Schools Not Children, Are Stupid
As I’ve said earlier, knowing and its institutionalization is what organizes far too much of our lives. And the institution that takes the prize for institutionalizing knowing is education. Our obsession with knowing underlies nearly everything that’s wrong with schools. In this chapter I’ll take you on a journey through the halls of stupidity.
Let’s start with the basics. I call them the ABCs of the ABCs.
A is for authoritarianism and acquisition and age groups and ability level.
B is for boundaries and behavior and boredom.
C is for control and cognition and cheating.
A is for Authoritarianism.
I’m sure there are some schools at which students have a say in how things run. But for 99% of children and adolescents, and even adults in colleges and universities, it’s, “Here’s how we do things. This is what’s expected of you.” Whether we’re told, “We will do reading from 8:45 to 9:30 and math from 9:30-10:15,” “You will open your books to page 38,” “You will sit in your seat,” or “You must take Intro to Philosophy before you can take Aesthetics or Philosophy of Science,” the rules and regulations of where to go and what to do once you’re there come from above. How far above varies a lot. It could be coming from the federal government, a state or municipal regulatory body, a local district, a principal or dean, a department, a teacher or professor. But someone other than you and all the other learners are making the rules—about what you will learn, who you will learn with, when you will learn it, and what the proper conditions and ways of learning are that are “right” for you and the other learners. These rules need to be obeyed without question or resistance.
A is for Acquisition.
Unless you work in an industry that buys and sells companies or art or rare manuscripts, chances are the word “acquisition” doesn’t come up everyday. We say, “I bought a new iPhone” or “My mom got me a new pair of sneakers” to share with our friends that this new thing is now in our possession. It’s rather revealing, isn’t it, that educators and psychologists also “talk acquisitions.” That’s officially what learning is—the acquiring of knowledge and skills. It’s the definition (check for yourself), it’s the dominant understanding, and it’s the practice of schools. Learning as acquisition reduces many years of complex, relational and intertwined life activities into a mere possession or two or ten (or fifty). What I mean is this: when we’re learning, what we’re doing is becoming engaged in more and more of the forms of life of our particular culture and the world culture. We’re developing some level of facility in using many of the existing cultural tools. We’re also creating some level of confidence that we can, and some amount of curiosity about what works and doesn’t work. That’s very different (and far more creative and interesting) from “getting it” or acing the test.
Schools are acquisitional.
A is for Age Groups and Ability Levels.
With the exception of the few remaining one-room schoolhouses and alternatives schools scattered around the world, a sure sign that you’re in a school is all the separate groups there are, and what the people in them look like. 4 year-olds are grouped with 4-year olds, 10 year olds with 10-year-olds, and 16 year-olds with 16 year-olds. Once that’s done, all the 4 year-olds, all the10 year-olds and all the 16 year-olds are grouped again into smaller groups, this time by something called ability level. We wind up with classes of top, middle and low 4 year-olds, 10 year-olds, 16 year-olds, and so on. We’re not done yet, though. Many tracked classrooms (low, middle, top or whatever names they’re given in a particular school) often are divided still further by an even narrower “measure of ability” for parts of the day (for example, reading or math). Imagine if infants and babies were isolated into age and ability groups—they’d never learn if they only spent their time with other babies. Their worlds get bigger day by day because they learn from people different from them. But past babyhood, school makes our worlds smaller as we’re forced to spend the school day being with people “like us.”
Age and ability groups make it hard to learn in school.
B is for Boundaries.
Organizing what is to be learned into separate and distinct “subjects” goes hand in glove with organizing learners into separate and distinct groupings based on what are presumed to be homogeneous ability levels. School subjects are a chopping up of human culture. They’re ways of understanding and acting on the world that human beings created over centuries—ripped apart from that human history and from each other, turned into “stand alone” bodies of knowledge. A tragedy, because you can learn to read, add, subtract, multiply and divide from cereal boxes and yogurt containers and potato chip bags in the kitchen (and such reading and math play is common with many toddlers). Text is everywhere. Sound is everywhere. Math is everywhere. Science is everywhere. History is everywhere. They’re everywhere and they’re all jumbled together in what we call living. But it’s a rare school kid who knows that. By attending school, kids come to understand math (and reading, science, history and so on) like this: “Math is Ms. So-and-so’s class.” “Math is first period.” “Math is this homework.” By dividing all of human culture into distinct subjects, schools—in the name of knowledge acquisition—actually alienate us from knowledge and keep us ignorant.
Boundaries distort the world and the learning process.
B is for Behavior.
How schools work and the ideas about learning and development they’re based on come from psychology. And since the biggest idea in psychology is behavior, schools follow suit and see and evaluate human beings in terms of how they behave. There’s an interesting history to how behavior became the subject matter of psychology (see Note 1) to the point where everything is seen as one kind of behavior or another (acting-out behavior, addictive behavior, anti-social behavior, communicative behavior, conscious and unconscious behavior, and on and on). The American Psychological Association’s Glossary of Psychological Terms defines behavior as “the actions by which an organism adjusts to its environment.” Wow! Never mind being reduced to an organism, it’s the conservatism of that statement that is so disturbing. Human beings don’t merely adjust to environments. We create them! And we can and do re-create them, reshape them, transform them. But if we ignore that, then we wind up with adjustment being the basis for how we relate—and that, of course, includes consequences for not adjusting—ergo, “behavioral problems.”
Schools stifle development in the name of behavior.
B is for Boredom.
By far, the most common word middle and high school students use in connection to school is, “Boring.” (There are actually surveys that show this.) Boredom is thought to be a leading factor in school drop out, depression and what school administrators love to call acting out behavior. In the media, school boredom is “an epidemic” (New Republic), “the elephant in the (class) room” (US News and World Report), and “crushing” (Boston Globe), with schools described as “penitentiaries of boredom” (Huffington Post) and our educational system as “the boring institute” (“Boredom: The Movie”). To the extent that anyone has ideas about what produces boredom, it has to do with doing things over which you have no control again and again. Since that’s what schools are designed to do, isn’t boredom a lawful by-product? Maybe that’s how come what kids, journalists and experts say has no impact. In our culture, work is boring and play is engaging. Take play out of school and it becomes work.
School is boring.
C is for Control.
Control is the manifestation of authoritarianism and the arbiter of behavior. Students are under the control of teachers who direct what they do and when and how they do it. The teachers, in turn, are under the control of higher ups who tell them what to do and when and how to do it so that they can direct their students’ behavior in accordance with the pre-arranged authoritarian rules, regulations and norms. Apparently, all this control from above isn’t enough. By the time they enter school, students are supposed to have “self-control” (that is, to “regulate” their own behavior)—to delay gratification, suppress certain impulses, think about consequences, and act with intention. If they don’t, and if they disrupt the regulated order of the classroom, they’re said to “misbehave,” be “out of control,” or have a “behavior problem” or “self-regulation deficits” (or all of the above).
Schools are control centers.
C is for Cognition.
If schools weren’t obsessed with knowing and organized for cognitive learning (the acquisition of knowledge), no one would have ever thought to invent a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum and sell it to school districts. [See note 2] If learning were taken to be a social-cognitive-emotive unity, as Vygotsky believed, then “the social” and “the emotional” wouldn’t be relegated to a kind of learning; they would be what learning is. But decades of relating to emotions as having no place in learning and to students as individualistic cognitive processing machines have taken their toll. Apparently, too many children lack the “soft skills.” That means people skills if you didn’t know—a phrase so cognitively biased I’m embarrassed for whoever coined it. SEL is supposed to teach kids to be empathetic, to care about others, to form positive relationships and to be ethical. And it’s all being done in the name of … you guessed it—their academic (read: cognitive) success.
Schools are organized for cognition, not for caring.
C is for Cheating.
If students talk to each other, share their work and understanding, and learn together, they’re called cheaters. Yes, there’s group work, but for most students most of the time, “No talking,” and “Do your own work” is the rule. How strange compared to the ways we do things before school and outside of school. People are always helping young children by doing things with them. Children and adults help each other remember things (“A pig has… a curly tail;” “Toes? Yes, Mommy has 10 toes and you have 10 toes;” “What’s the name of that restaurant? It starts with an A…;” “How long do we usually cook the turkey?”). They teach each other how to do things by doing them together, even so-called cognitive tasks such as problem solving, measuring, sorting, mixing and remembering. Arguably, we learn developmentally by copying. Distorting learning into the acquisition of knowledge by isolated individuals, who now possess it, makes collaboration and creative imitation into a “bad behavior” at best, and sometimes even a crime. It also makes rote copying when it’s prohibited (plagiarism) seductive in order to get something schools value—a good grade.
Schools are organized to make “cheating” attractive—and then punish the cheaters.
Knowing and Expertise are Not the Same Thing
I’ve come to the end of the ABCs of the ABCs—with the sad realization of how easy it is to keep going until we get all the way to Z—“Z is for zombifying.” (See Note 3 for the great ABCs readers sent me.) There’s a reason I call schools stupid, and not misguided, or flawed, or even corrupted. Doing stupid is doing things against what’s right in front of you, against what your experience and intelligence tell you won’t work, playing deaf to the cries for help of those you’re with. Doing stupid is being a knower (even when you don’t know). And the people who set up schools, their structure, teaching methods, curricula, professional development and evaluations are professional knowers. They’ve studied for years and years and earned graduate degrees in some or all of the following: learning, teaching, child development, adult development, organizational development, and leadership. They should be expert in these fields. But they aren’t. They should perform intelligently and with common sense and creativity. But they don’t. Given their profession, they should, be fantastic learners. But they’re not. Their knowing, and their equating expertise with what they know, keeps them from being good learners.
What they are, for the most part, are good and well-meaning people. Yes, they are trapped in an authoritarian educational bureaucracy beholden to corporate and political interests. (See note 4 if you’re interested in books that analyze and/or criticize the economic and political nature of education and education reform.) But they’re also trapped by a culture that insists that we (especially the professional knowers among us) must know what we’re doing or we wouldn’t be doing it.
Real expertise, by which I mean the activity of continuously challenging ourselves to question and discover, to seek out and listen to and learn from what others see and think and feel, is a kind of play. In Vygotsky’s sense, it’s a “head taller” activity of letting experience and imagination mutually influence each other to create something new. In Wittgeenstein’s simple words, it requires us to “look and see.” It includes the common sense that comes from careful, authentic looking at what’s in front of you. It includes sifting through research findings and policy changes and spotting the assumptions behind them. It includes being open to being inspired. It includes being keen observers of what’s working and not working in your own school and community. And it includes finding the kind of support that can organize the school community to make changes.
People with this kind of expertise wouldn’t create schools that kill creativity, have no joy, are simultaneously stressful and boring, eliminate play and playfulness, manufacture behavioral problems and mental disorders, keep children and teens physically inactive, turn teachers into lab assistants and data inputters, blame families for what is no one’s fault, insist on uniformity while fostering competition, discourage responsibility for others, and … feel free to add to this list.)
Smart schools do exist. (See Note 5 for some recommendations of where to learn about them.) I am well aware of wonderful schools and phenomenal teachers and administrators. But I’ve been in enough schools, colleges and universities, spoken to enough teachers and students and parents and counselors, conducted enough educational research, and read enough first-hand accounts and analyses to write what I believe is the norm of how things are.
It’s knowing that underlies schools’ stupidities and their persistence in the face of failure after failure. Why are budget cuts made the way they are? (Why there are budget cuts to education at all is another questions.) It’s the dualisms and dichotomies and causal-linear understandings that are the what and how of knowing that keep schools dumb. What could justify making children and teens sit still, eliminating recess and otherwise constraining movement and physical exercise for six hours a day? Mind-body dualism is a good candidate. What could justify decades of ignoring “good” feelings and punishing and/or medicalizing “bad” ones (and then bringing in a social-emotional learning curriculum)? The cognition-emotion split is a good candidate. What could justify sorting students into age groups and ability levels, and the boundaries between school subjects and the lock-step progression within subjects? A causal-linear model of understanding the world (including the very way people come to understand it) is a good candidate.
At the broadest level, schools put the work-play and product-process dichotomies “to work” with a vengeance. Schools are places for the work of acquisitional learning and its products, not the play of developmental learning, in which the process is inseparable from the product. What’s important about work is what it produces—the outcome, the products. What’s important about play (to those who do it) is the playing—the process-and-product. We’re as aware of and involved in the process of our playing as we are of the products of our play. With play split apart from work, and process split apart from product, the work of school—which is to acquire and show proof of product, has no place for the producers (the learners) to create the process, to play. These dichotomies are the root of the authoritarianism structure and control, the elimination of play and playfulness, and the pervasive boredom of school.
As I’m writing this, I switch to my Facebook feed and see that a few “friends” have posted articles about parents in some American cities organizing themselves to protest their schools’ testing. Others point to articles reporting on parent protests in Florida and Oregon demanding that recess be put back in the school day. Switching screens again to my inbox, there’s a message from TED.com recommending popular talks (like the wonderful ones by Sir Ken Robinson and Sugatra Mitra) and the TEDebook by Will Richardson entitled, Why School? How Education Must Change when Learning and Information are Everywhere. Coincidently, there’s another message the same day from Amazon notifying me that my order of Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us by Mike Rose has been shipped. A day later I get a message that there’s a new column by Peter Gray on his Psychology Today blog, “Freedom to Learn.” (Check out Peter’s TEDxNavesink talk, “The Decline of Play” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bg-GEzM7iTk) as well as mine, “Play Helps Us Grow at Any Age” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4sdVE0Q9Lk).
News of this kind is heartening. Much of it is in sync with the ideas that our brains need not be overweight with facts and information and that play is essential to developing as learners. The more voices, the better.
Have you heard of Salman Khan and the Khan Academy? He was a hedge fund analyst with an engineering and business background who recognized the anachronism of classrooms in the age of the Internet. His Kahn Academy is a platform (in five languages) with free videos, exercises and instructional manuals for individual and classroom use. According to its website, about 400 million learners complete exercises each day. Kahn believes passionately that knowledge acquisition is crucial for the continuation of civilization and that technology can offer a world-class education for every person on the planet free of all cost. That’s what he’s trying to do. I think it’s fabulous. Kahn’s not about to give up knowing, but he apparently grasps the necessity of lots of “non-knowing growing” time, as summed up in this excerpt from his book, The One World School House:
Students need a firm foundation before anything of consequence can be accomplished. But the simple truth is that building up this foundation doesn’t need to eat up half their lives…fundamental coursework can be handled in one or two hours a day. That frees up five or six hours for creative pursuits, both individual and collaborative. That might mean writing poems or computer code, making films or building robots, working with paint or in some weird little corner of physics or math—it being remembered that original math or science or engineering is neither more nor less than art by another name. (Khan, 2012, pp. 248-9)
Can you imagine that?
Notes to Help You Go Deeper and Broader
- Kurt Danziger is a wonderful scholar who writes about the history of psychology. I highly recommend two of his books: Constructing the Subject and Naming the Mind. In the latter, there’s an entire chapter devoted to how behavior became the category that psychology used to define its subject matter. In Danziger’s words , “Classifying diverse phenomena together as instances of “behaviour” was the first necessary step in establishing the claim that Psychology was one science with one set of explanatory principles” (Naming the Mind, p. 86). In our book Unscientific Psychology, Fred Newman and I build on Danziger’s historical analysis and add some of our own understandings of how behavior is so troublesome.
- For information on the curriculum and its origins, see CASEL (Collaborative on Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) http://www.casel.org/social-and-emotional-learning/ and RU-SELL (Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~melias/.
- See all the ABCs (through to Z) that readers sent in at The Overweight Brain Mini Blog page (http://loisholzman.org/2015/02/the-abcs-of-how-schools-are-stupid/).
- Hundreds of books have been written critiquing schools as institutions of control that are designed to fail large portions of the population and keep the elite in positions of authority. The ones that influenced me the most are those that anyone unhappy with education in the late 20th century read. I don’t know if they’re read very much anymore but they should be. They include: Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society; Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age; Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed; John Holt’s How Children Fail and How Children Learn (his newsletter, which ran from 1977-2001, was called Growing without Schooling; issues are archived at http://issuu.com/patfarenga/stacks/bb179dac91264c10bb183f89bf955935). Among the many, many critics of today, those widely read and studied academically include Peter McLaren (Rage and Hope: Interviews with Peter McLaren on War, Imperialism, and Critical Pedagogy), Lisa Delpit (Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom), and Henry Giroux (Disposable Youth: Racialized Memories, and the Culture of Cruelty and Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education).
- I wrote a book, School for Growth, in which I described three schools that fit my criteria for being smart. One of them, the Sudbury Valley School (http://www.sudval.org) has been running since 1968, published a series of books over the decades, and has had about three dozen schools in the US and other countries modeled after it. It’s hard to track schools that focus on developing students as learners rather than knowers, so I urge you to do some Google and Amazon searches. And to check out the videos, website and print materials of the people I mention in the Why School? section of this chapter.