“The most damaging phrase in the language is ‘We’ve always done it this way!’” - Grace Hopper
Why do we bother to go to school as children? What's the point of it? In other words, what is the goal of our education system?
There is little argument against education reform. No one would say we shouldn't make things better. However, when a system is relatively unchanged for more than a hundred years it can be very hard to “think outside the box.” There have been lots of changes within the system over the past several decades, but we need to reimagine the structure all together. Cars have drastically changed in the past century, phones are unrecognizable from a hundred hears ago. Yet, the classroom remains relatively the same.
PBS says the purpose of school is to prepare children for citizenship, cultivate a skilled workforce, and allow students to compete in a global marketplace. Consider for a moment if this is truly the goal and if our system is accomplishing this goal. If you were to ask a student today what they perceive the goal to be, would this be their answer? I decided to ask current high school students what they think the purpose of school is. So, I conducted a survey and was shocked at what they had to say. Here are just a few of their responses:
"Nothing But Numbers"
“I think the goal of the education system is to have the kids pass tests. I feel like no one, not even your parents, really cares if you actually know anything. All they care about is if you passed the test. Passing tests requires more memorization than actual knowledge or mastery of the subject.”
“The goal of our education system is to standardize not only classes, but students as well. Students are given a superfluous amount of work that is supposed to calculate our understanding, crowding our learning with these measures of perfection. Instead of supporting the individuality of each and every student, we lump them into classes and force them to produce what we desire of them. Elective classes are diminishing at an alarming rate, denying a student to express themselves. This, along with developments such as the common core is striping(sic) the student’s individual understanding of what they are learning.”
“I think the goal of our educational system is to test students, but i think the system is flawed. Our education system is not set up for each type of learner to flourish. The testing system has been unchanged for a long time, and i think testing every single student the same way doesn't show true intelligence. Different types of learners needs should be catered to during adolescence throughout high school. If that was done i think students would have more confidence in themselves and it would also show how smart kids are in different areas.”
“Nothing but numbers, we are all just numbers with scores and no one cares if those scores benefit us in life or if it has anything to do with anything it's just a mandatory test, quiz, project, assignment, etc. to tell us whether we meet up to your standards as a society and if we are meant to fit in with the higher, standard or lower education classes”
“The goal of our school system is to classify every student by their ability to regurgitate information. We take all these tests, and all these assessments to prove that we are, in their books and definitions, smart, but none of them truly test our intelligence. That's what makes the world go 'round right? Not our ability to remember how to graph a polynomial, but our ability to problem solve and dictate solutions to everyday situations. I remember when I took the ACT: a test that determines my position in the hopes to going to my dream college, and nearly bursting into tears when I was presented with the things I was to be answering. I was overwhelmed with the fact that this is what I was suppose to know...and I didn't know it. I did well for the little amount of time I was given, but the process to getting my scores back was death defying. Our educational system doesn't take into consideration the other possible factors that play a role in our achievements and our daily progress..the only thing they consider is the fact that we are in class with the same title for the subject so we "possibly" all learn the same: incorrect.”
"Not our ability to remember how to graph a polynomial, but our ability to problem solve and dictate solutions to everyday situations."
When I was in school I thought the point was to get you into college. This is why I was a bit surprised that their responses were so focused on the tests. However, when looking back on my time working with high school students I began to realize the current experience is very different from my own. And in the end these responses are on par with the terribly sad experiences and conversations I had with students and teachers on a daily basis. As schools have become more “rigorous” over the past decades we’ve seen five to eight times as many children suffer from major depression or a clinically significant anxiety disorder. We’ve seen a doubling of the suicide rate among young people ages 15-24. We’ve seen a quadrupling of the suicide rate in children ages 15 and under. (Check out what Dr. Peter Gray says about these findings here.) As a matter of fact in my experience coaching high school students I met a young woman at an affluent school who had lost six friends to suicide.
As it turns out conformity, submission to authority, and university admittance are the goals of our current system. The question is how did we get here? So let’s take a look at a quick history lesson.
How did it all start?
It all begins in 18th century Prussia. This is where the idea of compulsory education paid for by taxation came about. This is also where the idea of standardization came about. Today we attempt to use standardized tests to measure the progress of a school. However, it was originally intended for conformity and submission to authority. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a philosopher who was a key figure in the development of the system said "If you want to influence a person you must do more than merely talk to him. You must fashion him. And fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will." The idea was not to produce independent thinkers but to turn out loyal citizens who would submit to authority. This was the whole purpose for public education. One of the tactics they used to help accomplish this was to separate the subjects. Giving each subject approximately an hour, delivering information by lecture, and asking students to attempt application at home away from assistance was specifically designed to prevent independent thinking, to create individuals who submitted to authority, and does not allow for true conceptual learning. A great analogy for this come from Sal Kahn, "It was if they had been taught in two different lessons how to use a hammer and how to use a screwdriver. Told to hammer, they could hammer. Told to put in a screw, they could use a screw driver. But told to build a shelf, they'd be paralyzed even though it was just a combination of concepts that they should have learned."
Initially the system worked because the economy needed lots of worker bees. This was true in the US as well, so they took on the system and added to it. In 1892 the National Education Association formed the Committee of Ten. This was a group of educators, primarily university presidents, whose mission was to determine what primary and secondary education should be like. They are the ones who decided at what age children would start school, how many years primary and secondary school would be, what children would study, and which subjects were the most important. They felt that each student should get a fair chance to see if they had a capacity for intellectual work. In other words this is when they began to weed out the manual laborers from the intellectuals. I agree that each student should get a fair chance to find their unique capacities. However, in that moment a hierarchy was created. To this day, individuals' value is based on their capacity for specific types of academic intelligence.
The main problem with this is that people don’t come standard and there is a wide range of intelligences with none being more important than the others. Over the decades we’ve created a culture within our schools that creates comparison and causes kids to judge their own individuality. Not only is this profoundly detrimental to the wellbeing of students, this is also the opposite of what is needed for our current economy. Companies cannot survive with the same type of person in every position. It is by celebrating our individualities and our unique skills and sensibilities that businesses and economies thrive.
The topic most discussed in schools other than testing is college. Even in discussions with education reform advocates I still hear the success of a school measured by how many students go to college. But, sending all of our kids to college is detrimental for several reasons. I am by no means suggesting that we should not be encouraging our kids to continue their education after high school. I am suggesting, however, that we should not be sending all of our kids to college.
The hierarchy that resulted from the Committee of Ten created a stigma against further education that is not University. The majority of students I spent time with were unaware that there were educational options other than University or Community College. Once I pointed out the other options many students would dismiss them because of the focus on university. This stigma has prevented some students from pursuing further education that maybe more suited for their learning style. It also prevents some students from making a smarter financial decision when it comes to their higher education.
So, most students who graduate from high school go on to college. This puts an oversupply of individuals into professions. Because of this over supply many recent college grads are having a hard time finding work. In addition, students are going to college in a time of record high tuition costs. Not to mention a degree now takes closer to 6 years to complete rather than 4, thus just adding to the expense.
The stigma against trades and other jobs not requiring a university degree prevents most students from considering them. Right now, the majority of tradesmen are baby boomers who are retiring. By 2025 there will be approximately 3.5 million jobs left vacant. This is concerning considering the fact that these jobs are integral to our livelihoods. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics some of the professions with the most new jobs includes laborers and home health aids among others. These require an education that is not as expensive or time consuming as a University Degree. Rejecting these types of careers as an option is so pervasive, when asked what makes it such a bad choice many students couldn't answer why. With these industries being so important and the fact that they can offer competitive wages they should not be dismissed so easily.
But we shouldn't stop there. Our schools teach kids that if they do what's expected of them, and go to college, they'll get a job. That simply doesn't cut it anymore. A college degree used to guarantee a job. That is no longer the case. Many people now create their career paths. Job sharing, freelancing, consulting, and multiple streams of income are all things that are of extreme importance now. Employers are looking for creative innovative thinkers who work well individually and in teams. And many students in primary and secondary school today will go on to have jobs that don’t exist yet. It's not about getting a job anymore. It's about creating a career path, a life style, a niche of one's own particular expertise.
Sending all of our students to college is not only an economically poor choice it is sometimes a personally poor choice. I say sometimes because for many individuals college is the right path. However, there are also many students in college even though it is not the right path for them. According to the National Center for Education Statistics barely over half those who enter college finish. Often it is because college is not the right type of environment for these learners. For those who do finish and who also find a job, a number of them discover they aren't happy. After following all of the rules, doing what they're supposed to do, and getting a job that pays them comfortably they expect to be happy. But some find they are not happy. I read a story of a woman who followed the rules, and got lucky enough to have a good office job that paid well. But she quickly burned out and decided to leave it all behind. Instead she found her happiness living on an island with low cost of living and working at an ice cream shop. Her needs were met and she had more time to enjoy her life. The response to her story was admiration for being so brave. Now imagine that she, upon graduating from high school, knew that the path she was expected to take would make her unhappy. So she decides at 18 to move to an island to work at an ice cream shop. Would she have been met with the same admiration? Probably not. Yet she would have saved the money spent on the college degree, and would have avoided years of stress and unhappiness which can both lead to poor health.
There are many people who would not be happy sitting behind a desk every day and there are many who would be. But most students in today's education system won't be guided to finding out what jobs and life styles suit them best. And they most certainly aren't guided on how to create a life for themselves based on their interests.
The hierarchy created by the Committee of Ten also stigmatizes certain subjects. This created an education system that teaches only to certain types of intelligences, not all. As Sir Ken Robinson puts it, “The question shouldn’t be how intelligent are you. It should be how are you intelligent.” So, not only are we telling students that they shouldn't be exploring certain intelligences or careers, we're also telling them that there are only a few that are suitable. This stigma and suppression of certain types of skills and talents is not only creating an unbalanced economy, leaving our education in an antiquated system, but has also created millions of unhappy individuals believing that they are stupid and/or inadequate.
In preparing students for a future we can't predict, it is best to give students everything they need to be happy, healthy individuals who know how to manage their lives, what their strengths, interests, and values are, and how to turn those into a financially sound career. Our current education system is not set up to do that.
Time for a New Goal
It is time that the focus of our schools shift to the individual student. The success of a school shouldn't be measured by how many of their graduates are admitted to college. It is more important that individuals are able to manage their inner world, relate to their outer world, and find their place in the world. We need individuals to know themselves, know their communities, and know how to create a comfortable and happy life based on their interests and skills.
To learn more about what can be done to make this new goal a priority in our school system make sure to follow me on social media or here on the blog. My book "What's the Point of School? Education Reform: A Matter of Life and Death" will be released soon. I dive into what we can do to make the system work for our kids. You can subscribe below to be notified of it's release.
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Emma B Perez