college, I was a volunteer in a brand new national program called Head Start. On graduation, I was awarded a Prospective Teaching Fellowship by the then Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and, as an alternative to serving in Vietnam, I was placed in a first grade classroom in a ghetto school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, NY. The conditions were horrible—poor black children being controlled and disciplined by middle-aged white Jewish women. On my first day in the school, one of them came up to me and said, about teaching as a career, “It’s a means to an end.”  While I didn’t understand what she meant, it certainly didn’t sound good.

My teaching program required that I work towards a Master’s degree in education at Brooklyn College. In one of my courses, an independent study, I was determined to find better educational models than the contentious one I struggled in every day.

I heard about a lecture at City College, in uptown Manhattan, about a “ very different way of teaching and learning” by a Headmistress of an “infants’ school” (4-7 year olds) in a poor section of London.  Curious, I went to her talk. It was a revelation. She showed slides of children, just like the ones in my class, but they were enjoying themselves, fully engaged in all sorts of interesting activities: cooking, construction, painting, sewing and imaginative play, And all the while they were learning to read, write, and manipulate numbers. I wanted to find out more. Two months later I was teaching in that school.

It opened me up to what teaching and learning can and should be about: how to be an engaged, contributing and responsible member of a community.  Over the next many years I have done whatever I can to move teachers to create classrooms where that can happen. Perennially, I feel like Sisyphus.  The “forces” in American education continue to roll down heavily in the direction of a boring standardized curriculum, of overly complicated accountability measures, and classrooms that are dull, lifeless places.

The consequences of all of this are decidedly under-nourishing and counterproductive for most of our students. They turn off to learning and to “authority,” they zone out in front of countless screens, and they progressively lose contact with the world around them.

In the accompanying table, from my book Test Success! How to Be Calm, Confident and Focused on Any Test,”  I’ve reflected on what students are actually learning in school and how this contrasts with what they need in life.

For any parent, teacher, administrator or student reading this, let it be a wake-up call for what each of us must do to make our schools and the educational experience a motivating, inspiring and empowering one for all students.


What are students actually learning in school?

What do they need in life?


When preparing for tests, many students procrastinate and cram. They learn how to handle tests by doing the least amount at the last possible moment. They’re always behind the eight ball, always catching up. This becomes a stressed-out style for dealing with tests in life.

To be well prepared

Since life presents new tests at every turn, we need to be prepared for whatever comes our way. By knowing how to calm down, be confident and stay focused we can take on any challenge. Instead of feeling over-whelmed, we are empowered.

Give the right answer

Schooling and testing reward correct answers. It doesn’t matter what level of thinking goes into the answer. Too often that thinking is spotty or faulty.

To think critically

Life is messy and the right answer to a particular issues is not often readily apparent.  We need to cultivate the ability to think critically about what is facing us and consider our options for action.


Competition, the cornerstone of our education system, too often pits students against one another.  They learn to think only about themselves (How can I get ahead?), often to the exclusion and sometimes to the detriment of others who may not have the same gifts and privileges.

To serve others

We are each part of a worldwide social fabric. We exist not only for ourselves but for each other and the common good.  When you are part of a community you reflect How can I contribute?

You appreciate that everyone has a unique part to play, and each is valued for his or her contribution.

Get in to get out

Students do what’s necessary to get to the next step. Their attention is trained on the result.  On every student’s mind is “Will this be on the exam?” This attitude avoids the present and focuses on a nebulous, scary future.

To be present

Life is an ever-flowing stream of present moments. By teaching students to be calm, confident and focused we train them to be in the moment and to take full advantage of the countless opportunity to learn and grow, individually and together, right now

“Dr. B” is a performance coach, psychologist, and internationally published author who trains test takers—from high school students to professionals facing board exams—to reduce their test anxiety and improve their scores. Learn more about his practice at testsuccesscoach.com.