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Issues in Education: School Daze

We face a crisis in schools today that is greater than at any time in recent history – not because the problems have changed but because the solutions have changed. It is now possible to teach students effectively and respectfully. Advances in technology allow for personalized instruction, fascinating content, direct immersion in learning, immediate feedback, and the opportunity for mastery. Yet modern education ignores this potential, leaving classrooms essentially unchanged for more than a century. Evidence of a serious problem can be seen in the frustration of students, educators, and the general public – expressed in surveys, reflected in modern media, and echoed by past generations:

We are shut up in schools, and colleges, and recitation-rooms, for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a bag of wind, a memory of words, and do not know a thing.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1844

School is established, not in order that it should be convenient for the children to study, but that the teachers should be able to teach in comfort. The children's conversation, motion, and merriment … are not convenient for the teacher, and so in the schools, which are built on the plan of prisons, questions, conversation, and motion are prohibited.

– Leo Tolstoy, 1862

Monday morning found Tom Sawyer miserable. Monday morning always found him so – because it began another week's slow suffering in school … Presently it occurred to him that he wished he was sick; then he could stay home from school … He canvassed his system. No ailment was found, and he investigated again. This time he thought he could detect colicky symptoms, and he began to encourage them with considerable hope. But they soon grew feeble, and presently died wholly away.

– Mark Twain, 1876

My schooling did me a great deal of harm and no good whatever: it was simply dragging a child's soul through the dirt.

– George Bernard Shaw, 1910

I was happy as a child with my toys in my nursery. I have been happier every year since I became a man. But this interlude of school makes a sombre grey patch upon the chart of my journey. It was an unending spell of worries that did not then seem petty, and of toil uncheered by fruition; a time of discomfort, restriction and purposeless monotony.

– Winston Churchill, 1930

It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.

– Albert Einstein, 1946

I am entirely certain that twenty years from now we will look back at education as it is practiced in most schools today and wonder that we could have tolerated anything so primitive.

– John Gardner, 1968

The key to faking out the parents is the clammy hands. It's a good nonspecific symptom; I'm a big believer in it. A lot of people will tell you that a good phony fever is a dead lock, but, uh… you get a nervous mother, you could wind up in a doctor's office. That's worse than school. You fake a stomach cramp, and when you're bent over, moaning and wailing, you lick your palms. It's a little childish and stupid, but then, so is high school.

– Ferris Bueller, 1986

Students absorb the message that learning is a joyless succession of hoops through which they must jump, rather than a way of understanding and mastering the world.

– Anna Quindlen, 2005

Are these quotations isolated examples of negative experiences in school? I don't think so. I think they reflect the alienation and disappointment shared by much of our society. These quotations are taken from books, speeches, plays, and movies that were popular in their times, precisely because they struck a chord with audiences. In each case, the ideas of the author resonated with the thoughts of the general public.

When it comes to fiction, I cannot think of a single story that portrays high school as intrinsically wonderful. Mainstream cinema provides many examples: Blackboard Jungle (1955), Teachers (1984), and Election (1999). Even movies with a positive message are about educators who rise above the fundamental inadequacy of the system. To Sir, with Love (1967), Dead Poets Society (1989), and Freedom Writers (2007) all acknowledge that the secondary school system is horrible – with the exception of one teacher. No novel, movie, or television show has ever been based on the premise that high school is inherently liberating because audiences would not believe it.

To ensure that I am not misrepresenting public opinion, let me turn to a more reputable source – a source stripped of all bias and pretense, a source capable of quickly capturing the pulse of the English-speaking world, a source that allows me to do research at home in my pajamas: Google. I searched for a variety of terms to gain some insight into society’s collective thoughts. Here is what I found:

Table 1.1: Frequency of Google Search Terms

Search term Hits
“school rocks” 42,000
“school sucks” 341,000
“I love school”  138,000
“I hate school” 290,000
“I love” 250,000,000
“I hate” 48,000,000

The majority of people seem to dislike school. Although terms like “rocks” and “sucks” may have more to do with vocabulary than public opinion, a pattern of discontent remains when more common terms are used. More than twice as many people hate school than love school. Yet this is not because people are incapable of expressing love or apt to complain. I was encouraged to discover that, according to Google, expressions of love are five times more frequent than expressions of hate. In other words, people specifically hate school.

Why are so many people negative about school? Does it stem from personal disappointment? Students spend an average of twelve years in school. Nobody can be happy with everything that happens over this extended period. Students inevitably face frustration when they reach their limits. Recognizing limitations is a natural part of growing up. However, I do not believe that this common form of disappointment is to blame for the poor attitudes toward school.

Surveys confirm my own observations: students enjoy the social aspects of school, understand the importance of education, are curious about the world around them, want to learn, and want to succeed. Although they respect their teachers and know that teaching is a challenging job, they are bored in class and find the experience unfulfilling. Adolescents are capable of passion, dedication, and joy. The fact that they are disaffected at school is not because of raging hormones or a natural process of reaching their limits; it is the direct result of an education system that fails to engage them intellectually and does not respect their needs or interests.

If educators had a slogan, it would be “Teaching the three Rs,” representing the first three letters of “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic” or “reading, writing, and arithmetic” – ironically broadcasting that we either cannot spell or cannot add. Our inability to get even the basics right exposes our real problem. Modern education fails because it is built on an unstable foundation – the principles and pillars that support it are inherently flawed and crumbling. Unfortunately, the crisis is not so superficial that it can be patched with a new slogan, a better PR firm, or a mountain of educational jargon intended to rename and disguise old issues. While most people know there are problems, they are less clear about the specific challenges and potential solutions.

I believe our current system rests on six fundamental flaws: 1) a reliance on lectures, 2) using grades to sort and punish, 3) a lack of choice, 4) an inability to inspire, 5) inadequate feedback and review, and 6) a misplaced responsibility for learning. Any effective plan for school reform must overcome these deficiencies to succeed.


next: Problems with Lectures


This is an excerpt from Chalkbored. Order the book here to learn more about ...

- Student opinions of school
- Scientific surveys and public opinion
- Frequency of boredom and busywork in school
- International comparisons of education