Why school has stopped working
School, in its current form, is destroying children's innate love of learning and ultimately, their true sense of self as learners. Here's why.
By Grace Koelma | Editor of The Mulberry Journal
It's often said that the purpose of education is to 'prepare kids for life'. This statement is thrown around by parents, teachers, principals, curriculum writers and the media. While it's a fairly true statement (though I would dig deeper and say a true education is a life in itself, not something you do before you start 'living') - the irony is it's being used to justify a current approach to Western education that is, in fact, grossly outdated and out of context.
An important note on teachers
When school is referenced during this article, I'm referring to the institution of the education system, the complex and historical web of rules and policies about what education looks like, and how that filters down through school heirarchies. Teachers are not to blame. They're working within a flawed system, and many of them are good-hearted and care deeply about fostering a love of learning in their students.
But even though I know many teachers, am closely related to teachers, (and was one myself once!) I think this message should not be held back, at the risk of offending them. They do great work! I stayed silent for too long, not wanting to look like a 'school basher'. But the school system needs reform. On a global scale. Urgently.
So why does this outdated education system need significant, meaningful reform?
Curiosity is becoming an endangered species
Humans are wired to learn, and learning happens everywhere. As humans, we are born naturally curious about our world and how it works, and learning flows on from that. Curiosity and learning occurs without the presence of a degree-qualified teacher and 2-kilogram textbooks. Don't believe me? Just watch a 6-month-old baby look at themselves in the mirror for the first time, or learn to crawl.
School (the institution) loves to make itself the monopoly on education, and it's astonishing how many people still believe that learning can only happen inside the school gates, between the hours of 9 and 3. But it's simply not true.
Learning happens everywhere and all the time.
It does happen in school, but it also happens in the park, on a bushwalk, getting lost driving to your Uncle's rural property, shopping online and swimming in your friend's pool. And I'd argue the learning that happens outside of school is much more memorable and relevant than much of what's in textbooks.
But the reality is that, on some level, school still works. There are still some (albeit infrequent) moments where school does inspire this innate curiosity in their students, where a specific teacher or science incursion or theatre performance lights up a child, and creates that wonderful, spontaneous thing we call natural learning.
The problem is, that the nature of school - the bells, the periods, the lines at the end of recess - means open-ended, student-directed learning time is limited, cut short or so often followed by a test 'to make sure you've retained everything we outlined in the lesson plan'. The quality of learning is handicapped and undermined by this continual assessment agenda.
There's nothing that stamps out the true love of learning more quickly than standardised testing and benchmarking.
And while childhood anxiety is on the rise, this isn't a new phenomenon. A 2002 collaborative study found that students reported significant anxiety and tension in relation to testing. But the anxiety went deeper than a bit of butterflies in the hallway before an exam.
In today's schools, how you perform during an exam defines who you are
This summary of multiple studies concluded that "students incorporated their teacher’s evaluation of them into the construction of their identity as learners."
I'll say it again, because it's crucial. Student's anxious reaction to testing became part of the way they saw themselves as learners. In that they thought because they didn't suit test environments, 'they were stupid'. And considering that learning is one of the most immediate and natural things a human does, from birth, this is very concerning. Because it's a straight out lie.
*Worth adding here that exam culture can also create high achievers who learn how to 'work the system' and get high grades every time. But this is detrimental too, because they will leave school with a different message: 'I'm really smart'. And while that may be true in many cases, it's really only one kind of smart. The lack of school preparation for how to be agile, creative and innovative in the real world will render them feeling useless and frustrated when they don't get A grades in uni, or promoted quickly in their career.
I don't think it's possible to be 'bad at learning', but it is possible to believe that lie.
There have been significant correlations drawn from hundreds of autopsies conducted on America's misguided No Child Left Behind policy. Researcher Geneva Gay has looked at qualitative and quantitative data spanning decades, and surmised the impact of a national plan that has failed to deliver on what it promised. She raises key findings around student victimisation.
"Achievement gaps will continue and even expand; more and more children will be victimized and then punished for being victims… Coercive, subterfuge and ‘one size fits all’ educational reform strategies simply are not reasonable or viable bases on which to build constructive educational futures for a nation in desperate need of new directions that are genuinely egalitarian across ethnic, racial, social, cultural, linguistic and ability differences." (p. 291) Gay 2007
But America isn't the only country whose education system is in dire straights. After England introduced National Curriculum Tests, this study found that low-achieving students had lower self-esteem than high achieving pupils, while before the tests were introduced there was no correlation measured between self-esteem and achievement. None at all.
In one state in Australia, the number of Year 12 students seeking special conditions to complete exams due to anxiety rose by one third in 2016.
Why assessment needs a serious makeover
1. Assessment doesn't fairly or accurately represent the student's knowledge
Designing a high-stakes exam that only tests a student's ability to sit still and regurgitate information on demand in a limited time frame and under strict conditions is not fair to the majority of students. Why? Because only a small percentage of students thrive and perform well under these specifications. Even if they know the content, the high pressure environment can often make their brains perform sub-optimally.
2. The current testing model invites cramming as a valid method of preparation
Because of the unrealistic time restraints and the amount of content students are tested on in one exam, the phenomenon of 'cramming' occurs. Students rote learn in an attempt to force so much information through their brains, that they can't possibly retain it all, or even a large majority of it.
Cramming the night before an exam may work for short-term recall, but the information will be gone soon after leaving the exam hall. You may have got an A+ in your senior Politics exam, but how much of your answers can you remember now? I thought so! 😉
So demonstrates my point, that testing in these environments isn't an accurate picture of what many students know.
3. Exams, reports and learning are presented as inseparable
It's no wonder students (especially young ones) get confused when we talk about learning being fun. To them, learning is doing what the teacher says, trying to memorise it (the more tricks and gimmicks used to coax a child to memorise something, the more sure you can be that it's completely irrelevant for them) and being tested on it in high-pressure, anxiety-inducing exams. They walk out beating themselves up for not answering everything in time, and get hit with a low grade (and little or no debrief) a month later.
And because exams turn into report cards that are held up as the pinnacle of schooling and a 'good education', it's something that is intrinsic to the social perception of school. And this leads us back to the views students hold of themselves as learners.
4. Currently, test scores carry way too much weight in determining identity and self-worth (for already impressionable students)
Picture this. Jenny receives a C grade for her Maths test and instantly feels disappointed and a little stupid. It doesn't help that her peers joke about test results and tell her that only dumb people get Cs.
I wish I could pull Jenny aside and tell her that the exam was ONE very flawed measure of what she knows. I bet if we sat down and chatted over a coffee, or she recorded a podcast discussing the main issues, or wrote a screenplay or... (anything else!) Jenny could show more of what she knows and more importantly, what she thinks about what she knows.
Bottom line, Jenny. The teachers, parents and students themselves may hype it up, but a test score doesn't define you. Not in the least.
5. Teachers mostly teach in the way the tests are conducted
Instructional teaching from the front of the room is still the way most teachers convey lessons most of the time. In doing so they customise their delivery to suit only a small percentage of students. Here's a quote from the same study that analysed low-self esteem correlations after the National Curriculum Tests were introduced in England.
"When passing tests is high stakes, teachers adopt a teaching style which emphasised transmission teaching of knowledge, thereby favouring those students who prefer to learn in this way and disadvantaging and lowering the self-esteem of those who prefer more active and creative learning experiences."
"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by it's
ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing
it is stupid."
It comes down to this.
The institution of school, in its current form, is destroying children's love of learning, and ultimately, their true sense of self as learners.
And it's something millions of people care about and want to see reform in, if the views on this Ken Robinson TED talk and Boyinaband YouTube video are anything to go by. (All kinds of influential people care about this. Sir Ken Robinson is an international author, and Boyinaband is a British rapper and YouTuber.)
As the late educational author and educator John Holt said:
“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.”
Are you okay with that, honestly?
Are you okay with looking the other way, and letting this slide?
We send our children to school for roughly a fifth of their life, during their most impressionable, foundational years. School gets to shape a huge part of their future adult selves. Are we really happy with the way the institution of school (whether intentionally or unintentionally) is teaching them to think - about the world, about learning and, most critically, about themselves?
At The Mulberry Journal, we are big proponents of home education and alternative forms of schooling. But this is only a small part of the answer. School reform is absolutely vital as well, and it's something we want to get behind and start writing about more often.
If you'd like to contribute on this topic, or have information you think would be of interest, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
* We want to see significant change, so if you liked this article, please share with your friends and family. And I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
If you liked this, you may like - Retired teacher: 'We're doing this all wrong'
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Grace is the Editor of The Mulberry Journal and when she's not reading submissions, divides her time between hanging out with her simultaneously delightful and headstrong 2-year-old, running multiple ventures, writing and travelling full time with her little family. You can follow her travels at @darelist.family.