An Inadequate and Outdated Approach
I'm a passionate informal educator and I have a few years of experience as a high school teacher of English as a second language and physics. I don't want to say education is unneeded, I simply wish it would change for the better. So let me get on with my point.
If we make a simple survey of how many students enjoy studying at school and how many of them use the studied material later in life we would get tragic results that seem OK to us only because we are used to them. Kids hating school should not be the norm and the fact that we accept it as a normal part of life only shows how deeply our educational system's inadequacy has screwed us up. It's high time we faced the facts with open minds, spotted the problems, and fixed them (which might mean throwing away the old system and starting anew). Education should be enlightening, exciting, and empowering, and not something that resembles a torture chamber in a dark dungeon. So let's try to spot what's wrong.
- It's a legacy system
- Most of it is a waste of time
- The wrong public mindsets are perpetuated by this system
- One size never fitted all
- The grading system is based on the wrong values
- It values dry knowledge higher than applicable skills, progress, personality, and creativity
1. It's a Legacy System
So let's start by facing a truth that we are all aware of on some level, but usually try not to face—our educational system is archaic. It emerged in the time of the Industrial Revolution and it is designed to cater to that time of history and not current social reality. Education is still trying to grind children down to the size that would fit the needs of the industrial revolution. We can see this in the way we assign importance to different subjects. The most important subject in school is still maths, followed by languages, sciences, and humanities, with arts and music at the very bottom. This is the value that was assigned because of the needs of the Industrial Revolution and nobody had the guts to revise the curriculum in such a way that would be more adequate to the modern society which allows creative types equally lucrative career opportunities as engineers. Designers, musicians, artists, dancers and actors can actually do pretty well in the contemporary world.
Additionally, the model of teaching hasn't changed since the Middle Ages, but we'll go deeper into this in a few seconds.
2. Most of It Is a Waste of Time
It's not a secret that we only use a minuscule part of the things that we've learned at school. I know the argument that studying all of those subjects expanded our brains and got us thinking, I see this as a cheap cop-out. Most of us spend between 11 and 13 years in education before we even start talking about a specialized degree and it's between two and three times the time people spend studying at a university. It is inexcusable that we have so little useful life knowledge and skills. We study so many details and we never get the big picture. We learn to do things that most of us will never use in our jobs or personal life. No disrespect to the teachers and principals of the world, but if this is what we have to show for, we are all wasting our time.
And I know there are alternatives. The students could and should spend much more of their time thinking critically, analyzing information themselves instead of just learning it, doing real things, developing their talents and building quality relationships and communities. What we get instead is a river of dry facts, alienation and conformity.
Additionally, I'd like to point out that I'm not saying we should eliminate biology, physics or math, but we should try to dig ourselves out of the unnecessary details and try to see and understand the big picture. Let's put the emphasis on the really fascinating stuff like the beauty, complexity and diversity of life instead of knowing each and every chemical reaction that is part of the Krebs cycle for biology. Let's put the emphasis of physics on the miseries of the universe and the mindboggling paradoxes of the quantum world instead of solving interchangeable mathematical problems and learning formulas by heart. Let's use math class to talk about statistics and use it to analyze our own schools, lives and communities striving to understand things that matter to us and learning to do the math that goes with the analysis along the way. When there's a will, there's a way. We just need to recognize the deficiencies and start addressing them.
3. The Wrong Public Mindsets Are Perpetuated by This System
Our educational system is based on assigning ranks to everything. We are thought to believe that some jobs and lines of work are better than others and that we all have to live our life as if it's a race. Our education system ranks both us and itself at every chance it gets in order to let us know that most of us are unsuccessful and not part of the top. It seems like there are predestined paths and each path has a certain rank and we all have to struggle in order to occupy the top paths instead of our peers. We measure success only with how far along a path like that we are.
Some Successful People That Didn't Do Well in School
- Albert Einstein (physicist)
- Steve Jobs (entrepreneur)
- Bill Gates (entrepreneur)
- Thomas Edison (inventor - dropped out of high school)
- Andrew Jackson (US president - dropped out of high school)
- Robert De Niro (actor - dropped out of high school)
The list goes on and on, but this is a pretty good sample.
But if we think about it we will come to the conclusion that all of these paths are imaginary and therefore they should not be part of our education. The valuable members of society that drive progress and make everyone's lives better and the ones that are not burdened by such preconceptions and the ones that are always looking for new unexplored ways to lead to new places. Our education is based on stereotyping people and so is our society.
What the current system brainwashes us to think about life is that we should conform rather than innovate and we all know that this is actually wrong. We are though obedience instead of personal development and a strive for social betterment and reform. This is an immense weight holding the progress of the whole human race down.
4. One Size Never Fits All
Unfortunately, our educational system is built on the idea that everybody's mind works in a similar way and our job is to retain information and use it. We've known for decades that there are at least eight different types of intelligence with a whole rainbow of things in between and different mixtures. There is no doubt that each of us has been given a unique mind, but our schools fail to take that into account. Our way of thinking is chiseled down to something that would fit the square subject that somebody has chosen for us until it takes the same shape. When a student has a unique talent, they are told to suppress it in order to bombard their mind with useless piles of grey factual information.
Each of us is different and each of us needs a different potion of skills and knowledge in order to develop to our full potential. If somebody has a particular talent, they should be allowed to develop it. While we are in school, our uniqueness is simply collapsing under the burden of an unnecessarily crammed school curriculum that wants to turn us into walking encyclopedias with little original teaching. A musician should be allowed to be a musician, a mathematician should be allowed to be a mathematician and a runner should be allowed to run.
We need to have a much more flexible school curriculum that is based on achieving success in practical tasks by using each student's strengths and talents and there are so many ways to make our schools a much more suitable place for human children instead of the meat grinders that they are today.
5. The Grading System Is Based on the Wrong Values
Being graded in school can actually be quite degrading. Assigning a quality value to a young human being is simply not humanistic. Being graded all the time is actually crippling the students. People learn the most from their mistakes, but mistakes are the worst thing one could do in the context of contemporary schools. We are rewarding following blindly, instead of thinking, risking, evaluating, and creating. The best way to get good grades is to do things exactly in the way you are told to.
But even if we forget the lacking morality behind the grading system, we can easily see that it's far from adequate. The world is full of people that got good grades in school and failed in life and people that got bad grades in school but succeeded in life. This means grades are simply measuring the wrong things and there is no way around it.
I often hear people saying that grades are imperfect, but there is no better way to do it. This is exactly the type of thinking that results from being graded for the most part of your life. To them, I say that there is actually no worse way than grading and we should get rid of it as soon as possible and start building a system that would foster individuals who know how to push the progress of humanity forward. Because progress and innovation start with embracing mistakes and failure and taking a risk in order to get to the greater good.
6. It Values Dry Knowledge Higher Than Applicable Skills, Progress, Personality and Creativity
In a way, this is my main point and it should require a little more explanation by now. The sad truth about modern education is that it works to destroy creativity, personality and personal initiative in favor of standardizing people and their minds in order for them to fit better into the factories of 200 years ago.
The modes of teaching are even older—coming from the Middle Ages. There is a teacher that tells you what to think and all your duties are to write it down. And if you don't do what you are told, you are going to be punished. We need to read our textbooks and learn the dry facts as if we are 100% sure they are all true. Until next year somebody will disprove or expand our knowledge on the topic.
Let's Reinvent Education
Naturally, there is an alternative. The teachers should be facilitators of discussions and counselors that help you set and reach your personal progress goals and your class's progress goals. Students should learn how to do real things, learn real things together with their peers, utilize each other's strengths and overcome individual weaknesses together. Students should be encouraged to create and shape their own paths. There is an abundance of informal educational projects that have had great success and schools and teachers that have started grass-roots reforms for their small educational communities. We need to wake up to this idea and start exploring. As long as we are asking the questions, the answers will present themselves. And this is how we should educate. We need to embrace the notion that this system has to go—from bottom to top.
Being creative doesn't come from learning information and strict procedures for analysis - it comes from challenging the norms and thinking outside the box. Sadly our schools are currently the box - a prison of the mind.
I would like to see an educational system that embraces independent thought, personal talents, making mistakes along the way, humanistic values and fostering creativity and uniqueness. I'm sure that if we decide to open our eyes to the inadequate education we are paying for and throw the old system away, we will inevitably come to something infinitely better. It will not only make the younger years of our lives more enjoyable but our society more open, tolerant and productive.