As the title implies, I’m not a huge fan of public education, but I also don’t want you to think that means I don’t value education or teachers in particular. I believe most teachers try to do the best job educating youth as they can. I believe that some are even trying to make the huge changes our education system needs but are being thwarted by circumstances out of their control. I believe teachers have one of the hardest jobs in the country, I believe teachers are underappreciated, and I believe they are underpaid. Keep this in mind during the rest of this diatribe. I’d also like to pre-apologize for the length of this post, because I already know it will be long.
For those who are unaware, I will give a bit of history of myself. Many people would consider me “successful” (based on their definition of success) since I work at Microsoft, make enough money to provide for my family, have a house, wife, kids, etc. You would find many people who think my life fits the “american dream”. To be clear, I do consider myself successful, but I define success in a much different way. I am successful because I enjoy my life and do the things that I love to do. Anyway, I want to start this out with a story about my past, since I didn’t exactly come to this “success” in the ordinary way.
In 1982 I was in second grade and I was seven years old. Now granted, I was very young, but even at that young age I had been through enough in my life to know a simple truth. When I “grew up”, my life would be different than what it was then. I won’t go into huge details or a big “woe is me” story, but my father was gone, and my mother (while trying her best) had problems of her own. Things got better as time went on, but I knew at an extremely young age that no matter what I was going to *be* when I grew up, I knew it would be something more than what I saw around me. Education was my ticket out, and I knew this because my teachers told me so. This meant that I was going to be the best student I could possibly be, as that was the only way out.
Now, in 1982 and in second grade, this was easy. School was little more than memorization of facts, and I had lucked into a remarkable memory. Even today, I can remember some extraordinary things from a very long time ago. If it’s a fact I am supposed to remember, I remember it for a significant amount of time (although to be fair, if it’s mundane useless knowledge like what I had for dinner 3 days ago, i probably couldn’t tell you). I was also lucky in the sense that I didn’t go to a “normal” public school, but instead the education system had decided I could go to a “magnet” school. I can’t actually tell you what the qualifications for this type of school was, or if it was really better, but they told me it was and I was 7, who was I to argue?
The teachers all agreed on one thing though. I was “smart”. Of course, to them, what “smart” meant was I could memorize facts better than anyone else in the class (and probably better than the teachers themselves). This obviously meant I was “gifted”, and they could tell that I was bored. While it is very true I was bored, their solution to “fix” my boredom was puzzling. They decided that what I really needed was to be advanced to a new grade. So halfway through my second grade year they asked my mother for permission to take me out of my second grade class and put me instead into a third grade class. My mother was worried about this (I was already small for my age) and she thought this would just make things worse for me. She thought “bullys” would pick on me since I would be even smaller, etc. After some persuasion from the teachers though she relented and I packed up my desk and moved to the third grade.
Now, I had missed the entire second half of the second grade curriculum as well as the first half of the third grade curriculum, so obviously I was going to be very far behind right? Most people who believe that the job of education is to teach children would say that I almost certainly had to be behind. The fact was though that I was not behind in the slightest because the goal of education (particularly at that level) was not to teach me anything, but rather to measure how well I could remember facts, something I was already inherently good at. So now I was in third grade, still getting straight A’s, still just as bored as I was in second grade. For me, nothing had changed at all aside from the person giving me the facts to memorize and the other kids sitting near me in the classroom.
This went on for years. I would go to school, do well, get essentially perfect grades and I would be bored out of my mind. They tried to get me to skip other grades but my mother couldn’t be convinced again, I can’t really decide if that matters anymore. I doubt I’d be in any different spot now than I am had she chosen differently. To be clear, I absolutely despised going to school. It was so mundane, dreary and absolutely boring. I put up with it because I believed that it was the only way to get out of the situation I was in though, and I made sure I did well. Fast forward a while.
Now, in 1991, I was a Junior in High School and fifteen years old at the time. Nothing had really changed yet, math occasionally had me do something more than memorize facts (albeit not really), and not a single class had really ever given me a lesson or assignment where there was more than a single answer. In the real world here, it’s very rarely the case that any given “problem” a single right answer, yet that’s the way the majority of lessons are taught in school. Along with being a teenager who knew everything (as most teenagers seem to), by this time I had also grown disenfranchised with the entirety of the public education system. I had straight As in all of my classes, I was a model student the teachers would tell you, and I was completely sick of it. I could have passed the G.E.D. test probably in 5th grade (and probably earlier, that’s just when I happened to see it the first time and realized how easy it was). Why was I going to school at all?
It was a bit of an epiphany for me at the time. I no longer believed having an education was my ticket out of the situation I was in, and I found the entire idea of school to be ludicrous and beneath me. So in my 11th grade year I decided I would simply stop going and that’s what I did. Now, I was still a kid in the eyes of the law, and public education is compulsory. I (along with my mother) could actually get in legal trouble for me not going to school, particularly if I was out roaming the streets. I had a friend at the time that was older and most days would go hang out at his house doing things that young teenage boys would do (playing games, watching movies, etc). School was the last thing on my mind. My grades naturally suffered for it, not because I no longer knew the information (i still did, my memory hadn’t changed at all), but because I wasn’t there to turn in assignments.
When my mother found out what I was doing, she was livid. I was punished, read the riot act, told how I would never amount to anything, all that fun stuff. My teachers had equally dire warnings; I was throwing my life away, not living up to my potential, wasting my talent. What talent exactly though? My “talent” of being able to memorize everything? If you would have asked me why I was doing this back then I probably would have told you it was boring (because it was), but I couldn’t actually articulate the real reasons like I can now. A few years before this I had discovered computers and before that had discovered computer games. I was completely enthralled by them, that was what I wanted to do with my life and I knew it then just as I know it now. I took all of the computer courses in school, but for whatever reasons the teachers responsible for those courses had no knowledge to teach computer programming.
So here I was, a young kid but I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. What’s more, I could see that education, and this school in particular didn’t have a path leading to it. Coupled with the average teenage angst and rebellion most kids go through it is easy for me to see in hindsight what happened. I went to school enough the rest of that year to barely pass all of my classes (ruining my GPA in the process) not because I believed it was important, but really just to please my mother. She felt it was important that I graduate High School, so I did. I found college to be a complete waste of time as well but my little story has gone on long enough so I won’t get into that portion. Suffice it to say I didn’t attend college, and look at me now. I’m still just as successful now as I would have been had I gone.
Fast forward again to now. I have two kids both in the public education system. My son is now a junior in High School just as I was earlier in my story, and he is essentially just like me. My daughter is two years younger, and she is very little like me. My son has a memory much like mine and he can memorize any set of facts he needs to. However very rarely does he actually do it because he doesn’t see the point. His grades suffer for it as well since despite knowing the material, he doesn’t bother doing any of the work or even when he does do the work he can’t be bothered to turn it in. My daughter on the other hand gets great grades. Teachers and people who look at each of my children via education transcripts would invariably agree that my daughter is “smarter” than my son. Yet, if you asked her that question, I bet she would say that she was not. Hell, she asks him for help with her homework because she knows that he will know the answer and be able to explain how to do the work to her. Why do they think she is smarter? How can the people in charge of education and who “define” what intelligence is be so mistaken about the reality of the situation? To be clear, I’m not saying my son *is* smarter than my daughter, I think they both excel at different things.
I am a huge fan of Sir Ken Robinson and I share a great deal of his views on education. People familiar with his lectures and books may find many similar ideas in the things I’m about to say. I fully support and agree with his contention that we need to drastically restructure the way education is doled out to our youth and redefine what intelligence really is. From my own experiences though, here are a wide variety of things I don’t understand.
Why is school taught from 6am until 2pm? I am most certainly *not* a morning person at all, and I know this about myself. It has little to do with the amount of sleep I get I’ve discovered. If I get 8 hours of sleep and wake up at noon I function better than getting those same 8 hours of sleep and getting up at 6am. Honestly, I could get 4 hours of sleep and wake up at noon and function better than any amount of sleep waking up at 6am. I simply can’t think straight in the mornings. I rarely do great work before the mid-late afternoons, and I do my absolute best work late in the evenings. In the real world at my job now, I’m normally the last one into the office, and many times the last one to leave. I get the majority of my work done much later in the days than many coworkers. There have been plenty of studies that show that some people work better in the morning, some people work better at night. Why are public schools all run in the morning, and not only the morning, but so early in the morning?
My son is just like me, and at 6am he is barely functional. When I was in school, I was barely functional then as well. I suppose it’s a good thing that school never really required us to think because we simply can’t. Yet all schools seem to enforce this notion. Why? Not only is school boring, but I resented it for making me be awake when I didn’t want to be. I’m sure there are a class of people who would say to this “quit whining, and just deal with it” and these people are missing the point. Nowadays I’m an adult, and if my job required me to be fully functional and become a “morning person” when I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t “just deal with it” at all. I simply wouldn’t take that job. Kids don’t have that choice though, school is required, and that’s when it’s taught so that’s when they go. Of course, the “quit whining and just deal with it” mentality is part of the problem. People take too many things for granted, such as the notion that school starts early, or that kids should be taught in groups by age, or that the entire concept of education works the way people thinks it does.
Why are some subjects in school considered more important than others? Why is math so important? There are many jobs in the world where math isn’t useful (or used) at all. I picked math intentionally because I loved math, and math is used extensively in my line of work. However it only is used in one of my passions. Readers of this are probably aware I love writing as well, and math is essentially useless for that. Why are the languages so important? They’re very useful in my writing of course, but almost useless in my development job. Plus, if you look at the grammar of the majority of young folks in the world today on various social media platforms, you could argue they aren’t listening anyway. Why is history considered so important? I’ve never once in my life thought to myself “Whew, I’m glad I knew that the hundred years war lasted more than a hundred years.” Well, aside from when I was playing Trivial Pursuit. Why was science considered so important, what point did learning anatomy and physiology have? I didn’t want to become a doctor or a nurse, and I’ve never once needed that knowledge in my life.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you know what I have wondered in my life before? “Why don’t I know how to dance?” Why isn’t dance taught in school? Why is dance, or drama, or music relegated to second banana in school while math, science, languages and history are bubbled to the top? I’m sure you’ve all heard a teacher say that you should ignore music, you won’t grow up to be a musician, or artist, or dancer, or any other variety of things. Do we expect people to grow up to be history teachers or lawyers though? Are all kids going to grow up being a doctor or nuclear physicist? Why would the public education system ostracize some subjects while pushing others down kids throats.
Kids nowadays are inundated on all sides by a menagerie of distractions. This age is a completely different world than when I was growing up. Information is everywhere and I could probably learn more in a single night browsing the web than I ever learned in the entire course of my public education. When I was young I had very few distractions outside of my own imagination. We had 7 television stations, the radio and books. Nowadays kids have the internet, video games, books, hundreds of television stations, computers, mobile device, so many ways to be distracted, and then we punish them for actually being distracted. We would rather them pay strict attention to school work, which almost everyone agrees is the boring stuff! Most kids find some subjects boring (for myself it was all of the languages, history, and health type classes), while they find other classes to be quite fun and interesting (again for myself those were math, and some of the sciences such as physics). The lucky kids will find some of the “important” classes (important in the eyes of education) exciting and useful. The unlucky kids will not, they will find something like dancing or theater exciting and they will be told (even if only implicitly) how useless those desires are and how they should instead focus on things were they have no passion. Why?
People like to often say that the “smart” kids who do poorly in school are simply lazy. I am very guilty of this myself, having told my son that I thought he was being lazy by getting poor grades when we both knew that he *could* get better grades if he cared enough to try. It strikes me that the last part of that sentence is the important part though, if he cared enough to try. The fact is he does not care enough to try and I have a hard time convincing myself that he’s wrong here. The classes that are exciting to him (math, etc) he does well in, getting A’s in almost everything. He’s bored in those classes as well, but he finds the work exciting enough to do well. The classes that he has no excitement in whatsoever (English, history, health, etc) he does poorly in, so much that at times he is failing (or has failed) those classes. He will do fine on the tests and in class assignments, but his grades suffer because homework and the like he sees no point in doing so he simply doesn’t. The zero’s he gets on those assignments bring his grade down, yet it is plainly obvious that he knows the material by the test scores.
So if the goal of education is to teach this boring material, and the student demonstrates he knows the material, why would they be failed? The easy answer is because the goal of education isn’t to teach the material and if this wasn’t such a long post already I would argue the real goal of education is to cultivate a bunch of young workers who obey instructions blindingly, but I will digress from that topic until another time. You could make the argument that turning in all of your assignments on time teaches responsibility, and while I can see the merits in that argument it falls flat to me.
Instead, people call these kids lazy, and as I said, I used to believe that as well. Why? In the real world, if I’m told that I have to do something boring that does nothing to advance the things I love, I don’t just accept it and blindly go do that boring thing. No, I either do not do it or I find something else to do. You would be hard pressed to find anyone that would call me lazy though because everyone who knows me knows that I work hard and do a damn good job at the things I do. I do such a good job and work so hard in these areas though because the things I do are the things that bring me passion. So why, when I do the exact same thing as these kids do, I’m celebrated for it while they’re called lazy? They’re making rational adult decisions, the same ones I would make, and being punished for it.
My wife and I have vastly different ideas about the role of schools and public education in general. She very much believes in the myth of public education and considers school to be a vital part of a young person’s upbringing. You can imagine that the “struggles” I’ve described my son as having above are extremely frustrating to her. So while I do disagree with a lot of her beliefs in this regard, I do find it important that parents approach kids with a united front, so when we discuss these things with the kids, we do so from her point of view (or I should say we usually do).
I’m sure that many people would think that one of our kids doing poorly in school means that the parents simply don’t care, which also couldn’t be further from the truth. In order to get our son into the mode where he’s “doing well” in school we’ve tried countless different options. We’ve tried rewarding good work, punishing “poor” work, strict rules, all the way to treating school just like a job where his grades determined his “pay”, and privileges were “bought”. None of these things changed where his passions were or his behavior, and really, why would they? Let me tell you another story.
In 2004 while I was working at Microsoft I was developing some amazing technology. I loved my job, and my passion for my work was immeasurable. My wife was annoyed because I loved my job so much I would lose track of time and work very long hours while she was home alone with the kids. The management of my group at Microsoft though did not find my work to be valuable and decided that instead of continuing that project I should instead be reassigned to a completely new project they needed help with. This project contained none of the things I was passionate about though, and I told them as much. I said no, I didn’t want to do it but was given the choice of doing it or finding a new job.
Now, I seriously considered simply finding a new job. The only reason I didn’t do that immediately is because the project I was working on originally was so important to me that I was afraid it would be lost completely if I did and I didn’t want that. So I was faced with a tough choice, doing a job I knew I would hate and keeping the project I loved alive or abandoning the job I loved and go find something new. Meanwhile the management in my group knew that I did amazing work so they decided the best way to convince me to do this new project was to bribe me. Now granted, they never told me they were “bribing” me, but that’s how I took it. For years they hadn’t cared about all of the hard work I had done, and now all of a sudden when they want me to do this new job they gave me an award for a lot of money for all the “hard work” I had done.
I had already decided I would stick around though because I had decided that losing my original project wasn’t something I was willing to do. I was given an incentive to do a good job (essentially promised a promotion), was given an award to try to help motivate me to do a good job, and I knew the punishment I would face if I didn’t do a good job (low review scores, no raise, no bonus, no stock). This is a very similar situation to my son and his grades on the classes he finds boring. So what did I do? I was an adult, very rational thinking with very clear goals. I obviously did a good job on the thing I hated and the story has a happy ending yes?
Of course not. I despised the work and found every excuse I could to not do it to the point I was eventually taken off the project completely. It is still to this day the only time at Microsoft that I ever received a poor review score and didn’t get a bonus or stock. I had every reason to do the work, knew the consequences for not doing it, and I still did not do it. Yet, in a similar situation why would I be surprised when a kid made the same decision.
Now I’m sure there are folks out there who would call me lazy or stupid or some other mean words, and by extension kids who make similar decisions. Why? Because I value doing something I love over doing something I don’t love? We should be ostracized for not doing what I was told when I had a choice?
Why does education teach that for virtually all problems there is a single solution when the reality is that’s very rarely the case? How can a teacher ask a student to write an essay that is their opinion on something and then give them a grade as if their opinion could be wrong? Hell, most times schools would never ask to get an opinion to begin with.
While I’m on a roll, can someone explain to me what the point of homework is? My kids currently go to school for 7 hours per day, and I’ve had the teachers tell us that we should expect them to have up to 3 hours of homework per night. Why is school expecting kids to work 10 hours per day when the standard work day for an adult is only 8 hours? How many people with jobs they hate continue working when they get home anyway? I work from home sometimes, but only because I love what I do.
I have a lot more to say, but this has already rambled on for entirely too long so for now I will end this. I agree with Sir Ken Robinson, we need to dramatically reform education, and the way we view intelligence.