Wednesday, January 25, 2012

High schools sucks

I have been reading a bit about homeschooling on Penelope Trunk's homeschool blog.  She says a lot of things that I would anecdotally agree with, like high school damages kids.  I had a lot of unpleasant experiences in high school and there are an awful lot of people I know that feel the same way but I still question the conclusion that everybody should homeschool their kids.  The trick is that there are, in fact, people who quite liked high school and just because thing X has big problems is no basis for choosing thing Y.  There are an awful lot of us who aren't particularly inclined nor especially skilled at teaching and a big advantage of having specialized teachers is that they are generally good at teaching and interested in doing so.  I don't particularly want to teach Elli full time for the next twelve years and I suspect that I would go quite batty trying to do it; other people are very different from me but I am sure that this is a common sentiment!

The question to my mind is not "Should everyone homeschool their kids?" because I think the answer is a resounding "No!" but rather "How can we make school better?"  There are plenty of different ideas out there but I think that this video presents some really good ideas; in particular we can start with dispensing with grades and grading as the primary organizing elements of schooling.  When I was younger I was disgusted with how the system did away with failing students who did not learn and perform but I have changed my mind in that regard.  I don't think that failing the kids who refused to learn would have helped them or changed their behaviour; they did not make their decisions based on rational, long term objectives but rather simply went moment to moment.  You can't cause an eight year old to work hard and study by having the possibility of failure at the end of the year as they will not do the work either way.  What you can do is try to give them the opportunity to do and to learn in the way that suits them best.

The daycare that Elli goes to seems fantastic in this regard.  They have the advantage, I suspect, of not having to submit grades and stick to mandated lesson plans like a school would but rather can simply do whatever it is that works.  They regularly tell us that the children have indicated interest in particular lessons, crafts or ideas and the teachers just run with it.  If the kids are finding ironing beads and the patterns they can make with them interesting then they do that; next week it may be books about dinosaurs or perhaps weather.  Regardless the kids end up learning all kinds of basic things like letters and numbers but the teachers take every opportunity to channel their enthusiasm for random topics into learning.

One thing I think is key here is that there is far too much to learn.  You can't learn all the facts out there but you can learn how to learn and how to think and making sure that the children are engaged and interested means that they get a lot out of the lessons.  Whatever facts in particular they miss they can pick up later when and if those facts are required.  No one ever failed in life because the didn't know the date Canada became a separate nation but many have failed due to lacking emotional awareness or problem solving skills.  We should focus on learning skills, not facts and prioritize interest over structure.


  1. I don't really agree with the idea that high school damages kids. I read Penelope Trunk's entry on it, and while I agree with most of the facts, I just don't think "damages" is a fair word to use. Trying to fit in hurts a lot of feelings, but I have to imagine that trying to fit in is what teaches a lot of people how to be themselves. How do you even know who you are without trying to be different people and seeing what works?

    I think the most important step we can take to making school a better place is to get good teachers. Teachers are far more important than curriculum or tests. Unfortunately around here there is a pretty serious relationship problem between teachers and the public in general, and that's been a useful political tool for the government, so I don't think we are going to see much improvement any time soon.

  2. Sky, great post. I think that you've hit on an essential issue in education - impressive for someone who doesn't actually work in the field. One of my favourite things about a job in Ed is that it is so complicated. Actually improving as a teacher or improvements to the system require a great deal of thoughtfulness... more than I would have thought as an outsider. It's immensely complicated (but fun!).

    One point: I think that part (only part) of the reason that many people feel that high school 'damages' kids is that the most emotionally vulnerable part of humans lives tend to line up nicely with middle/high school. How schools are organized certainly plays a huge (and very interesting) role but teen angst will inevitably be a large part of the equation.

    Ok, one more point: I like the original title of this video more "Changing Education Paradigms". It makes me feel more excited for the future of education and less depressed about the current shortcomings. You can find other great 'amimates' by searching for 'rsanimate'.

  3. P.S. Check this out. It's about how to teach Math well...