The Schools of Today are Failing Us
We should take our children seriously
What even is a “Good Education”?
Many of us step out into the “real world” only to be nauseated with the feeling that most of what we learned in school is not applicable. Many of us would agree that school was “pointless” or at best could have been compressed into a few months.
Author Neil Postman calls this “future shock.” To quote him, “future shock occurs when you are confronted by the fact that the world you were educated to believe in doesn’t exist.”
Yet, we continue to send our children to the same institutions that failed us. Why is that? Shouldn’t we wish for something better for our children? Do we send them to those schools in the hope that the schools would now be better? Is it wise to gamble on our child’s education (and indeed the future of humanity) based on this hope? Or do we send them to the same schools because we know of no better solutions? Well then, we must create better solutions.
I got interested in “education” out of selfish reasons – I asked myself the question, how would I provide a good education to my children? I went to the “best” school in my city (Kolkata) and the “best” undergraduate business school (Wharton) in the world (according to popular ranking at least) and I don’t think I learned much. In fact, I think it was detrimental to a large extent (elaborated below) and if given the choice, I would not go back.
So, I knew that traditional schooling was likely not the place I’d find an answer. This search led me down a deeper search: What is a good education, anyway? How do children and even adults learn? What sources did I truly learn from? How did schools fail me?
As it turns out, I’m now obsessed with the problem of fostering the love of learning in children. I was surprised to learn that this is not a new problem – philosophers and educators have been talking about how the current education system is failing us for a few decades now. Alas, we still don’t have very many good solutions. (I hope to change that)
I have a few different ideas for better solutions which I’ll elaborate on in future posts, but in this post I want to discuss the problem of how schools are failing us.
Before I begin that discussion, I want to say that from understanding the process of knowledge creation and from applying my own experiences, I believe there are 3 important aspects to learning:
The desire to learn
Freedom to pursue one’s curiosities
Learning by doing
With this backdrop, let’s look at how schools fail us in the very aspects of learning that are critical.
Schools don’t take children seriously
You can call this the overarching problem that ties in all the other issues with schools. Schools simply don’t take children seriously. The Taking Children Seriously movement was founded by Sarah-Fritz Claridge and David Deutsch, but educators and authors like John Holt have been fighting for the same cause since 50+ years.
As John Holt says in the Preface of the book How Children Learn:
“All I’m saying in this book can be summed up in two words – Trust Children.”
Administrators, teachers, and even parents think they know what’s best for the child and the child should listen to them. As a result of this, we force our teachings onto the child even when the child has no interest or desire to learn them. We argue that this is exactly why children need to be coerced into learning, because otherwise they’d never learn anything on their own and would remain “uneducated” members of society. But do you recall the last time you truly learned something when you were coerced into doing so? There is no learning that happens through coercion. Learning happens when there is an innate desire to learn.
Quoting Neil Postman again in the book Teaching as a Subversive Activity:
“There is no way to help a learner to be disciplined, active, and thoroughly engaged unless he perceives a problem to be a problem or whatever is to-be-learned as worth learning, and unless he plays an active role in determining the process of solution. That is the plain, unvarnished truth, and if it sounds like warmed-over “progressive education,” it is not any less true for it…unless an inquiry is perceived as relevant by the learner, no significant learning will take place. No one will learn anything he doesn’t want to know.”
We should take the interests of our children seriously and foster learning in areas they are curious about.
Schools kill our desire to learn
The one thing needed for learning is the desire to learn. To quote Naval Ravikant: “The means to learning are abundant. It’s the desire to learn that’s scarce.”
By coercing us to learn subjects, schools leave in us a distaste for learning. We come to associate learning with boring material that might apparently be good for us some day. We come to associate learning with something we just have to do to get through school. I think this is the #1 reason so many people do not continue to learn after school. If they can get by without learning new things, they would rather do that instead of bringing back distasteful memories of school. But learning can be fun and there is only one way it can be fun: if the person is learning something they are truly interested in. Schools don’t allow for this since everyone is forced to learn the same (or similar) curriculum.
The general pushback to an argument like this is something along the lines of: “Well, if we don’t force children to learn anything, they will be illiterate and rowdy and watch TV all day. Surely, there must be some learning that has to be forced upon them. It’s good for their future.”
It is simply not true that children will not want to learn if no learning is forced down their throats. Children are natural learners – they want to learn. You can see this by the simple fact that they are always asking questions and are innately curious about the world around them. Instead of forcing them to learn from rigid curriculums and material they are not interested in learning, we should foster their curiosities in areas they want to learn about. This way, children will be super-learners for life. They will never fear learning and will be able to learn anything they wish to learn at any age. And all because they were given the freedom to experience the joy of learning and develop a love for it.
Schools force us to conform
Every individual is unique and has unique interests. Schools treat children like factory workers where each student has to go through the motions of attending classes, take “core fundamentals, sit quietly in lectures, learn according to the pace dictated by the teacher and so on. These words from the song Mad World by Gary Jules perfectly sum up this point:
Children waiting for the day they feel good
Happy birthday, happy birthday
And I feel the way that every child should
Sit and listen, sit and listen
Went to school and I was very nervous
No one knew me, no one knew me
Hello, teacher! Tell me, what's my lesson?
Look right through me, look right through me
What happened to allowing children to learn at their own pace? What happened to allowing children to learn what truly interests them? What happened to allowing children to be unique individuals?
Schools don’t leave us time to follow our curiosities
What unites Richard Feynman, Leonardo Da Vinci, Charles Darwin and some other successful people? They followed their own curiosities and interests, no matter how quirky they may have been at the time. Darwin’s theory of evolution was indeed heresy because back then it was considered that God created all creatures. But he had a deep interest in it and continued to work on it despite resistance, simply because he was obsessively followed his own curiosity. Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, has written about this phenomenon in his post, The Bucket Theory of Genius.
Attending school is more than a full-time job when you include sitting through all those classes, doing homework, writing papers, studying for assignments, trying to be popular, and so on. After all of this, how does anyone expect to have any energy and time left to pursue their curiosities? It is little wonder that many children might resort to television and video games to numb the pain of having to sit through dreary lectures in school.
All this wasted time and energy could be spent focusing on problems that interest the child instead.
Schools don’t focus on learning by doing
Most teaching in schools is lecture based. This can be fine in some cases, but when all of learning is focused on listening to teachers drag on, it should be no surprise that children pass on chits and invent games to make the classroom more entertaining.
Humans learn best by doing. We don’t learn to ride a bike by reading about how to ride one. Similarly, business is best learned by running a business, not by reading business books. And science and math are probably also best learned by solving scientific and mathematical problems or running experiments.
Schools teach us irrelevant material
What is the point of memorizing the dates of battles or the capitals of countries? We live in the age of the Internet where all this information is just a search away. Why do we coerce children into learning such irrelevant material? So, they can be good at Trivia?
To take it a step further, most of us haven’t had the need to use calculus in our lives either! And yet it is a core class in almost all schools. Why? We should think about this. Why is something that is not useful to most people considered a core class? Indeed, calculus is useful for the person trying to become a mathematician. But why is it useful for someone who is inclined to pursue music or cooking or even entrepreneurship?
The reasoning given by most educators is something along the lines of: “Oh you know, it might be useful in the future” or “How can you go about life without knowing basic calculus?”
As to the first argument, why can’t people learn calculus when they need it then? Why must it be forced upon them when they have no need for it or desire to learn it? If someone loves to learn and has the desire to learn, they will be able to learn it at any age. As to the second argument (which is not an argument btw but it’s commonly used by educators), most everyone who doesn’t need calculus outside of passing some class, forgets it and gets by life very well!
In my conversation with a 21-year old who didn’t go to school, he said: “I may not know processes like “photosynthesis” but that’s because I’ve never had any use for them and if I do need to learn something that might be useful to me, it’s so easy because I love to learn and have no fear of learning.”
I’m not arguing that learning should be a function of how useful the material is to the child. There are several people who learn about things they are curious about even if they have no functional use for it and there is pure joy in doing that. I’m arguing that learning should not be forced upon children – it kills the desire to learn altogether as I’ve already elaborated on in the second point.
The 21-year old I spoke to did not have his desire to learn killed by schools.
Schools focus on pointless metrics like grades
Who even came up with the concept of grades? What do grades even test for? They test for the ability to take tests! They test for memorization. They test for how good of a test-taker you are.
They don’t test for understanding.
There is another point I want to make here: the difference between knowing and understanding. Simply knowing the word “photosynthesis” does not mean understanding the process. You might think it’s a trivial point, but most adults fall in this trap where we know the word “evaporation” for example, but when a child asks us what it means, we won’t be able to explain it. Do we really have understanding in that case?
Richard Feynman talks about the difference between knowing and understanding in his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. His father and him used to go on nature walks together. Instead of simply telling Feynman the names of birds or the name of the body parts of birds (i.e. wings, beaks), he’d explain the function of wings.
Most other fathers would simply tell their sons the names of birds, giving children the false understanding that they knew the function of the bird by knowing its name!
Schools force us to defer to authority
“Because I said so” and “You should listen to me” are phrases a lot of us are familiar with. Our parents and teachers used them on us and some of us may have used them on our children too. What makes adults think they’re authority figures every child must obey? Simply because they’re older and seemingly understand more about how the world works?
If we do want children to listen to us, we should give them rational arguments similar to how you’d persuade or explain anything to an adult. If an adult argues with you over something, you wouldn’t retort by saying, “You should listen to me!” What gives us the liberty to use that statement on children? It’s not age that matters, it’s your explanation and ideas that matter. Children have perfectly valid explanations too and it’s worth having rational discussions with them instead of making them defer to us.
Schools compartmentalize learning into different subjects when the world is interrelated
“Learn to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” – Leonardo Da Vinci
It’s fitting to see this quote from Da Vinci because he was one of the most multi-disciplinary people to have existed. If he went to the schools of today, he’d probably be diagnosed with ADHD. He was flipping from one curiosity to the next, exploring what intrigued him and through his explorations he realized how interconnected the world is.
The world does not work in silos or as dictated by the subjects taught in schools. Each subject is interconnected to the other, but when students only learn the subjects in silos, they don’t see this relatedness.
As Neil Postman would say, “most significant learning processes do not occur in linear, compartmentalized sequences.”
For example, why the government makes certain decisions over others is not just a matter of political science, but also a matter of economics, human nature, history, and so on. Similarly, investing doesn’t only belong to the realm of investing books; you need to have a broad understanding of human nature, economics, history, and even science in many cases.
But this is not something that is taught at schools. In schools, children barely ever understand the complexities of the real world. Instead, they learn in silos, switching to a different subject every 45 minutes. This is often why theory breaks down and in practicality things barely ever work according to theory. Albert Einstein’s famous quote still holds: “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”
Schools make us less human
Humans are creative individuals. We have the capacity to learn, the capacity to be creative, and the capacity to create knowledge. We don’t understand much about where creativity comes from. What we do understand is that creativity requires freedom and time. We’ve already seen how schools don’t leave time for children to pursue their curiosities and other creative endeavors. As I’ve mentioned, school is more than a full-time job with classes and homework outside school. Without freedom and time, it’s hard for children to solve creative problems. As such, by stifling our creativity, schools are making us less human.
Schools instill fear in us
At schools, we are often forced to comply and listen to our teachers. We get punished for making noise, or not doing our homework. Schools try to discipline us and get children to do boring assignments, by instilling fear in us. We fear that if we fail our grades, we will be kicked out of school, which determines our future success as we’ve been taught. This is no way to teach. Fear shuts off the brain’s capacity to be creative, to think, and to learn what interests you. Instead, schools should use rational arguments and explain why it might be important for the student to participate in class, if at all. Using fear is an unfair weapon against the child who can’t use the same tactic against adults. Fear teaches the child to not trust themselves - this can be detrimental for years to come.
What is the purpose of schools vs. What is the job they are really doing?
I started by saying that the schools of today are failing us. When I say they are failing us, they are failing us in what? This depends on what we want for our children. If we want them to be creative, independent, joyful human beings, I think schools are failing us in shaping our children to be that for reasons I’ve mentioned above. Schools are not encouraging our children to enjoy solving problems.
Schools could certainly be doing the job in getting our children to be compliant (without reason), or helping them get into a good college, and eventually find a high-paying job. But is that all we want for our children? High-paying jobs? I certainly wish for a lot more than that.
Schools are doing the job of credentialing - that student X has earned a degree in a certain subject and hence qualified for some related job or college degree. It matters little how much understanding of the subject matter one truly has. Schools are doing the job of teaching our children to be obedient employees.
The following paragraph from Neil Postman’s book Teaching as a Subversive Activity is chilling:
“In fact, the similarities between mass-production industries and most existing school environments are striking: five-day week, seven-hour day, one hour for lunch, careful division of labor for both teachers and students, a high premium on conformity and a corresponding suspicion of originality (or any deviant behavior), and, most significantly, the administration’s concern for product rather than process.”
Schools are not doing the job of encouraging our children to enjoy solving problems. Schools are not doing the job of encouraging children to think for themselves. Schools are not doing the encouraging children to question, to learn what interests them, to be creative, and to be optimistic.
Isn’t this the job that schools should be doing?
I want to clarify that I’m not saying that every child should drop out of school and that every aspect of school is bad. Certainly, there are some students who enjoy school. But we should question more on how school and coercion by parents & teachers shape our children. We should spend more time thinking whether school is indeed helpful for our children. Perhaps we home educate them. Perhaps we find other methods of alternative education like the Sadbury Schools. Perhaps we create better solutions.
On this point, I am experimenting with a new model of education based on problem-solving, learning by doing, and understanding the theory of knowledge. It will likely start with a small batch of children over the summer. It’s called the Feynman Kids Program.
If you are interested, please see further details in this post or signup below, and I’d love to send you details and talk to you.
We simply shouldn’t take school as a given that every child has to go to. We should take our children seriously. Children are bundles of energy, joy, enthusiasm, and curiosity. Let’s foster this instead of subduing it. More than anything else, the future of humanity hinges on how we treat our children.
P.S. If you have any feedback on the post or simply want to say hi, you can leave a comment, drop me an email [email@example.com] or message me on Twitter @aasthajz
Yes, Wharton was good for credentialing purposes to get a job in Finance, but it hasn’t helped since. The benefits of signaling were just not worth the pressure to conform and the work it took to unlearn
All of your criticisms of the education system are true. I am the husband of a "Master Teacher" and Doctorate wife who was involved from approximately 1988 to 2017, so I am very knowledgeable of what you speak. By the mid-1990's, educational best practices included stimulating curiosity, integrated and crossed curriculum, brain safety, the joy of learning - everything you mention above, and more. Then in the mid-1990's the concept of No-Child-Left-Behind (NCLB) reared its head and destroyed everything that you just identified as important. NCLB attempted to improve education by making learners pass standardized tests, supposedly to motivate them to learn. This led directly to multiple tests per year, at many grade levels, which in turn forced teachers to abandon everything but rote memorization, extremely boring, "teaching to the test." Twenty, and twenty-five years ago, the education system included, and cherished, explicitly, everything you mention above. But the non-education educated politicians enforced what they concluded was a better idea, NCLB, destroying the then existing system, and replacing it with a teach-to-the-test system, which is still in use today. All of that old (better) information is still out there, and it is my hope that the education system may yet recover since NCLB expired in 2014.