7 minute read

There is a strong sentiment amongst education academics against children learning exclusively outside of schools. Professor Jonathen Jansen, Vice Chancellor and Rector of the University of Free State, South Africa, recently shared this sentiment (to much applause) on Facebook.

This statement is not an isolated sentiment at all. It is reflective of many education academics, school teachers and seemingly parents have bought into this sentiment too. There are a number of problems with this thought process.

There’s nothing complex about learning. Maybe teaching kids in captivity against their will requires some kind of training and most likely training in how to set up an elaborate system of rewards and punishment to ensure compliance is needed. And yes it is a complex task to shove random, fragmented and unrelated bits of information that are of no interest and relevance to kids into their heads without their consent and have them remember and reproduce it. I would assume that you need some kind of special training in that. But that is not learning.

If teachers and those who make schools possible – government departments and education academics – were really interested in learning, in the child, they wouldn’t in good conscience participate in a system that is not supported by science! That is the crux of the matter. There is NO SCIENCE that backs up the design of schools, classroom and teacher instruction that it is useful for learning. The science, common sense and our life experiences tell us that optimal learning happens when a person (and a child is a person in case anyone needs reminding) is intrinsically motivated to learn something. Science and common sense also tells us that us that learning happens when people (children included) are immersed in an activity of their choosing and all their senses are engaged. Where is the science that tells us that placing bums on seats to be instructed in 30 – 45 minutes intervals is a useful way to learn? Where is the science that presenting topics that are unrelated to each other in these intervals is how learning happens? And what does the science say is the optimal time? 30 minutes? 45 minutes? Is there any science to the time segments?  

Furthermore, It doesn’t make sense to equate the process of learning with brain surgery. Brain surgery is an intervention to a problem – a physical intervention on the brain by a person (brain surgeon) well versed with the physical structure of the brain and it’s related processes. It is an intervention to a particular situation where the brain has been injured and needs to be assisted to repair itself. Learning on the other hand is a natural process. We don’t necessarily understand exactly how learning happens. That understanding is slowly emerging, but we are far from the full story. Most of the scientific world’s understanding of how learning in children happens, comes from studying children in captivity – in schools – and this too is still not fully understood. As Carol Black has stated in her exceptional essay A Thousand Rivers,

Many such ‘scientific’ pronouncements have emanated from the educational establishment over the last hundred years or so. The fact that the proven truths of each generation are discovered by the next to be harmful folly never discourages the current crop of experts who are keen to impose their freshly-minted certainties on children.

It seems, by looking at how schools are designed and function that they are designed not for learning, but for mass instruction. Schools are not learning centered. They are certainly not child centered. They are centered around a system of accountability and measurement – to make it easier for teachers to do their jobs of delivering information monitoring children’s response to the instruction and for principals to monitor that teachers are doing their jobs, and for school administrators to monitor and ensure that principals are doing their jobs of ensuring that teachers are doing their jobs. Maybe mass instruction as it happens in the classroom requires ‘long years of education and preparation’ and it is a possibly a complex task. But what passes for teaching or schooling is not learning.

Let us pretend – because this is simply not true  – that children can only learn something if and when they are taught. The question for me is why do the likes of Jansen, doubt parents’ ability to teach their children. They don’t need all the training involved in classroom management etc. They need to be able to teach their kids. And this is something that they are well trained in given that they are products of the school system and experienced the act of instruction first hand.  For 12 years!. They know everything there is to know in school – because – well they attended school and were taught by people with ‘long years of education and preparation’. Right? Or do the Jansen’s of the world not actually have faith in the ‘products’ of their systems? Not that homeschooling parents are aiming for the same kind of ‘product’ that schools produce.

I wonder if this lack of faith by the professions in this schooling system is because, well, they’re know their system doesn’t actually work. Because you see, there is this thing that I am sure a lot of you have noticed – The Lucrative Private Tuition Industry.  Most middle class school students go for some kind of Extra classes, in maths, English, accounting and everything else… There are franchises like Kumon, UC Maths, Kip McGrath, Tina Cowley that supplement school teaching. They’re abound in all the suburbs. Why is this? If teachers have these ‘long years of education and preparation’ for this task, why do kids still need tuition?  Are we even asking why we need so many ‘extra’ homework and tuition centres? Or are we grateful for them because we have silently accepted that the schooling system is failing kids and those that choose to stay in the system know this and have taken steps to mitigate against its failings?

The education academics know the system is failing. Hence their silence about the tuition industry that is propping up schools and keeping the results from looking as bad as they would if kids were only dependent on school teachers with their ‘long years of education and preparation’. Of course there are the low income kids that don’t have the luxury of accessing the supplementary tuition industry. This further prejudices kids from lower income areas and entrenches social inequality, the very thing that schooling purports to address. That is another important discussion to be had.

There is also the question about parents helping with homework. Do Jansen and his ilk also have a problem with parents helping kids with their homework? I don’t mean doing their kids homework. Helping them. Answering their questions. Pointing them to places where possible solutions lie. And if necessary, explaining things to them. Are they okay with this? With Jansen’s reasoning parents would be unqualified to help with homework, but I don’t hear any objection from him or teachers on that front. The bigger question of course is why would kids need help in the first place since teachers are well prepared to deal with the complex task of teaching.

Outside of tuition and with all things being equal, how is a teacher to a class of say 40 students able get 40 different results, results that normally reflect a bell curve? Isn’t the teacher or the teacher’s training failing all those kids on the left side of the bell curve? Do the ‘long years of education and preparation’ not equip teachers to help those on the left to move to the right? Teachers are literally failing to reach the children on entire left half of the bell curve! That doesn’t bode well for the kind of training received in the ‘long years of education and preparation’. Would we be so forgiving with brain surgeons if they failed 50% of their patients! Or are teachers trained to teach the average kid (which like the ideal gas, doesn’t actually exist) for an average result? Consider these two statements in the article, ‘Beyond Average’, by Harvard professor Todd Rose, in the Harvard Graduate School of Education:

Schools were designed during the industrial age by people who were ‘absolutely obsessed’ with averages because averages worked so well in managing factories. The goal wasn’t to nurture creativity and develop individuality. The system mostly accomplished what it set out to do: prepare students for standardized jobs in an industrial economy. Since then, we have continued to think that the average — a human invention — represents everyone or that any deviation from the average is what defines you.” 

Right now because we believe in the myth of average, we believe that opportunity means providing equal access to standardised educational experiences. However, since we know that nobody is actually average, it is obvious that equal access to standardised experiences is not nearly enough to provide equal opportunity. To me, if you accept the reality of individuality, then it means that we have to rethink how we define equal opportunity in education and beyond.”

There is a fair amount of intellectual dishonesty from teachers and education academics. Firstly, they don’t admit that teaching practice is not backed up by science. Secondly, they don’t admit that what they do know about learning or about the effectiveness of teaching methods in practice is limited. Thirdly, they don’t admit or take responsibility for the children they fail. So instead of saying “We’re the experts on your children’s learning, leave them to us.” say instead “Our current teaching and learning theories are to the best of our knowledge, in no way complete, but we are still learning about it”.

The really scary thing is the single mindset about schooling institutions as the only conduit for learning to happen. Even more scary is the lack of intellectual curiosity about learning outside schooling. Learning has been happening long before schools were formed. Children that self direct their education that later choose to pursue an academic course of study do great at University, to the point the Schools like Harvard and Yale actively recruit homeschoolers. Aren’t the Jansen’s of the world even remotely intellectually curious about how this learning is happening. If anything can be learned from this kind of learning in freedom?  The intellectual dishonesty and absence of intellectual curiosity in education circles is a dangerous combination.  It does not bode well for schooling as an institution.

There are many voices warning and raising awareness about the many failures of the school system. Sir Ken Robinson, Seth Godin and Pieter Thiel, to name a few. But let me end with a quote from Richard Elmore, Research Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Leadership,

I do not believe in the institutional structure of public schooling anymore,” noting that his long-standing work at helping teachers and principals professionalize their practice is “palliative care for a dying institution.” Elmore predicted “a progressive dissociation between learning and schooling.”

James Baldwin’s quote,

Those who say it can’t be done, are usually interrupted by those doing it.

is a reminder to those of us that have stepped out of the system, are and always will interrupt those who say it can’t be done.


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