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I won't learn from you...

Written by Steve Fulton
November 08, 2011

10 years ago, after completing my freshman year of college, I was getting ready to pack up my dorm and return home for the summer. Before I left I decided to drop my my adviser’s office, Dr. Rosalie Romano, and ask her for advice on some summer education-related reading. I had never did any reading about teaching outside of assigned coursework, and my work with Dr. Romano over the course of the second semester that focused upon critical pedagogy and democratic education had piqued my interest. She recommended the book “I won’t learn from you”: and other thoughts on creative maladjustment by Herb Kohl (1995). I bought the book and read it over the summer, completely unaware of just how important it would be when I started my career as a teacher in an urban middle school.

Every year, plenty of students enter my class quite unlike Erin, students with identities that have developed over time in opposition to the institution of school. In his book, Kohl describes such students as willfully engaged in the process of “not-learning,” or “a conscious and chosen refusal to assent to learn” (27). Students who “not-learn” are often labeled as failures, but are perfectly capable. They choose to resist learning through such means as defiance or apathy because it is better than the alternative: conforming to an institution that challenges “personal and family loyalties, integrity, and identity” (6).

Ever since I started teaching, Kohl’s book has enabled me to recognize non-learning for what it is and not dismiss it as failure. I’ve always wanted to guide these not-learners in turning a critical eye towards the society and institutions within which they are marginalized and, as Kohl explains is the only way to break through not-learning, involve them in “direct intelligent engagement in the struggles that might lead to solutions” (32).

I’ve had some success with bringing in my not-learning students from the margins each year, but never to the extent that I hoped, not like the teachers in the movies. Still, every year I find myself planning instruction with these students in mind, hoping for a Stand and Deliver-type experience.

When I first envisioned the Digital Inquiry project, with its freedom to explore, emphasis on process over product, and potential to engage students in critical narrative-type work, I imagined that these students on the margins would be quick to embrace it. They would see that I respected them and their stories, and they would value my role in providing the tools, guidance, and space to learn and become empowered. Maybe this project would be the key to actualizing my own teacher-as-hero narrative. Maybe I would become famous.

I didn’t get half-way into thinking about which Hollywood star would play me before I realized I was getting ahead of myself. I thank Cristian for helping to keep me grounded.


Kohl, H. R. (1995). “I won’t learn from you”: and other thoughts on creative maladjustment. New York: New Press.

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