Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Why do we still have schools?

People often find my blog when they ask "should I go to school?" So, today, I thought I would answer that question in depth. The answer will appear as a downloadable paper on my web site as well.

Part 1: What is the problem with school?

People get used to the institutions that have been a part of their lives. This is especially true of institutions that have been around for many generations, and of institutions whose purpose is seen as doing something worthwhile. Add into the mix that the absence of that institution in certain places around the world is always correlated with poverty and you have a situation where no one ever questions the value of that institution.

Nevertheless I will ask a heretical question: Why do we have schools? Instead of answering this question by listing all the good things that schools provide, which anyone can do, I will turn the question around: What is bad about having schools?

Competition: Why should school be a competitive event? Why do we ask how a kid is doing in school? Learning in life outside of school is not a competitive event. We learn what we choose to learn in real life.

Stress: When 6 year olds are stressed about going to school you know that something is wrong. Is learning in real life stressful? Stress can’t be helping kids learn. What kid wouldn’t happily skip school on any given day? What does this tell us about the experience?

Right answers: School teaches that there are right answers. The teacher knows them. The test makers know them. Now you have to know them. But, in real life, there are very few right answers. Life isn’t mathematics. Thinking about how to behave in a situation, planning your day or your life, plotting a strategy for your company or your country – no right answers.

Bullying and peer pressure: You wouldn’t have to have "say no to drugs and cigarettes" campaigns if kids didn’t go to school. In school there are always other kids telling you how to dress, how to act, how to be cool. Why do we want kid’s peer groups to be the true teachers of children? Being left out terrorizes children. Why do we allow this to happen by creating places that foster this behavior?

Stifling of curiosity: Isn’t it obvious that learning is really about curiosity? Adults earn about things they want to learn about. Before the age of 6, prior to school, one kid becomes a dinosaur specialist while another knows all about dog breeds. Outside of school, people drive their own learning. Schools eliminate this natural behavior.

Subjects chosen for you: Why algebra, physics, economics, and U.S. history? Because those subjects were pretty exciting to the President of Harvard in 1892. And, if you are interested in something else – psychology, business, medicine, computers, design? Too bad. Those subjects weren’t taught at Harvard in 1892. Is that nuts or what?

Classrooms: If you wanted to learn something and had the money, wouldn’t you hire someone to be your mentor, and have them be there for you while you tried out learning the new thing? Isn’t that what small children have, a parent ready to teach as needed? Classrooms make no sense as a venue for learning unless of course you want to save money and have 30 (or worse hundreds of) students be handled by one teacher. Once you have ratios like that you have to teach by talking and then hope someone was listening, so then you have to have tests. Schools cannot work as places of learning if they employ classrooms. And, of course, they pretty much all do.

Grades: Any professor can tell you that students are pretty much concerned with whether what you are telling them will be on the test and what they might do for extra credit. In other words, they want a good grade. If you tell them that 2+2=5 and it will be on the test, they will tell you that 2+2=5 if it means getting a good grade. Parents do not give grades to children and employers do not give grades to employees. They judge their work and progress for sure, but not by assigning numbers to a report card.

Certification: We all know why people attend college. They do so primarily to say they are college graduates so they can get a job or go on to a professional school. Most don’t care all that much about what hoops they have to go through. They do what they are told. Similarly, students try to get through high school so they can go on to college. As long as students are not in school to get an education, you can be pretty sure they won’t get one. Most of our graduates have learned to jump through hoops, nothing more.

Confined children: Children like to run around. Is this news to anyone? They have a difficult time sitting still and they learn by trying things out and asking questions. Of course in school, sitting still is the norm. So we have come up with this wonderful idea of ADD, i.e. drug those who won’t sit still into submission. Is the system sick or what?

Academics viewed as winners: Who are the smartest kids in school? The ones who are good at math and science of course. Why do we think that? Who knows? We just do. Those who are good at these subjects go on to be professors. So those are certainly the smartest people we have in our society. Perhaps they are. But, I can tell you from personal experience that our society doesn’t respect professors all that much, so something is wrong here.

Practical skills not valued: When I was young there were academic high schools and trade high schools. Trade high schools were for dumb kids. Academic high schools were for smart kids. We all thought this made sense. Except that are a lot of unemployed English majors and a lot of employed airplane mechanics. Where did we get the idea that education was about scholarship? This is not what Ben Franklin thought when our system was being designed, but he was outvoted.

The need to please teachers: People who succeed at school are invariably people who are good out at figuring what the teacher wants and giving it to them. In real life there is no teacher to please and these “grade grubbers” often find themselves lost. When I did graduate admissions, if a student presented an undergraduate record with all A’s I immediately rejected him. There was no way he was equally good at, or equally interested in, everything. (Except pleasing the teacher.) As a professor, I had no patience for students who thought that telling me what I just told them was the essence of academic achievement.

Self worth questioned: School is full of winners and losers. I graduated number 322 in my high school class (out of 678). Notice that I remember this. Do you think this was good for my self-esteem? Even the guy who graduated number 2 felt like a loser. In school, most everyone sees themselves as a loser. Why do we allow this to happen?

Politicians in charge: Politicians demand reform but they wouldn’t know reform if it hit them over the head. What they mean is that school should be like they remember rather than how it is now and they will work hard to get you to vote for them to give them money to restore the system to the awful state it always was in. Politicians, no matter what party, actually have no interest in education at all. An educated electorate makes campaigning much harder.

Government use of education for repression: As long as there have been governments there have been governments who wanted people to think that the government (and the country) is very good. We all recognize this tendency in dictatorships that promote the marvels of the dictator and rewrite history whenever it is convenient. When you point out that our government does the same thing you are roundly booed. We all know that the Indians were savages that Abraham Lincoln was a great President and that we are the freest country on earth. School is about teaching “truth.”

Discovery not valued: The most important things we learn we teach ourselves. This is why kids have trouble learning from their parent’s experience. They need their own experiences to ponder and to learn from. We need to try things out and see how they go. This kind of learning is not valued in school because it might lead to, heaven forbid, failure, and failure is a really bad word in school. Except failure is how we learn, which is pretty much why school doesn’t work.

Boredom ignored: Boredom is a bad thing. We drug bored kids with Ritalin so they will stop being bored. All of my best work has come when I was most bored and let my mind wander. It is odd that we keep trying to prevent this from happening with kids. Lots of TV, that’s the ticket.

Major learning by doing mechanism ignored: And last but not least, scholars from Plato to Dewey have pointed that people learn by doing. That is how we learn. Doing. Got it? Apparently not. Very little doing in schools. Unless you count filling in circles with number 2 pencils as doing.


  1. Thanks for posting this, it's good to see a condensed summary to get my head around all the issues.

  2. While I agree in general with your position, I have a few points of comment and some specific disagreement:

    • Competition – success in workforce today is all about competition whether you are a plumber competing against other plumbers or an executive at a Fortune 100 company competing on the global state. School can be a good training ground to learn about how to compete. I am not, however, taking the position that it is well implemented today.

    • Learning is work. And it can be frustrating. But don’t most people appreciate what they have worked for? On the other hand, setting unrealistic expectations thus creating unnecessary stress should not be condoned.

    • Right answers. I think it is more that right answers are not always right. Rather, they are only right in a given context or situation. Developing strategies for how to deal with ambiguity is a key skill school should teach.

    • Peer pressure. If you can identify a group that does not have not politics, peer pressure or bullying, I would like to see it. Learning how to solve this problem is the learning experience, not learning how to avoid it. (see section about no right answers.)

    • Stifling – Couldn’t agree more.

    • Classrooms – Group learning is not bad per se. And sure, everyone would like their own personal mentor, but everyone would like a Rolls Royce, too. This is a balancing act, that when tilted toward money measurement (i.e., if 10 kids in a class is good, 30 must be better) and tilted away from an engaging learning environment, falls, to the detriment of the children.

    • Grades – Most companies I have where I have worked (and there have been quite a few in my 28 years of employment) have graded employees on a 1 to 5 scale. The 1’s get good raises, the 5’s get fired. One of the transition issues in going from school to work is learning how to succeed where the “grades” have much greater subtlety and ambiguity.

    • Certification – I hear the complaints about teaching to the test, etc. My question is: If you don’t test, how do your measure progress? And how to you communicate that progress? IMHO, any type of assessment is a test. If I am an employer, say a hospital, and you say you can do heart surgery, how do I know if you really are capable of performing this task?

    • Confinement – couldn’t agree more.

    • Winners. There are all kinds of winners in school and they should all be celebrated.

    • Practical skills – Good point. One of the key issues I see in the education discussion is the goal of education. What is success? I think the current economic environment is acting a catalyst for analysis of how we define success.
    • Boredom – as you describe it, boredom is a learning tool. Interesting concept. Unfortunately, boredom can also lead to poor learning habits. Like a hammer, it can do the equivalent of driving a nail or busting a thumb. It’s all in the skill of the person using it.

    • Learn by doing – all for it. There is a small set of knowledge that a raw novice needs as a platform to build upon, but once that is acquired, actually performing and practicing a skill is proven to be effective.

    I am looking forward to more of you insights and comments.

  3. Chip - the testing argument you give is standard and weak. "I am tested every day at work." No, not by multiple choice test you are not. Judging performance on real work products involving real world skills is fine by me, in school or at work. But school almost never does that. As for learning to compete, that is why sports are good for kids. There is enough knowledge to go around. we don't have to compete for it.

  4. On further reflection of competition…
    Learning in school is not competitive as far as I know. It is not like the A’s are limited. I was never told “You didn’t get an A because Ralphie beat you out for the only one.

    What is competitive is access to education, particularly higher education. Higher ed is scarce resource. Further, access to this scarce resource is on a sliding scale based on a university’s reputation – the better the reputation, the scarcer the access.

    How this resource is allocated is (and should be) subject to fierce debate. It seems to me that today’s allocation process is: being better at academic learning than one’s peers, gets a student access to further (and higher quality) academic learning. Is there a process that is fairer? I don’t think it should be wealth. Should it be a simple lottery?

    It is interesting; this type of discussion keeps circling back to the central question: what is the purpose of school. Without a clear answer, it is difficult if not impossible to see of if negatives you have enumerated outweigh the benefits. Why do we have schools? To paraphrase Mr. Churchill: Schooling is the worst form of education except for all those others that have been tried.

  5. let's get the schools into the digital age--quite wasting billions on a failed educational system