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What is Wrong with School Education?

by Beverley Paine, Dec 1999

For many of us dropping out of the school system wasn't really a choice. It was forced upon us by an uncaring system that couldn't or wouldn't resolve continuing disputes or problems our children faced in the classroom. Once we progressed down the path of accepting personal responsibility for every aspect of our children's education we began to see how flawed the school based education system is. Most us would never consider going back. But some of us have to, for one reason or another, and it is a shame that despite so much knowledge about what constitutes a good education schools just can't seem to lift their game and deliver what they so blithely promise.

I see many things wrong with school based education. Firstly, schools act as if learning is only possible in schools, in classrooms, following the very outdated idea that in order to learn we need to listen to the wise words of a teacher, do what they say, memorise some information or skills, and suddenly we are educated! Talk to any educational bureaucrat and they will try to convince you that the teacher/student/classroom approach is the only valid educational model.

It isn't, and it isn't a very old one in terms of human civilisation either. It certainly isn't very efficient or effective, not for all students.

The classroom approach is in most instances divorced from learning by 'doing'. The best teachers try their best to include meaningful activities in their programs, but in the sterile environments of schools these attempts are still contrived. Students know the difference between being meaningfully engaged because of personal interest and doing because they have to make some arbitrary 'grade'.

Most people learn best when 'on the job', when the job is meaningful to them and has a real purpose. We learn by experiencing things in the world, trying new things out, making 'mistakes', guessing, having a go... not by reading and writing about the experiences of others! Though education will always have a place for vicarious experiences, just not a dominating one.

Schools believe the job of assessment is part of their natural role. This belief has unfortunately created a monster - curriculum and pedagogy aimed at satisfying assessment criteria rather than teaching anything useful. A huge amount of time is wasted in teaching to the criteria rather than sensible educational goals. Getting a student to pass is far more important than educational understanding. 'Play the game' and get through is still a prevalent attitude, most notable in higher education.

Another startling problems is that schools assess their own performance - public education is self regulated. Funding is dependant on numbers of students, not successful outcomes, meaning any kind of standard of education is allowed to prevail. In the commercial market products are assessed by the buyer of those products, not the producer of those products.

The continuing focus on assessment means the establishment and rigid adherence to standard curricula. The emphasis on reading and writing and absence of conversational learning in classrooms prejudices a considerable portion of the student body. In any case there has always been an imbalance in the curriculum, particularly after about eight years of age, favouring academic learning and sports activities and down grading the importance of the Arts and cultural education.

Schools fail to teach individuals and struggle to include in their educational programs up to date research and information on learning styles and superior learning methods. Classrooms pretend to be democratic, offering choice to students that at is best is extremely limited. Let children choose where they want to go, and with proper guidance they will choose well and create an alive and diverse society.

Because of the structure of the curriculum teachers believe they ought to tell students what they think it is important to know and what to do. This kind of instruction locks student into always waiting for the expert to offer information and guidance, ultimately resulting in an apathetic consumer society. It is better to help children build the skills to find out what they want to know and how to do it for themselves, rather than have such things worked out for them. This results in an intelligent, creative and critical society.

My father once urged me to read as much as I could in order to learn everything I might need to know. Just in case. This is a common mistake in education. The purpose of education is not to cram everything in as quickly as possible, but to give the student a set of tools by which he or she can explore the world for the rest of his or her life. Human memories happily erase information that has no purpose, so why try to fill up children's heads with such stuff? Learning for learnings sake is worse than a total waste of time; it deadens the curiosity, the quest for learning we are all born. Some of us never recover from our school years.

Schools believe that in order to learn anything you have to go through a set of stages related to age. This has to be the biggest mistake of the educational system. These stages are less related to age than individual experience, as has been shown time and time again. And yet schools continue to be organised in age groupings.

This also gives rise to another myth, that learning only occurs after much practice, hence rote learning. If learning is personally meaningful students only need to cover the area once or twice to retain the knowledge or skills. Again this has been repeatedly shown but ignored in favour of crowd control and classroom management techniques. Practice is an important part of learning, but this is different from studying. It is using the information or skills in a meaningful way for a real, rather than contrived, purpose.

Schools push 'success', and this is narrowly defined. Not all children will win prizes, certificates, stickers, teacher's praise and so on. Education becomes a competition, and rarely a random lottery with equal favour to all. Those that can't 'play the game' loose badly, loosing their sense of self esteem, self confidence and any hope of every achieving happiness in our success driven society. Good grades are the goals of school education, not good citizens. Until the emphasis is changed schools will continue to damage whole populations.

And the answer to 'failing', the inability to 'play the game', is discipline, or a better, more accurate word, punishment. The threat of punishment of any kind in school doesn't make for increased learning opportunity or desire. It makes students afraid to learn, afraid to take risks, an inherent process in learning, afraid to make mistakes. It makes them afraid to fail. Devising ways to make children learn using punishments, to force them in learning irrelevant material, takes up a large amount of our teachers' and educational bureaucrats' time. More time than is actually given in face to face teaching of individual students...

I knew all this before I began to homeschool, before my children went back to school, and after I pulled them out again. I knew this because I was a student myself once. As a parent of a school child my heart cries as I see that nothing has changed in over twenty-five years. We've put a man on the moon, cloned animals, dismantled the Berlin Wall and built the Internet.... but we can't solve the recurring problems of school based education. Why ever not? Is it because we were all once school students....?

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine


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