School Sucks – What I Would Change

I’ve read books voraciously all my life, and I love writing. The first time anyone commented on this in school was when I was 17, and my English teacher said to me, “I’m really surprised. I had no idea you were such a capable student”. Isn’t it strange that by the time my school recognized and allowed me to demonstrate one of my main passions it was nearly time for me to leave?

I would hazard a guess that like me, your real passions when you were growing up were unrelated to the majority of what you studied in class. Imagine how much better you would be at the things you really care about had you been able to pursue them all day, instead of having to sit through hours of classes that meant nothing to you.

Now imagine instead, a school where students are allowed to pursue whatever activity they want, at their own pace, without constant interruptions from the school bell and a myriad of subjects taught to a shallow superficial standard. Such schools already exist. At Sudbury Valley School, students are allowed to pursue their own interests throughout the course of the day. If they want help or guidance from a teacher, they need only ask for it.

The core philosophy behind this school is that the best learning is done when the student is self-directed and is given responsibility for their own learning.

I followed one student’s story throughout his Sudbury experience, and it seemed quite clear why it is such a successful school. In his own words:

“I spent four years at Sudbury Valley…in each one I had a completely different learning experience, and I had a higher order of thinking every successive year.”

During his time at the school, he went through different phases; first become intensely involved in video games, then playing music, progressing towards socializing, debating, writing essays, and eventually realizing that he had an intense passion for cognitive neuroscience, which came out of thinking about how we perceive music. He then realized he needed to work up to a traditional college education to be able to go into this field, and spent time putting together what he would have to do in order to get accepted by a university

Does it sound like he missed out by going to this school? Does he sound like a self-entitled person who believes that the world owes him a living? Or does he sound like a truly engaged, creative and motivated person?

Every week in these blogs it seems that someone addresses the issue of motivation in education. This generally involves some reference to intrinsic motivation, followed by some vague suggestion about how we could promote motivation in schools.

Here’s a theory of motivation for you: If you don’t want to do something, you won’t be very motivated to do it. Sure, there are ways of getting people to work harder even though they don’t want to do it. Competition can improve performance for example (Stanne, Johnson & Johnson, 1999). But it can also increase cheating (Schwieren & Weichselbaumer, 2011), and is only really effective until students realize that they don’t have to play by those rules anymore. Tragically, I’m sure many people continue to live by this ethos their entire lives, never realizing that co-operation enhances interpersonal attraction, social support, and self esteem (Stanne, Johnson & Johnson, 1999) – things that so many disconnected and isolated people seem to lack.

I hope by now we’re all on the same page. We don’t need anymore factory workers; we don’t need any more automatons. The industrial age is over. Stop treating children like they are products to be assembled on an academic conveyor belt. End depersonalized education, and start allowing children to use the information they have at their fingertips to construct their own unique learning experiences. This has been proven empirically to work. (Mitra & Dangwal, 2010)

Most importantly, lets help children learn the most important lesson of all – that they, and they alone are responsible for their own destiny. Better that they learn that in school than be spat out of university at 21 with a pile of debt, a meaningless degree, and the realization that the life and the dream they were told would be theirs at the end doesn’t exist after all.

  1. Hi Declan! I enjoyed reading and watching your presentation this week. I agree with you that students would be more motivated and do better if they were given the chance to do the things they want and like. However, I see it slightly differently when it comes students studying what they do not like. Martinez and Munday (1998) conducted a large-scale study on investigating why students would drop out in higher education. They found one particular reason that is quite related to your blog this week; the reason was that they believed they had not been place in the most appropriate course. I can relate this to few people I met in first year, they dropped out from the psychology course simply because they found that statistics was the core component of the first year. Given that they did have the chance to choose what they want to study in universities (after the long battle for the entry), I was shocked that they could just simply give up because they found it difficult or dislike a part of the course. Reflecting this to education (or even daily life), there must be something you dislike, even in the things you love to do. I am afraid that if education emphasised too much on the freedom of only choosing and studying what you like, this would had encouraged them to give up something once they bumped into difficulties, like statistics in the first year. I definitely agree with you that education is meant to teach students at the early stage that they are responsible for their own destiny. In order to achieve this, I think it is equally important to let students know sometimes it is not an option for them not to do something they do not like.

    Martinez, P. and Munday, F. (1998) 9000 Voices: Student Persistence and Drop-Out in Further Education. Further Education Development Agency: London.

  2. I agree that students should be given more choice in what they learn. I am a huge supporter of the self regulated learning concept whereby students are encouraged to direct their own learning, observe their performance and make their own judgements and decisions on what steps to take to improve their performance (Zimmerman, 1990) and the school you mention seems to allow that. However, I do believe that moderation is key and that learning should only be self directed to a point. For example, I would like to see a system that follows the principles of these blogs whereby students are given a broad topic and encouraged to go away and research any aspect of the topic that interests them. I believe this would lead to a more well rounded education as students will not be able to ignore essential components to their education. I know that had I been given the choice I would never have studied maths, but then where would I be in everyday life, trying to pay for things, work out grade percentages or cashing up in work?

    However, my opinions differ drastically to yours for the remainder of your blog. ‘we don’t need any more factory workers; we don’t need anymore automatons. The industrial age is over.’ I really really hope you do not mean this in the literal sense. Maybe you should stop and think about where we would be without factory/industrial workers. Far from being robots they are the living breathing nervous system of the world. In my opinion, industry is one of the areas we can’t do without. However, maybe it would be worth while to take a second look at how many people are actually required to manage industry. There seems to be an ever expanding list of job titles among the higher echelons of industry that seem to me rather unnecessary and redundant. They may have gone through higher education but they are certainly not as useful as the factory workers you are belittling.

    • You’ve completely misunderstood my point about factory workers.

      In case you hadn’t noticed, there are very few factory jobs remaining in Britain.

      This is because large companies can move their factories to third world countries and get people who have often never even attended school to work for a fraction of the wages that British workers demand.

      You don’t need an education to be a factory worker, but you do need to be compliant to learn to do the same repetitive tasks over and over again. You need to sit quietly and do exactly what you’re told. An uneducated citizen of a third world country can do that just as well as an ‘educated’ British person, and they’ll work harder, longer, and won’t set up unions.

      Believe me, if manufacturing companies could get machines to do it quicker, they would.

      We are living in a revolutionary age. Science and Technology is progressing at an astonishing pace, yet Britain is stuck in a recession. This is because we have a workforce that has been trained to be compliant manual workers in industries that no longer exist, and do not have anything to contribute to these burgeoning areas.

      So when I say ‘we don’t need any more factory workers; we don’t need anymore automatons’, I do mean it literally. Every year thousands of people leave school and university with nothing to contribute to industry or the economy.

      So thanks for the advice: “Maybe you should stop and think about where we would be without factory/industrial workers”, but my 20th century history knowledge is actually pretty good. The world has changed, and as long as we continue to value and educate compliant, obedient workers over creative, enterprising leaders, as a country profit and prosperity will remain out of our reach.

    • Without industry, workers are useless. The current education system in the UK is producing workers, year on year, to run a machine that no longer requires human interaction. British education system stamps out creativity and innovation, and encourages compliance and conformity. Were producing too many unskilled workers and too few leaders of quality. Are you arguing for the continuation of this flawed system?

  3. MartynRoberts said:

    Is anyone here prepared to advocate a balance? Skilled and unskilled; workers and leaders. Workers are redundant without industry, yes, but leaders, by definition, require people to lead.

    The government is currently scrambling to regain some of the secondary (manufacturing) industries we have lost over the last decades, plus some new ones, in order to revive the economy. Whilst it will take creative, enterprising leaders to achieve this, and machines are likely to play a bigger part, inevitably ‘compliants’ will be required to construct said machines and (still) to operate and maintain them.

    Creative, innovative individuals will make huge contributions, I’m sure, to the City of London or other tertiary-type economic centres, but essential primary and secondary industries will falter if every school-leaver or graduate is the free-thinking, suited and booted, entrepreneurial ‘non-compliant’ you would have them be.

    However, I will bow to the impressive knowledge of 20th century history in display here. You’re right. If the third world can do it just as good, for less, we should just forget how to get our hands dirty and learn how to spin ideas and manage, well, nobody.

    Good job some slate-quarrying, automatons all chipped-in to set this university up so that we can all get our worthless degrees, else we would never have had this lovely chat.

    • If you’ve somehow got the impression that I think manual labor is inferior to leadership and management, I’m afraid you’re completely wrong. I come from a farming family, I worked before I came to university, and I’m quite aware of the value of hard work.

      People do what they need to do to get money to live and have happy lives. Once upon a time, of course there were mining jobs to be had. There were also farming jobs, and people produced steel, cotton, built cars, etc. For the most part, these jobs no longer exist, nor will they ever again. Getting nostalgic and protective about the days of slate mining isn’t going to help. We’ve got to get real about what we need to do to keep the British economy strong, and its citizens employable.

      Fundamentally, I think your views are wrong. You’re the one who is dividing people into workers and leaders, innovators and ‘compliants’ as you call them. I don’t see the world that way. I think that given the right education and opportunities, every child has the ability to contribute to our society, adapt to evolving technology and industry, and contribute in all sorts of amazing ways.

      The current school system holds this divisive approach too. Children are assessed regularly from 7 onwards, judged on their academic ability, put into tiers and taught to differing degrees along the same continuum. Doesn’t this seem absurd to you? It is because every child is being forced down the same narrow path, that everyone ends up competing for the same jobs and nobody with anything unique to contribute.

      Your comments have given me food for thought though, and I was so inspired to defend my views that I ended up writing my next blog in defense of my view! I’ll post it tomorrow evening. So I guess what Jay said is right, the devil’s advocate approach really does help the problem solving process!

  4. I feel like Dec’s been trolled by Grendel himself! Thanks for the advocation. According to Valacich & Schwenk (1995), groups given a ‘devil’s advocacy treatment’ developed and considered more alternative solutions to a proposed problem. They also showed that the group who received the devil’s advocate approach selected a higher quality recommendation to solve the problem, than groups just taught by an expert. So again thank you, you’ve single handedly raised the level of argument to a new, richer level. Oh, and knowledge is “on” display, not “in”.

  5. The Mitra & Dangwal (2010) paper you cite, Declan, is very interesting! That children with minimal English can learn and understand complex material on their own, is testimony to the incredible untapped ability within our children. Whether such unstructured learning where computers are not such a novelty and learning is often a chore rather than a privilege, would be interesting to investigate.
    I feel that fostering a belief that ‘intellecutal competence consists of a repertoire of skills that can be expanded through their [chidren’s] own efforts’ ( ) is key. Such a belief has been called ‘incremental theory’, because they keep trying in order to develop understanding. Fostering active learners who take ownership of their education will hopefully produce a self-motivated and intelligent next generation.

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