Some children clearly aren’t thriving in school. Others appear to be thriving — they earn good grades and don’t get disciplined. But top-down, teach-and-test schooling exacts a price, sometimes obvious and sometimes much more insidious, on almost all children.
Most people alive today have had the same schooling as their neighbors and friends, even though they’re all different from each other in numerous ways. They were grouped by age, told what they were supposed to know, tested to make sure they knew it, and made to feel ashamed if they knew more or less than the age cohort with which they were forced to “learn.” Aside from being completely at odds with how children learn best, this system also sets the stage for a variety of unfortunate consequences.
Schooling does more harm than good.
Sometimes the harm is obvious. Perhaps you have a child that is clearly not enjoying school. Or a child the school has labeled as disorderly, anti-social, lackluster, or even learning disabled. Or maybe you’ve noticed that the creative spark and desire to learn that you saw in your toddler has systematically disappeared the longer the child has been in school.
It’s not you, and it’s not your child. And you’re not alone.
The challenge is the system, not the teachers or administrators. The way you and your child feel about school is the direct result of a system that cannot support individual learning.
If you stop to think about it, shouldn’t learning be:
Fun and engaging?
Inspiring creativity and inquisitiveness?
Unique to each individual?
Formative of life skills, personal responsibility, and citizenship?
A life-long pursuit?
“We destroy the love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty and contemptible rewards, gold stars, or papers marked 100 and tacked to the wall, or A’s on report cards, or honor rolls, or dean’s lists, or Phi Beta Kappa keys, in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else.” John Holt
But even those who conform pay a price, as explained in more detail below.
Fortunately, there are many alternatives. Take the time to explore this site and then take action. But first, know this: The challenges and wounds are not your fault, and they can be repaired.
The Many Facets of How Schools Harm Children
The insidious damage that can be wrought by the current education system is the subject of a book by Kirsten Olson called “Wounded By School.” Its value is summarized in this statement from the remarkable foreword by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot:
“At this time, when the public discourse about schooling tends to focus on the quantifiable indices of access, achievement, and opportunity, when the measurements of inequality use a rhetoric that is literal and objectifying, when educators and policymakers tend to be preoccupied with “achievement gaps,” with “high-stakes testing,” and with statistically based assessments and accountability, Olson raises up another specter of injustice that is more randomly spread. She speaks about the wounds of schools that cannot be easily classified by race, class, or gender, by the disadvantages of disability or giftedness, by the things visible or countable. … But she also, importantly, underscores the ways in which people who seem to thrive and excel—the perfectionist, the overachiever, the valedictorian, the brilliant athlete—may also be carrying around the pain that dulls curiosity, limits creativity, stifles imagination, and ultimately may one day lead to inertia and depression.”
How do schools harm children?
In the land of achievement-based standardized testing, creativity is defined by many as being limited to the “soft skills” that are on display in the art or music rooms. Creativity is not conducive to multiple choice. How often did our best writing, representative of our deepest thoughts and current worldview, get graded poorly or discounted by adults in grade school because it didn’t satisfy format or style requirements? What exasperated teacher hasn’t succumbed to the urge to tell students how to draw a tree?
From the earliest years throughout all of life, creativity is self-expression reflecting thought, reaction, observations, mimicry, experimentation, and all manner of intentions and experiences. Creativity that is nurtured influences almost all of life’s passions and interests. Yet creativity stops dead at standardized testing. It doesn’t conform to 45-minute class sessions. It’s not seasonal.
Those who choose to be creative are bound to be judged and compared with peers who have suppressed their creativity in order to meet the requirements of the system. The result is often denial of our inner calling, our compass that points toward our true talents.
The industrial-revolution foundation of the education system expects conformity and rewards predictable behavior, both intellectually and emotionally. We learn to comply in order to get along, to get good grades, and to be passed along to the next grade of our education. While any one teacher or administrator may encourage individuality, the presence of these pressures to be, act, and feel like all the others are unmistakable and unavoidable.
The unintended consequence of this environment is that most learn to look to external rewards for motivation, directing their lives by what others do or hold valuable. Is it any wonder so many go through adulthood muddling through unfulfilling careers and relationships, and then have mid-life crises, waiting until the emotional toll becomes unbearable to finally reflect on who they really are and what they want to do with their lives? Excessive compliance is the enemy of high-level thinking.
Despite greater recognition of this issue, and the widespread implementation of “anti-bullying” campaigns, bullying in schools is pervasive and increasingly damaging. Rates of teenage depression and suicide are at alarming levels, with bullying often cited as a significant contributing factor.
Bullying regularly arises when people are forced into settings where they have no power. It occurs regularly, for example, in prisons. As with prisons, the bullying trickles down through the hierarchy, and the more autocratic the school administration, the more severe the bullying (as at elite British boarding schools, for example). (By contrast, in non-coercive learning environments, children are no longer powerless or helpless, and bullying becomes non-existent.)
The learners who make it their mission to not do what the students around them are doing are expressing a need for individual consideration and attention. Casting such students as angry outcasts is only ignoring the root cause of the rebellion: Something in the system is not meeting their needs, and they have no other way of expressing their dissatisfaction.
“When children are trained, they learn how to train others in turn. Children who are lectured to, learn how to lecture; if they are admonished, they learn how to admonish; if scolded, they learn how to scold; if ridiculed, they learn how to ridicule; if humiliated, they learn how to humiliate; if their psyche is killed, they learn how to kill.” Alice Miller
Academically monolithic systems will often create students who are bored, alienated and unsatisfied. Unless someone spends the time to get inside their protective shells, these are the students who drop out or create havoc.
When a student is made to feel less than their peers, perhaps through discrimination for race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc., or by intellectual tracking, or struggling academically, the result is often an internal perception that they are less than the others around them. Less talented, less intelligent, less gifted, less capable, inferior, but ultimately – less valuable.
This prejudice and classification often happens in the very place where parents are sending their children to be nurtured and developed as learners. Early negative assessments result in academic programming designed not to challenge the student, thereby confirming the assessment, despite the fact that human intellectual capabilities change dramatically over the years.
A sustained internal dialogue that discounts the value of the individual in relation to their peers and community yields individuals with a very low definition of “normal,” poor self identity, and low personal expectations.
Increasingly, academic outcomes are focused entirely on high achievement, as judged by grades and acceptance at prestigious colleges and universities. Failure is not an option, each goal is higher than the last, and the pressure to lead is oppressive for younger and younger students.
This is another example of external measures determining choices and defining success for individuals who each should be determining what is important for them each day, not what they need to do to keep up or move ahead of their peers. This attention on others alienates us from our own learning, interests, and life directions.
In such an environment, failure is not a part of learning – it becomes an endpoint. Failure leads to shame, self-loathing, depression and persistent disappointment.
Perpetuation of Economic Divides
Schooling is especially harmful for children from low-income families – it fails them at rates far higher than children from the middle and upper classes (the “successes” are the anomalies, and their climb out of poverty is attributable to other factors. That is no surprise. The competitive, teach-and-test system of schooling, which pits student against student in the striving for grades, shoves a wedge between those who already know and those who don’t. Children from economically better-off families are able to learn at home much of the basics taught in school. They can perform well (at least as measured by grades) in this environment, because they don’t have to learn much that is new. Children without the same home advantages must try to learn what the others already know, and the stress of failure makes such learning almost impossible. Some develop a fatalistic belief in their own stupidity; others drop out, whether physically or just mentally, from the whole enterprise. And thus, with each grade in school, the gap between rich and poor becomes greater.
This divide is further exacerbated by “zero-tolerance policies” that inflict severe, one-size-fits-all punishments on children. Often without any type of due process or independent review, children are handed harsh punishments, including suspensions, for non-violent offenses such as dress code violations, cell phone use, and truancy. The National Education Policy Center has reported that these policies impact low-income and minority students at far higher rates, leading these children to be labeled as offenders at increasingly younger ages, and often resulting in permanent suspensions and drop-outs in later years. Zero-tolerance policies are known to contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, where children move from coercive schooling environments into the criminal justice system in a process that perpetuates inequality and disadvantage. (For more on the impact of zero-tolerance policies, see “The War On Kids” documentary.)
School attendance also comes with staggering opportunity costs. A typical student spends more than 15,000 hours in school over the course of 13 years. Think of how much personally fulfilling learning and growth could have taken place during all that time instead!