3 Problems With Schools

Mar 13th, 2009 • Kirsten Olson
Originally published in the District Administrator, Spring, 2008.

For the last decade I have been analyzing people’s learning histories, asking them to recount their earliest memories of school and to describe the relationship between intense, pleasurable learning and schooling. For many, the connection between school and learning is a negative one—or there is no connection at all. Through extended interviews with children, young adults and parents of children in school, I have been examining the ways in which some of the practices of formal education can be transgressive and violating to the cognitive, emotional, and spiritual centers of people’s lives, even though every person I’ve talked to recognizes education’s critical role in economic and social survival.

Why do schools wound? What have my interviews revealed?

  1. Learning As “Product.”  In very simple terms, learning in school has traditionally been conceived of as product, and students have been moved down the assembly line of learning in easily traceable, readily testable stages. Yet my interviewees tell me experiences of intense learning often have nothing to do with orderly, assembly-line like learning. In most people’s lives powerful learning involves intuition, risk, ambiguity, messiness, and lots of mistakes. A just published report by the National Center on Education and the Economy indicates that in our new global economy, the most desired skills among workers will be creativity, self-discipline, the capacity to synthesize new information and ideas, and the ability to work in teams—the near opposite of the assembly line model. Yet my interviewees say few students are receiving educations that really prepare them for this new era. Outmoded views of learning, teaching and pupil performance are still at the center of most schools’ instructional programs’, causing many of the wounds we see today.
  2. Truncated Ideas About Ability. We are also hobbled by our underdeveloped, too simple ideas about human ability. Formed in the early 20th century to help sort students with efficiency, our ideas about inborn, unchanging capacity in students tend to live on in schools, despite evidence from other cultures that effort, rather than innate capacity, is the most crucial component of academic achievement. Our beliefs about innate ability make grades and test scores, even in very young children, globalizing, highly public evaluations of ability and worth. Students often internalize these views in ways that affect them for life.
  3. Teachers Are In a Confidence Game. Teachers still work in systems that reward them for controlling students and keeping them orderly, rather than for providing intellectual stimulation and challenging learning tasks, and our knowledge about how children actually learn is still very much a work in progress. This lack of knowledge about what is at the core of the education business makes the teaching profession very fragile, and often hostile to students. If students do poorly or struggle—making teachers feel unsuccessful—fault is frequently shifted to the pupil. Students who do not perform “lack ability,” are “unmotivated,” or “lazy.” Students, of course, are completely without political power in these systems.

Because the teaching sector is only beginning to develop the kinds of skills and knowledge required to teach all children effectively, we must all strive for greater frankness about what we don’t yet know about educating children. We must allow ourselves to unmask some of the myths of schooling.

We must stop pretending:

  • That the educational system always has a child’s best interests in mind, or can act on them;
  • That teachers are always adequately trained to analyze and judge a child’s performance and level of development;
  • That assessments actually test what they are intended to measure;
  • That there is sufficient knowledge in the system to reach the stated instructional goals of the educational entity.

As Americans we have profound, passionate beliefs in the power of education to transform our life prospects and those of our children. While many would say our current focus on educational attainment–now more and more measured by performance on standardized tests, high school graduation rates, and other ‘objective’ means—is an essential new lifeway in a competitive global economic climate, there are also real personal costs for many to being a part of an educational system with outmoded practices for so long and so unrelentingly. From its increasingly rigid definitions of learning as testable product, to its assumptions about human ability and the moral value attached to grades, to an ambivalent, often negative, culture towards children—casually, almost informally, school sends toxic messages to many of its most ordinary, average pupils. Children and young adults are enormously vulnerable in this system.