Student journalists can teach us about real learning

by Jim Lang

In the last seven hours, I have watched student journalists from California to Indiana to New Jersey work collaboratively to write, photograph, film, and cover the arts on the Indiana University campus. As part of a converged newsroom project at the High School Journalism Institute, these high school students have traveled to IU to enhance their writing, communication, and leadership skills.

I watch these students write, edit, revise, and problem-solve, and I reflect on the many ironies of our modern educational system.

Time and again we listen to our political and educational “leaders” lecture us about the failures of public schools. We must be more accountable, they say. “Data” has become the latest buzz word, as learning has been reduced to a series of standards and memorized facts. We push teenagers to load up on Advanced Placement and honors classes because, of course, with such impressive labels, they must be the most rigorous classes. And the fact that these classes are “weighted” to enhance grade-point averages and may even lead to college credit offers even more incentive to urge teens to select these courses.  After all, the less time students spend in school, the less expensive it is.

All of these ideas have floated through my mind as I have watched these journalism students today. These kids value their experience here because they choose to be here. They value the experience of learning instead of padding their GPAs or working towards a “weight” that places more value on some classes than others. They learn the most not by filling in bubbles on a scan-tron, but by actually working together as a team. Their skills and knowledge are measured not by test scores, but by real-world projects that they will produce and publish.

Just as significantly, my value as an instructor is not measured by arbitrary data that I record in a spread sheet, but by the quality of real work my students publish. As an educator this week, I am accountable not to test scores, but to the writing, photographs, designs, and story packages produced by students who actually had to think and problem solve instead of memorize facts.

In his 2009 book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink makes a compelling case that intrinsic motivation produces more results than extrinsic rewards in human motivation. I have witnessed this today. I observe this each time I teach a journalism class at IU or at my high school. And more and more, I have come to believe that teenagers will learn the most in classrooms and learning environments where they choose to be, where they are intrinsically motivated to learn.

It’s time we stop listening to political and educational “leaders” who preach the value of excessive testing, accountability, and extrinsic gimmicks that reduce the value and importance of true rigorous learning.

We can learn a lot from these journalism students and their peers. Perhaps it’s time we listen to what they’re telling us.



  1. John Wells says

    You are hitting on a very important point when you say you can not measure this experience on a spreadsheet, for students and teachers. There is no place on the teacher evaluation matrix for the things we do to enrich the education of our students; there are no bonus points for taking time out of our summer to do these kinds of things.

    I hope you are enjoying your time there at IUHSJI!

    • says

      I agree, John. The educational opportunities students have in project-oriented courses like journalism, theatre, choir, orchestra, and other similar electives are, I believe, the most valuable learning experiences they have in school. And HSJI has been great this summer…we’re doing some really innovative things.

  2. Proud Parent says

    Great point Mr. Lang. My daughter will be a Freshman at FCHS and she is creative and aspires to be a writer. I think she will have a lot of fun, and learn a lot in your classroom!

    • says

      I look forward to meeting her. We’ll be doing a lot of writing and publishing this year. I’m actually learning some techniques this week at IU that I can’t wait to incorporate into our journalism classes at Floyd Central.

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