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'living') - the irony is it's being used to justify a current approach to Western education that is, in fact, grossly outdated and out of context.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So why does this outdated education system need significant, meaningful reform?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.

But don't take my word for it. You can read peer-reviewed, substantial scientific studies here, here, here, here and here on how testing negatively affects student motivation and self-efficacy.

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.

Girl sitting alone studying

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."

Albert Einstein

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:​

* 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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School reform: why the education system is broken and how we can fix it
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Grace Koelma


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

  1. excellent post! I would also say majority of what is learned in school, or a large portion of it, tends to be impractical to real life experience and life skills. I cannot honestly say (beyond reading, math, and a little government study) that there is any information I actually use in everyday situations. Is it nice to have information to learn, but are some of the required things we have students learning in school necessary for life at all unless they are drawn to that particular point of interest or study? Is there something better that they could be doing with their time and efforts?

    1. Your article is really interesting and well-researched. My curiosity lies in how long you taught for and in that time, did you find ways to ‘enhance natural learning?’

      Education today is not limited to the classroom from 9am – 3pm. Education studies have evolved. Assessment does not equate examination.

      I teach and I am currently doing a post grad degree in psycho educational support.

      I realize the children have multiple intelligences and approaches to learning as do adults. We always change.

      To cite the US, UK and Australia as your outlook is sad. Finland has made great progress in the field of education and their children are thriving.

      Discuss the socio economic factors at play as well. Regard the ecosystemic model at play. Parents need as much support in this system called education as parents do.

      Teachers are facilitators. We teach about geography but also how to book a airline ticket, how to plan a travel itinerary, how visas work etc.

      By only looking at standardized testing, it ignores the opportunities teachers to use their time to stimulate thought and creativity in and outside the classroom.

      As adults, we have deadlines and presentations to do. When our boss demands results, it is stressful but the importance lies in how we handle it. Resilience is what needs to be instilled and that starts from being objective about the good and the bad.

      1. The Finnish Model is almost a total opposite of any of the models mentioned here; hence why it works. Their value is on education, they tolerate delight directed learning, they recognize that children must be developmentally able to do the task you’re requiring of them, & the family is involved. It’s a highly literate society, and it values education enough to actually pay educators well. And there’s far less promotion of social agenda, just promoting an optimal as possible learning environment.

        1. Thanks for contributing too Maureen. Agreed, Finland seem to be doing it better, and have been for ages. So why haven’t more education systems started taking on the same methodology? Seems odd or like it’s being swept under the carpet. The more discussion, the better in my opinion. 🙂

      2. Hi Tebogo, and thanks for joining the discussion. It’s great to have multiple perspectives weighing in, and I so appreciate you taking the time. 🙂

        I left teaching in 2013, so I’m not too out of the loop. And through TMJ we are always looking at more effective ways of facilitating kids’ learning.

        The unfortunate reality is that despite the multiple ways to assess progress and instil learning environments, the system still demands a benchmarking reduction down to a number per kid (and usually because parents – who went through the same system – demand it as a whole). And you’re right, parents need to be educated on this stuff too. I think it’s the result of outsourcing anything. You want measurable results and measurements need benchmarks to see where it sits against the average.

        To touch on socioeconomic factors (though that’s probably a whole other post in itself, right!), school is the best option for some kids around the world. Because something is better than nothing of course! 🙂 But I think what filters down into lower SES areas is the most used methods – many of which are outdated and rote.

        I love that Finland have the guts to try alternative methods (and everyone references Finland because they’ve actually taken the time to go “hey, you know what? The traditional model is crap and needs amending”) but Finland is 0.0733% of the global population. There’s a heck of a long way to go, and pointing to one tiny example doesn’t fix the majority if they’re not doing anything about it. Finland has been statistically ‘succeeding’ for a while now though, so the bigger question is if they’re so great at it and it’s resulting in a better first 20% of a child’s life, why the heck hasn’t the rest of the world taken more notice and actually done something about it?

        Just to clarify, I cited US and UK because they are influential and a lot of other systems are based on theirs (and Australia as that’s where we’re from so we know it all too well). I agree it’s sad. Because the loudest aren’t always the best influencers. There are systems doing it well like Finland. But there’s also China, which after a discussion with a Chinese national last week seems even more rote and robotic. China as a population is 18.39% of global population). So yeah, there’s other examples to add to the discussion.

        You’ve given me a lot of ideas for more to cover. There’s a lot more to go into and I think the conversation is just getting started here. Thanks again for contributing.

  2. Interested to see more about school reform in the U.K. Please. Many of us don’t want to look the other way and definitely aren’t ok with the school system but have no choice because home education is not possible for us.

    1. Totally, Home Ed isn’t for everyone. I think discussion helps, even at a local level.

      As an example, this video:

      That caused such a stir that some schools actually listened after students started to question the validity of their learning and wanted to control more of the content:

      Doesn’t exactly weigh into the assessment side of things, but shows the result of a healthy discussion. We’re all in this together, wanting a better solution for our kids (teachers included!) and helping our kids find a love for learning is at the heart of it. 🙂

  3. Absolutely agree! I retired a year ago (I am a certified Early Childhood Educator) because I could no longer support the philosophy and repressive strategies being used by my school system. My position was a mentoring teacher for teacher of young children (birth-5). I could no longer support and help teachers implement a curriculum I knew stifled a young child’s curiosity and learning.

    1. Thanks for contributing Gale. I’m sorry that you also felt you could no longer support it. I’m not sure what the solution really is, but it needs to move at both a systemic and local level at the same time. More teachers, parents and kids questioning the validity of their curriculum without prejudice and defending a position will help towards reform/overhaul. Whatever it takes (I think) by assessing from a clean slate with no preconceived ideas about what it ‘should’ look like.

  4. I believe very strongly in the work and messages of DR Bruce Perry combined with drastic changes in most of our world communities regarding how people relate (we are more than ever able to live and function independently of others), care for (or don’t), and incredible increases in screen time (I’m reading and writing this on a screen-screen bring us together through “sharing”, “reacting” “replying” “commenting”, but all of these interactions are done solely independently without eye contact, without extended serve-and-return and often without meaningful collaborative disrrsnment and resolution). Educational environment and professionals must incorporate what we are learning about brain development, executive functioning (Regulate, Relate, Reason-Dr Perry), and Trauma Informed Care and Education. Dr Perry writes, “Children who have experienced trauma will be in a persistent state of alarm and less capable of concentrating when they enter classrooms. Because of this, they will pay more attention to the nonverbal cues of a teacher, such as tone of voice, body posture, and facial expressions. Unless teachers adopt some regulating practices for those students, such as meditative breathing or rhythmic motor activity, children will remain in the alarm state, impairing cognitive learning.”

    1. This is helpful to the discussion Crystal, thank you. I think the screen time, perhaps over a generation or so may be the next thing that will need to be addressed (not saying it’s a problem per se, but that it could lead to a very different world in terms of interaction and will the art of human-to-human interaction eventually be lost?).

      Unfortunately, a lot of the students you refer to there are painted with the old ‘behavioural issues’ brush because of a ‘lack of focus’. And because the body posture and tone directed at them will then be negative in response, the cycle continues. Possibly the effect of 30:1 ratios and time-poor teacher-student relationships?

  5. Awesome post! I work in an upper school myself in the UK. I am a teaching assistant mainly working with students who have social and emotional needs.
    I see the ‘teaching to pass exam’ style all the time. It is sad, and often wonder “where has the love of learning gone?”
    My son only has 1 year of primary school left. We have, since he started school, tried to instil in him that school should be fun, a place for asking questions and assessments are nothing to worry about. I do worry this will change when he starts high school 🙁

    1. Thanks for contributing, Natasha. As one of the previous commenters stated, it’s also up to the parents to be educated on how to facilitate the love of learning outside of the 9-3. So the fact that you’re aware of it is a great thing. All the best for next year. I’m not at that stage with kids, but I think taking the time for open dialogue and encouraging questioning without the consequence of being ‘wrong’ for questioning it might help.

  6. Education certainly still works at the Great School I teach at……”sweat the small stuff”….reciprocal respect….simple systems…..daily full-school assemblies …… traditions …..supportive parents…..proud community……school pride……challenging lessons…….competitiveness inside/ outside classroom……streamed system …… encouragement and consistency …… time provided for staff to be prepared at all times… from the top…..follow through……zero excuses…..whole-school unity…..etc etc etc…….. very simple: ” focus on that which counts”……. basics basics basics…….Great Young men developing greatness…….

  7. I can’t agree more that school destroys a child’s love of learning. After 6 years in school we pulled my son out to worldschool… the difference in attitude towards learning between him and his younger sister (who never started formal schooling) has been incredible. And as a Mum it made me very sad. After 18 months of travel the spark is igniting again slowly, but again it saddens me that he has lost his love of learning – when his sister is excited by everything she learns. We have now dedicated ourselves to helping other families learn that there are other ways… better ways… and that traditional schooling is not the only option.

    1. Sorry that’s been the case Karen, and thanks for sharing. I wonder how many other families face the same thing but if all the kids in the family go to school and have the ‘love sapped out’ then it becomes “normal” and therefore never questioned..? Hmm, food for thought. All the best with your helping of other families.

      I might just add an important distinction that traditional schooling is not the only option for everyone, and yes it has its flaws… but it IS better than not having a learning environment at all. So in some cases school is definitely still the best option.

  8. What I see happening is students desensitized to results at all. While we have those for whom a grade of Excellence is the only one acceptable (and their stress levels reflect this), the majoritybseem to be so desensitized to assessments now that they really don’t care. If assessments are ‘in your face’ all the time then they become the norm and thus boring and demotivating. Ironically, students also always ask “is this for assessment?” and if not then they can’t see the point. Education has got boring because internal assessment is everywhere the students look. Curiosity is dead because of this but ALSO thanks to the fact that kids can surf and find all the answers they need without ever having to ‘learn through play’ (to use a Playcentre term) themselves. I’ve done a fair bit of work in Inquiry Learning this year and am thinking a lot about how to slot it into the ‘must do’ curriculum/assessment needs. To enhance our students’ care and curiosity we need teams of teachers in schools working on this, and school management/leadership teams who care, understand and who are not afraid to think outside the box.

    1. Thanks for your contribution Sue. Interesting point about “is this for assessment?”. I certainly remember having that feeling during school too!

      A lot of people talk about the common question from students being “Why do we need to learn this?” but it’s a good point that the flip side is getting to the point where if it’s not for assessment, there’s no prize, therefore it has less importance/meaning.

  9. Number 5!! YES! At a parent/teacher meeting at the beginning of this year (one that contributed heavily to us starting homeschooling) my eldest daughter’s teacher made so much reference to NAPLAN, we will be doing A, for NAPLAN prep and B is going to be done to ensure readiness for NAPLAN. Because when our children are in the workplace whether they know how to answer questions to maximise ticks on a marking key is going to be a great skill…not.
    It’s funny too because we have spoken to a number of teachers at our girls’ old school and they have all said how restricting it is to teach at the moment. When telling one about an outing we had recently been on, she said “And THAT is why homeschooling is so great, you can go once a term, once a month, once a week or even every DAY on an excursion!” She wasn’t just agreeing with what we were saying, she was singing the praises of homeschooling herself! You can just feel it from the teachers that it’s just becoming a number, a percentage, a score card.
    It is nothing against the teachers, it’s the system that is failing our kids.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Jacinta. I think it’s great to open the dialogue between home educators and teachers in a way that looks at the collaborative best solution for encouraging learning in our kids.

  10. I’ve had the feeling that we are missing the mark for sometime. For all the fads and things that are added it seems that school hasn’t changed much in a century. Ima retired math teacher and loved what I did. Yes I followed curriculum and standards as required. I think standards are necessary so that a student knows he or she has what is needed to embark on new learning. I do think the idea that all children are ready for all learning at the same age is silly. It is one of the few times age matters until retirement age (hee). As a teacher I was perplexed at the numbers of anxiety ridden students. Some so troubled that even beginning to learn was problematic. You could see panic at the thought of new topics or adding complexity to previously troublesome topics. I’d certainly like to see not reform but reengineering of education. The three r’s are the building blocks the rest should be interest driven. History and geography and science can be added to the three R’s naturally. The explosion of information available means we can’t and shouldn’t memorize it all. I look forward to seeing the path we end up choosing. Thank you for the thought provoking article. Oh as a ps the idea that children should sit still and be quiet for so long at a time irks me to. They need to learn from each other and learn to filter what works for them.😀

    1. Thanks for your contribution, Margo. And so interesting to hear your perspective after all those years of teaching. 🙂

      Totaly agree, it’s all about setting our kids up to thrive in the future. What would a re-engineering look like? I’m not sure. But it’s okay to question the current model and admit that something, systemically, doesn’t work. Many teachers do such a fantastic job with the cards they’re dealt. I guess we’re just asking why keep playing with the same cards? And are cards even the best way anyway…

      It saddens me that a learning environment brings on anxiety and panic due to keeping up with the pace of the curriculum. :'(

  11. In the FRENCH SCHOOL SYSTEM, THERE ARE NO EXAMS AT ALL THROUGHOUT, UNTIL THE FINAL CLASS, i.e the Baccalauréat, equvalent to the University Entrance level. And at this level, the students have a full year studies in Philosophy too. That’s where my children studied. I didnt have this choice in my old time, but had the advantage of studying at tbe country’s ( then ) best ( one of the two public funded) secondary school -the Royal College – and didn’nt even know e.g what Philosophy was all about when I graduated ! It appears that the author thinks that the anglo-system she’s known is a world-wide system. She has to look around internationally, although she seems to be right about that singular retarded system that’s, that has many stupid copiers especially in ex-colonies, but which are not at all universal.

    1. Thanks for your insight Tchota.

      Certainly, couldn’t cover all the systems in the world, but yes a lot of the US and UKs original systematic approach has been adopted in the rest of the world (like our system in Australia). There are of course going to be outlying countries as well as outliers within countries, and it’s encouraging to hear that you found one. 🙂

  12. A fantastic post. I found myself reading it over & over. Thank you. I loathe the rote learning system. It does not fairly reflect each child’s ability or potential. It is worrysome for our children who don’t know how to ” work the system” and who are left feeling inadequate as they are tested on a performance on one test, on one particular day. We
    need to cultivate creativity, originality & to acknowledge continued progression throughout each child’s journey through the yr. we need a curriculum that ignites the passion for learning, instead of churning out students that learned “just enough” to pass..

  13. Really great article. I have a 2.5 year old who has been accepted into the local pre-school and I am already having second thoughts about formal education for her in the long term. The UK school system is very weak in parts and as socio-economical issues change and/or get worse as they are doing in western culture, you can see why the education system is suffering tremendously. Not because of teachers, students etc it’s because those in power who make decisions about the education system are so out of touch with the majority that the system just gets weaker and weaker.

    I am looking at Home Ed articles daily at present and am going back and forth with what to do! This article reinforces how i feel. Thank you 🙂

    1. Hi Felicity, thanks for taking the time to comment. Glad the article was helpful.

      All the best with your quest for home education or school system. Let us know how you go, and of course if you have any questions, feel free to ask.

  14. This is such a great article and so on point. I think the public education model has made it ok to ‘run as fast as the slowest’, no one think outside the box, its terrible. And really sad.

    1. The opposite is also true where those who are learning slower are forced to keep up the pace, and as Margo put it (^^ a few comments up), that causes panic for students who are taking a bit longer to wrestle with a foundational concept who then have more lumped on top too quickly. Thanks for your contribution to the discussion

  15. Sadly, we are enmeshed in a “data” culture where assessment data seems to have more value, and carry more weight in teaching points, than simply looking at and responding to students. Formative assessment however, differs completely from standardized, and this article speaks to standardized. Formative assessment requires that we watch students while they work, and examine their working habits so that we can make proper decisions about nurturing their educational needs in a responsible and on-going way. The author happens to be dead wrong in the implication that the only way we evaluate students is through standardized or summative assessments, because it isn’t (most federal and state funding sources for intervention students mandate multiple forms of assessment – a healthy balance of standardized, summative, and formative). Formative (qualitative) ways of evaluating students, and then working with that data (after understanding how to capture it), is growing and I see it every day in districts across the country. Formative assessments are even embedded in the Common Core State Standards, of which I happen to think, believe, and know are a solid and strong evidence-based set of standards that go a long way to prepare students to read, write, and think beyond the kind of reading, writing, and thinking that evidently elected government officials who can’t read, write, or think – seemingly. We have a very weak base of citizens when it comes to literacy on many levels: digital literacy, emotional literacy, “literacy-literacy”, math literacy…the list goes on. The push now is not to take kids on field trips and let them learn what they will learn, but to teach them the literacy skills that will surpass what we currently have in their ability to reply to a job posting, write an accurate opinion statement, conduct research to make informed decisions, write a college essay. I see poor literacy everywhere, and it is a representation of indolence as much as it is poor foundational education that has been sorely neglected over the years, and must continue to take center stage. It’s about balance, and we will get there.

  16. My son attended kindergarten this year and only two weeks into the school year, his teacher wanted him to receive occupational therapy to correct how he held a pencil. The thing is that for him to receive it, he needs a diagnosis of something. His pediatrician wouldn’t “create” a diagnosis, so no OT. By the end of the school year, he holds his pencil just fine. Good ‘ol fashioned practice and development.
    The trend of therapies being introduced in schools is creeping up, but why? Normal childhood development has not changed but the school system has. They are teaching to the test and it’s quite unfair. Expectations for boys and girls remain the same, when their development is different. Boys dominate special education services and diagnosis such as ADHD. The educational system needs to be educated. Especially for those who make these big decisions, yet don’t even work in the classroom.

  17. I am an experienced English Primary teacher who is leaving the State system this summer.

    Twenty years ago the ideology of my training at The Institue of Education, University of London, was based on how to unleash the maximum talents of each learner, whatever they may be.

    Now there is very little recognition of any child’s aptitude for anything. There are minimum (high) standards in ‘the core’ that every child must meet. These are ‘rigorously monitored’ by the incessant presentation of tests which cause 2/3 of the class to feel a failure.
    It is uncomfortably true that this model leads the teacher to resort to ineffective ‘chalk and talk’ methods of education.

    I feel I have been de-skilled by a creeping imposition of methods on me. I was outstanding, I am still outstanding when my teaching is observed, but in my heart I know I am not. My light has gone out, and I will not be an extinguisher of the light in childrens’ eyes.

    I am moving to a Montessori school on the Private Sector where the overarching principle is to nurture the love of learning in the child. Surely this is the route to maximum attainment for all?

    1. Wow Amy, thank you for sharing so honestly. While the article I wrote above is the beginning of the discussion, and an important step, it’s stories like yours that truly give an indication of how the system is letting teachers (and therefore students) down and what is at stake. This is not just a bureaucratic issue, it affects real people. It’s really encouraging that some teachers who have commented are seeing real progress, but the reality is that these examples are outliers and there is a systemic and concerning problem at the core of most schools (I haven’t even had time to delve into the Asian, South American, European and African systems yet.) Thank you for adding your story here.

  18. We’re doing this all wrong.

    Some day …. somehow … education will discover a proper obsession.

    Until then … children will suffer these testing-despots … and too many adults will make believe it’s all okay. And it’s not.

    But let’s be certain about this … there are some things in life that just can’t be measured … because they can’t even be defined.

    Love. Creativity. Curiosity. Courage. Passion. And those special forces that jolt the spirit and open the mind.

    If you want a real thinker to blossom from childhood, don’t measure them every at every turn … or condition them to shine on every command. Instead … help them indulge in their own natural curiosities … and they’ll measure themselves and shine for all of ever.

    American education has become so disappointing … controlled by didactic gurus and self-imagined geniuses who share one important experience: they have no experience.

    Most have never lived in any classroom for longer than a few moments. Short-stay aliens who parachute in … and then dash off … having seen enough, so they think, to deduce this or that … and to pen another bit ridiculousness … mostly for others who share the very same silliness.

    Few have ever spent a morning on a kindergarten floor … or in a hot-hot circular discussion with lively seventh graders … or faced off against wing-spreading high schoolers who have suddenly come of age.

    They know nothing of real-deal epiphanies … because they’ve never seen one. Or been a part of one. Or watched one unfold before their own eyes.

    That’s what classroom teachers see. It’s what they help happen.

    They don’t know … or care … about percentiles and modules and averages and statistics. For them, it’s all about kids and how to help ‘em grow.

    But these experts make these testing mistakes again and again because … like love or courage or talent … the important things about education can never be measured so neatly … or so efficiently reduced to graphs or charts or tables.

    And here’s why.

    Education … real, real, real education … is all about people. And every learner … how ever old or young …. lugs trunkfuls of variables to this pursuit of … of … of becoming.

    Yeah …. becoming. That’s what education is all about … becoming.

    But still they try to wow us … or alarm us … with their neat and tidy assessments of the state of “becoming” … with a barrage of numbers and endless inferences that they puzzled into something that doesn’t even look like “becoming” at all. Because it’s not. Not even close.

    So … right from the start, they’ve misunderstood what they’re measuring … so why should we ever take them seriously?

    Instead of pushing bubble-sheets in front of kids and asking them this or that … why don’t we ask them about the passions they don’t even know they have. And their talents they can’t even see Or the cleverness they take for granted. Or the gift they have for this or that.

    And why don’t we just get out of their way most of the time? And stop bothering them so much. Maybe just nudge them now and again to … to become what’s inside those tiny bodies … and those gorgeous little minds.

    What the hell is so hard to understand? Stop bothering them so much. Let ‘em be.

    We should give every child lots of stuff. Like chances to run and sing and dance. And fall down.

    Chances to act their age … and we shouldn’t interfere with that. Or insist otherwise. Chances to sample things … and even walk away from certain things that just don’t do it for them.

    Give ‘em chance to make choices … as much as possible … because life’s a stream of choices. Practice can’t hurt.

    They need chances to work together … and to be left alone. Chances to drift into their own worlds … where they can imagine who they are … or might become.

    They should have chances to feel safe … and to take risks. And to tell luscious-lovely lies … and fantabulous tales … that we should all take very seriously … because that works both ways.

    We should let them speak marvelous nonsense … and not interrupt … because they’re just exercising their imaginations. So we should listen … and shut up … and give them the floor for a change..

    And, of course, we should teach them to speak and to count and to scribble. And all of that will sprout … I promise … but never evenly enough to please those testing-tyrants … or the extra-serious beard-scratchers who just can’t leave childhood alone.

    And you know what? This is what happens when the importance of teaching is cheapened … when professionals are shoved aside because some Ivy League fat-head has decided that teaching is a science … when it’s not. It’s more like conducting … or being in a play … or traveling in time. And most of all …. it’s about remembering. And becoming.

    This is what happens when some of us grow too old and become too forgetting of those teachers who swerved our lives … and helped us wriggle out of our cocoons.

    Those fuzzy memory-people who polished some talent no one else saw. Or who just whispered us a perfect kindness at the perfect moment …when it was so badly needed. Or who just loved watching us … become someone we never ever imagined we might be. Someone like me.

    You get the point? We’re obsessed about the wrong stuff.

    We’re doing this all wrong.

    Denis Ian

    1. I’ve taught for many years, read countless articles, replies, etc…this was by far the best response ever. Can’t thank you enough, Denis, for such beautiful thoughts and insight as to what true learning should be.

    2. Mentally I’m giving you a standing ovation right now, that was beautiful and perfect and so accurate it hurts.

  19. Sudbury schools have been around 50 years and are the answer to all these problems. Find one in your area or start one.

    1. It’s very difficult to start a school Cara. Personally, I don’t see the benefit of going through years of work when I can just do the same thing at home. Without the bureaucracy and red tape.

      I also think the Sudbury schools are great, but until it becomes easier to work with the system people will continue to work outside of it.

  20. Interesting post and in many ways I agree with it. However, how does one instigate change in the institution and what solutions do you suggest? It’s good to look at something critically and to question but with no suggestion of How to change, the article fails to inspire change. It just encourages criticism.

    1. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Kristy. Criticism is a very important part of change, and the system we’re criticising is huge, pervasive and has been notoriously defensive of its practices in the past (just read the principal’s response in any news article where a school comes under scrutiny). If we only criticise briefly and move on, we may not convey strongly enough the message of how much the system is failing our children, and has been doing so for decades. Transport, technology, infrastructure and legislation has evolved over the past 100 years, yet education remands largely the same. Students still sit behind desks the majority of the time, putting hands in the air. There are exceptions of course, and Steiner, Montessori, Sudbury and Waldorf schools are leading change, but we are focusing on the vast, overwhelming majority of schools.

      Unlike other organisations, school is something that 90% of people on earth come in contact with. But change is incredibly important and this article is just the first step. We want to bring this issue to light, with thousands of others who’ve written about the topic. Thanks for asking, ‘ok, what’s next?’ Stay tuned for our next post – we’ll be covering modern reforms in schooling, giving examples from excellent, progressive practice around the world, and making suggestions for how to change.

    2. Kristy, I would like to argue that people like Grace and sites like The Mulberry Journal ARE working on change. All of us parents who homeschool are. The system is not something we want to be part of, or it’s failed us, and we’re pioneering our own way and sharing how we do it along that way.

      Schools will not be remade until enough people demand it, or until the people opting out of the current system become too numerous to ignore. Change from within such a behemoth never works – but with tens of thousands of Aussie children not going to school, the government is starting to realise that we’re not a crazy fringe movement and aren’t going away.

      That’s the sort of thing that’s going to cause change, and work out what changes should be made. We’re all working on it!

  21. As a former teacher and now an academic, I wholeheartedly agree. We are creating generations of anxious people primed for heart disease and caught in a narrow definition of what it means to fail or succeed. Wonderful article. My book Raising Stressproof Kids supports everything you say. Let’s get our kids off the stress freeway!

  22. My son goes to a project based learning public school. It is rethinking all of the areas of concern mentioned above…no bells, hands on projects, limited tests, cross-discipline classes, etc. It is very exciting what it being done…and it’s working. However, as someone noted above, it’s been surprising to me how difficult it is to convince parents that this will work, to work within the public school framework that still ranks schools by benchmark testing, to find teachers willing and able to teach in a new manner, and to be seen in the community as a “top” school not an “alternative” school for “troubled” kids. The school is in one of the largest districts in the country, and it still struggles to fill each class of 200 students (with no requirements to apply or get in). It has been disheartening to me to learn that as much as many people know that education system must come change, few families and communities really want to take the leap.

  23. So thankful my kiddos are exposed to Charters that focus on project based learning and creativity as a method of learning. If only the school systems could adapt that approach. The learning is in the process: the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of accomplishment. Not just in the test score. To focus on a test score from a boring, pressure-filled environment is to leave out the sounds, colors, tastes, sounds and spectacular discoveries that await in the learning process. It’s why I resist sending my kids to traditional school districts. I refuse to process them through that machine.

  24. The juxtaposition between reading this and listening to the audio version of Carol Dweck’s book on the growth mindset has helped me clarify a few things in my mind. Dweck’s response if a child gets all the set questions correct is, “I’m sorry I didn’t give you enough challenge.” Learning to get everything right in a test is so far apart from learning by working through challenges with tenacity and resilience

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