- Education & Catastrophe
- School Is Not Enough
School Is Not Enough
Education & Catastrophe 62
Vance Osterhout / Boy using miter saw. Image credit: Palladium
Hey y’all! This is John.
This newsletter is about human flourishing. Ostensibly it’s about better parenting and fixing education, but ultimately what I really care about is helping young people flourish.
In this issue, we discuss the purpose of school. Covered in this issue:
Do children today have useful childhoods?
Are schools getting in the way of meaningful work?
If a system lacks imagination, should we not supply our own?
Let’s dive in!
One parent in the Making Learning Meaningful Telegram group shared an article by Simon Sarris titled ‘School Is Not Enough’. It’s a long read, but it’s one of the most profound pieces of writing on education I’ve read in recent years.
The article starts with a simple but important question - do children today have useful childhoods?
What is a useful childhood?
Leonardo da Vinci was a studio apprentice to Verrocchio at 14 years old. Walt Disney took on a number of jobs, chiefly delivering papers, by 11. When Vladimir Nabokov was 16, he published his first poetry collection while still in school. Andrew Carnegie finished schooling at 12 and was 13 when he began his second job as a telegraph office boy, where he convinced his superiors to teach him the telegraph machine itself. By 16, he was the family’s mainstay of income.
These famous historical figures were all doing something from a young age as opposed to merely attending school. Sarris also gave the example of 13-year-old Steve Jobs calling Bill Hewlett for a summer job at Hewlett Packard. Sarris is not talking about child prodigies like Mozart writing his first symphony at age 8. It’s an important distinction. Leonardo da Vinci, Walt Disney, etc, were undeniably brilliant, but did working from a relatively young age allow their innate brilliance to come through? Or, to put it another way, would da Vinci have become a world-renowned inventor if all he did for the first two decades of his life was to go from elementary school to middle school to high school to college?
An education system that dictates what a young person should do leads to inertia. The opposite of inertia is agency - the capacity to act.
Gaining agency is gaining the capacity to do something different from the rigid path of events that simply happen to you. Remarkable people typically go off-script early, usually in more than one way. Carnegie becoming a telegraph message boy is one opportunity; asking how to operate the telegraph is another. He was handed the first one, but he had to ask for the second.
I like the contrast between the rigid path of events and going off-script. The rigid path for kids with access to education is to stay in school, do well enough to get a high school diploma at least, and, if possible, go to college. I do not want to trivialise the privilege of being able to go to school. Hundreds of millions of children have no access to formal education. However, just because you can attend school does not necessarily mean you should. What is the purpose of school? Is it the best use of your time? Are there more meaningful things you can do between the ages of 11-21?
We have a public imagination that cannot conceive of what exactly to do with children, especially smart children. We fail to properly respect them through adolescence, so we have engineered them to be useless, and so they shuffle through a decade of busywork. Partly, the length of schooling has increased simply because it could—because we no longer need children to work, yet need them to do something while the adults go do theirs.
The sad result of school’s length and primacy is that it ensures there is nothing in particular for children to do, and since the rigid framework precludes other options, we are sure to destroy their opportunities for making meaningful contributions to the world. The longer we disallow children from having the agency to act on the world, the harder it becomes for them to visualize it in the first place. The result is that we have young adults who have a difficult time adjusting once their life-script changes even a little bit. The path is rigid, yet brittle.
“We have engineered them (smart children) to be useless.” A bold statement, but not far from the truth. What can a brilliant 16-year-old in an affluent society do besides ace his GCSE to demonstrate his academic brilliance? Getting top scores in standardised exams has become the pinnacle of life as a young person. It is unfortunate we expect so little and so much of young people. So little because young people have been conditioned to believe that their only purpose up until they finish formal education is to ace exams. So much because this same belief is crippling and prevents young people from developing self-understanding and learning more about the world.
Since everyone must do the same things, it is difficult for any student to do exceptional things.
Sarris writes about the problem with mass schooling, primarily the fact that knowledge transfer in school caters to the lowest common denominator. I wrote about this problem in issue 11. Harvard professor Todd Rose concluded that there is absolutely no such thing as an average student. The average represents nobody. We have a big problem. We have built an entire education system assuming the average kid exists. That kids know the same things and learn the same way at the same age. They don’t. By any measure, this system doesn't work.
I also wrote about what makes some people exceptional in issue 29. Two qualities I mentioned are action-orientedness and possessing a questioning mind. The two qualities are related. An individual who questions why something cannot be done is more likely to challenge the status quo and try to bend reality to his will. It is extremely difficult for mainstream education to produce exceptional young people because so little questioning is involved in learning. Students are largely told to follow instructions, and obedience is prized above all else. Is it any surprise that young people who have been told what to do their entire lives do not do anything extraordinary?
In an article published a couple of days ago, a Japan-born teenager turned Singapore permanent resident reflected on her 10-year education journey in local schools in Singapore and decided she was leaving because she could no longer cope.
[School] is stressful, to put it in short. School hours are extremely long. It just started to become very daunting for me.
That was when it occured to me that I need to step into a new chapter of my life
One line in the article, in particular, resonated with me. “It dawned on Co Co that if she kept aiming to score good grades, she might miss out on the opportunity to discover herself and what she truly wants to do in life.” This Japanese teenager is articulating the same point Sarris is making - that schools are designed to ensure that there is nothing in particular for students to do and are, in fact, getting in the way of young people making meaningful contributions to the world.
The ever-longer march through school creates a bizarre barrier separating the student from reality. As a consequence, childhood consists of the age when one can intuit very well how the world works at the same time one is prevented from acting upon it meaningfully. Instead of making adolescence full of rites of passage where one attempts to master something and accept responsibility, we have made it full of waiting and fake work—for school is work. After a time, all children spot this fakeness, and all honest educators note it, saying that one of the most difficult parts of teaching is having to justify why what the children are learning will be relevant and useful.
The paragraph above sums up the fundamental problem with education. The stuff kids learn in school is simply not very relevant or useful. A couple of years ago, Lucy Kellaway wrote an article in the Financial Times titled ‘What Is The Point Of Schools?’
As I looked at their faces I saw an impassive mask of the sheerest boredom. Vacant with a hint of despair. The thought presented itself to me: if this is education — stuffing random facts into students so that they can pass exams — then maybe it’s time to stop and do something different.
The point of education as currently configured is as a signalling device to universities and employers — students with the right exam scores are allowed on to the next phase of life. The children need the qualifications not to understand the world, but to make their way in it.
Kellaway summed up her classroom experience with this passage.
I will obediently tell pupils that there are advantages and disadvantages to countries of rising productivity — and that one of the disadvantages is that if one country increases its productivity then others might follow suit and end up overtaking it.
It pains me to have to teach such bilge. I despise the limited way of thinking that says you need two advantages and two disadvantages to everything and you must structure every six-mark answer in the same way. It is boring, stupid and bears no relation to the economy.
The Lucy Kellaway article has stuck with me since the first time I read it and inspired me to keep doing the work I do. Like Kellaway, I believe children deserve better than learning facts that have no particular relevance to their world and the workforce they will be entering. I tried selling a coding with science curriculum to schools to make science more engaging and relevant (didn’t work, largely because teachers had no bandwidth or interest to learn even a wee bit of block-based programming); I tried selling life skills to parents (didn’t work either, because most parents have a singular focus on academic achievements and would rather their child spend time on after school academic help); I tried layering on English with life skills - parents still didn’t buy it because the English kids learn with us is not exam-prep; right now we are reworking English teachers' Scheme Of Work into lessons which we then deliver so that teachers have more time to observe and support their students in the classroom.
The point is - there are many ways to make learning much more useful, relevant and relatable. Instead of cramming facts, young people should be developing skills that will help them make their way in the world.
It might seem like the path forward is to fundamentally change the nature of schools, de-emphasize college, increase opportunities for apprenticeships, and so on. But waiting for any kind of policy daydream is a mistake. If a system lacks imagination, it is best to supply our own.
Changing the education system at a fundamental level is a big ask (and most probably a very long wait). I have been chipping away at the problem for over ten years without getting very far. With my kids, I have tried to steer them away from the mundane towards what I feel is meaningful learning. Last week I wrote about how my wife and I unschooled our eldest son for a couple of years and helped him get a spot at a progressive international school in Singapore where 99% of students say they enjoy school.
This week’s newsletter is unusually long. Thank you for reading till the end. If there is one thing I like you to take away, it is simply that education is not all it’s made out to be. Question whether keeping your child in school for the first twenty years of their life is the most meaningful way for them to spend their time. If you start having reservations about the education system, take things into your own hands. For many of us, there are options.