Education Needs to Be Turned on Its Head

“Our culture lies. They say they want to encourage and reward individuality and creativity, but in practice they try to hammer down the pointy parts, and shame off the different parts.” — Sandra Dodd

Post written by Leo Babauta. Follow me on Twitter.

Going through the traditional school system (in California, Washington and Guam) was never my favorite thing as a kid, but as a parent, I’ve grown to realize that the whole system is upside down.

Not the system of any particular state or nation, but system of education as a concept.

Traditionally, schools use this model:

1. Decide on what kids need to know to prepare them for adulthood.
2. Prepare a curriculum based on this.
3. Give students a schedule based on this curriculum.
4. Have educated teachers hand them the info they need, and drill them in skills.
5. The student reads, memorizes the info, learns the skills, and becomes prepared.
6. Students must follow all rules or be punished. This is actually more important than the info and skills, although it’s never said that way.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a great model. Mostly because it’s based on the idea that there is a small group of people in authority, who will tell you what to do and what you need to know, and you must follow this obediently, like robots. And you must not think for yourself, or try to do what you want to do. This will be met with severe punishment.

This is ideal if you’re going to be a corporate employee, and need certain skills in order to work for the corporation — mostly skills of obedience, actually. This isn’t ideal for the workplace of the coming decade, when people are less likely to be employed by a large corporation, and more likely to work for themselves. And have to think for themselves. And figure out, for themselves, what they want to do. And learn new things for themselves, without a teacher.

Things are changing faster than ever before. Every month, new technology is announced that alters the way people work, or will work in the future, and we need to be able to learn and adapt to this ever-changing landscape.

How are we to do that, or how are our children to learn that, if they have no authority telling them what they need to know, or how to learn, or what to do?

People often grow up to be competent learners, and achieve great things, after going through the traditional school system. But this is in spite of the system, not because of it. We are pretty adaptable people, inherently curious, and we can learn without an authority, but the current school system tries to beat this down. It usually fails to some degree, but to the degree it succeeds, it harms people.

Schools fail not because they don’t impart knowledge or skills, but because they kill curiosity, smother excitement for learning, club down with a furious brutality our desires to be independent, to think for ourselves, to learn about things that actually interest us.

“I suppose it is because nearly all children go to school nowadays, and have things arranged for them, that they seem so forlornly unable to produce their own ideas.” – Agatha Christie

But Teachers are Great
Yes, I agree, they are. My wife was a middle school teacher, of English, and she worked tirelessly with her students’ interests at heart. She really wanted to teach them to love reading, and did everything in her power to do so. Unfortunately, she was frustrated by the authoritarian nature of school administration, and left. She now homeschools our kids, and is trying to give them the freedom to learn on their own.

My grandmother was a teacher for decades. My aunt is a teacher, first of elementary and middle schools, now of children in a juvenile detention center, and is wonderful at getting kids to love reading. My father is an artist teaching others to love art, and to do it well. I love teachers, and have the highest respect for them.

I just think they’re in a system that doesn’t work. That cannot work, given the nature of what the world has become.

How can we prepare children for a future we cannot foresee? How do we know what skills they will need, what knowledge will be important, in 10 years, or 15? We have no idea what the world will be like then. I sure don’t. Do you? Does anyone know how people will be working 15 years from now?

I submit this is impossible. And what’s more, it always has been impossible. The workplace now is vastly different than it was when I was a lad in shortpants three decades ago running around in the schoolyard, wiping snot from my nose and learning about the Cold War. People then didn’t have computers in the workplace, at least not most of them, and those who did have computers didn’t have anything resembling what we have today. Most people used electric typewriters, and fax machines weren’t in offices yet. Fax machines.

So yes, I love teachers, and think they are incredible at what they do. What I think they need to do, though, is not be teachers, but facilitators.

Don’t direct learning, because when students grow up they won’t be directed in their learning, they’ll be self-taught. Think about it: when you learn things today, as an adult, do you learn from a teacher, or do you learn things on your own? And isn’t learning on your own more fun? Don’t you love learning new things? Doesn’t that make the learning stick with you for longer than when you had to memorize things in school?

What we learn in school isn’t nearly as important as how we learn, because how to learn is the lesson of school.

“The founding fathers in their wisdom decided that children were an unnatural strain on their parents. So they provided jails called school, equipped with tortures called education.” – John Updike

How to Learn
And the way we’re taught to learn is as receivers of information, non-thinkers. Follow the rules. Read pages 100-132. Do the exercises. Memorize the information. Spit it out in a test. Do this project, because we tell you to, not because it’s fun or interesting.

The way we need to be taught to learn is completely different. It’s this: learn about what interests you, gets you curious, gets you excited. Figure out where to get the information you need. Read about it, talk to someone about it, find out about it. Try it. Do it, make mistakes. Figure out how to correct the mistakes. Figure out how to solve the problems you encounter. Repeat.

In other words, find problems that interest you, and figure out how to solve them.

Sometimes, you’ll have to solve problems that aren’t so interesting, just to solve problems that do interest you. That’s OK. That’s how things work.

And here’s a secret: we already know how to do this. From birth. This method of learning is innate in all of us. It’s built in.

When a toddler wants to do something, like get a stash of chocolate you’ve hidden on top of the fridge, he’ll figure it out. He’ll find ways to move a chair to the fridge, or climb up onto a counter near the fridge, in order to get the candy. Along the way he’ll learn a thing or two about cabinet doors and fridge doors and why you shouldn’t lean too far in one direction on a chair if you don’t want to fall and get bruises.

When a kid wants to play a video game, she’ll learn things like how to set up and turn on the PS3, how to navigate menus, how to get started with the game, how to convince mother that she’ll clean her room later and that her homework is pretty much all done so that she can play the game now.

Kids know how to solve problems, when they want to do something.

We don’t need to teach them to learn. We need to get out of their damn way.

And that’s the problem with schools. They can’t motivate kids to learn, because they’re forcing it. They’re trying to impart on them a rigid system of authority that kids naturally rebel against. In fact, this is the main problem kids face, and they come up with all kinds of incredibly creative ways to solve it, from skipping school and smoking pot to drawing incredible doodles in notebooks instead of listening to a history lecture to finding ingenius ways to communicate with peers, through technologies like texting and iPhones and through old technologies like passing notes and so on.

Creativity isn’t dead in our kids. It’s alive, but it’s being marshaled to beat the forces that are beating them down.

“No use to shout at them to pay attention. If the situations, the materials, the problems before the child do not interest him, his attention will slip off to what does interest him, and no amount of exhortation of threats will bring it back.” – John Holt

Turn Education on Its Head
So how to prepare our kids for tomorrow? Better people than I have written on this. Look up Unschooling — it’s already been invented, and it’s what I’d recommend.

It’s pretty much just getting out of the way of kids. Let them learn about what they want to learn about, and you know what? They’ll actually care about what they’re learning, because they chose it themselves. They’ll get excited about things, something schools usually fail to achieve.

They’ll learn how to deal with the delicious problem of freedom, a problem most kids don’t have these days. They’ll get some hands-on, down-and-dirty experience with autonomy, something they’ll have in spades as adults.

But what if they watch TV or play video games all day? What if they aren’t interested in math or science and never learn them? What if they’re totally unprepared for the workplace?

These are newbie questions in the world of unschooling, and I won’t answer them all here. You’ll have more, in the comments, I’m sure. I’m not the guy to answer those questions. Google unschooling and read up, because many smarter people have answered all your questions and more.

I’ll just say a couple things. One, we need to relax and not look at childhood as a time when every minute needs to be filled up with rigid rules and learning. It’s a time that should be enjoyed, and kids should play, and in playing they’ll learn. They’ll learn to play well and work well with each other. They’ll learn how to figure things out for themselves. They’ll learn to love the lovely freedom and its associates, autonomy and responsibility and choice and time management and, yes, passion.

Two, remember what we talked about above: we have no idea what the workplace of the future will be, so stop worrying about preparing them for that. In fact, stop worrying so much. Let kids learn how to learn, and learn how to be excited about things. That will prepare them for the future.

Three, also realize that we don’t need to be hands-off. We can be hands-on, if we’re facilitators instead of directors or dictators. We can help kids find things they’re interested in, expose them to worlds of fun (like science and math), teach them games that they might like, help them solve problems so they’ll learn how to do it on their own, guide them to resources and people who will give them mountains of information. Be there for them, as guides.

This is a huge topic, and one that I can’t adequately cover in one post. I’ll do another post sometime, talking about homeschooling and unschooling, and how we do it and how to make it work for you. But for today, I just wanted to throw out some thoughts on schooling, and get you riled up a bit perhaps. We could all use some good riling now and then, I think.

“To trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves…and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.” – John Holt

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