why school

Why school?

What is the point of going to school anyway? Sounds simple, but every student everywhere at some point asks something like Why school?

We spend so much time thinking about how to improve schools that we hardly ever step back and look at the larger question; the question that’s right in front of us that children are asking : Why do I have to go to school in the first place?

It’s just the sort of question most parents and teachers just dismiss by saying something like;

“You have to go to school because you have to.”
“You’re going to need it for your future.”
“You don’t want to be a dummy do you?”

or the worst,

“Because I said so.”

But honestly, what is the purpose of school? Without having a more valuable answer to that most fundamental question it’s hard to say we can effectively manage or improve the schools we have now. As I teach adults we often speak about their kids and the conversation often reveals that they, the parents, don’t remember and have never used most of the things they learned in school. More and more I hear parents questioning why their kids are in school at all though everyone accepts that it’s the right thing to do.

As a parent and educator myself I place value on school but only to a certain extent.

My answer to the question is that going to school will help you prepare for life, it’s a great experience and it will make you stronger, smarter and a better rounded person than if you don’t go.

But I don’t honestly know if that’s true. I can’t be sure that the skills and social conditioning students are learning are necessarily what is going to carry them through to a successful life.

Skills

One way to look at school is that children are playing catch up with the rest of human history. After all, they are born into a world that’s been sitting here stewing in its own juices for quite a long time now and people usually want to know why things are the way they are and how they got that way. To put it another way, we are trying to pass on what humans have already figured out so that we don’t have to go back and reinvent the wheel.

From a practical standpoint it makes sense to just pass on the information. It’s a waste of time to go out and learn to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together when you can just turn on the stove or turn up the thermostat. Most people at this stage never actually need to start a fire on a daily basis.

A problem arises for us though when things become too easy. 

Imagine a little brother trying to figure out a hard level on a game and his big sister showing him how she figured it out. He listens, watches and is then able to beat the boss himself. You’re probably thinking that it would have been better for him to figure it out on his own because having someone show you how to do it is like cheating.

But that’s what schools ask kids to do all the time; watch the teacher, listen to the teacher, repeat what they showed you.

Doing so makes sense in a practical setting where it really would cause harm or be a waste of time. You don’t want people in a shop class just going in and “figuring out” how to use power tools. We also don’t require students to read all the books ever written as a way of understanding literature. It’s just not practical.

So the first main purpose of school is to make students able to figure things out for themselves, to develop problem solving skills and along the way get them caught up on what we’ve already figured out as a species. (History, Writing, Science etc.)

Social Conditioning

We’re social animals with a very slow physical, mental and emotional maturation process. We interact in every facet of our lives, at home, on the street, the playground, in school, and at work. At some point along the way we have to learn how to deal with one another in a beneficial way. No one will criticize an adult who works on improving their skill at sports, or tasks related to their jobs. But by the time you’re an adult if you haven’t figured out how to interact with other people effectively you’re going to run into all sorts of trouble. What’s worse, is that people who do work on their personal skills are often looked down upon. Even though these skills may be exactly what they need to improve in work and their personal relationships.

We clearly place a lot of value on the importance of learning social skills when we are young and at school.

We emphasize the social aspects of school to varying degrees depending on your culture. In Japan, high school students are expected to knuckle down and work their tails off but generally focus on the social aspects of school life in university. This has lead to a serious devaluing of University Education there with much higher pressure being placed on younger and younger kids.

In the US, high school gets the greater focus for social skills development with the real work coming in University.

Failure

There are many teachers and schools across the country turning out well-adjusted, well-prepared young people.

So why is so much of the conversation focussed on our failings? And where are schools failing students?

Everyone has an answer, textbook monopoly by school boards, too much or not enough oversight for educators, lack of training and support for teachers, too much focus on standardized tests. Show me a human being and I’ll show you someone with an opinion about schools and education. Of course it’s helpful to focus on what’s not working in order to address it but there is another way.

Focus on what works, emphasize it. Let the positive aspects of school drown out the negative.

What would the ideal school look like?
There’s no such thing.

You’re not going to find a school that perfectly solves every problem. You can set it up based on the latest research, field test it and try putting it into place. People could start out with the greatest intentions. And find themselves hampered by bureaucracy and the requirements of the local government. We could get the whole thing going only to find that it doesn’t accurately serve the needs of many of our students. The results could turn out to be less amazing or ground-breaking as hoped.

So with that in mind the question becomes not, how to make the perfect school. The question is how to make a pretty damned good one. I have a few dream ideas but would like to know what you think of them and how I could improve this list. 

  • Later Start time: 9 or 10:00. Adults tend to do well in the morning, whether we like to admit it or not. Children, on the other hand, particularly teens, generally perform at higher levels if given greater amounts of time to sleep.
  • Practical classes: One of the most common complaints I hear from adults is that what they learned in school didn’t really prepare them for life in the real world. Classes on practical topics based on students ages to give them real-world skills are a must. I say age-based because obviously younger kids aren’t going to be learning to drive. At the same time, older kids,  are going to find learning about how to do their taxes much more helpful than the nine-year-olds.
  • Physical Activity with plenty of breaks: We are all much more sedentary today. Kids are missing out on the physicality they need to grow to be well-balanced adults. So a few hours of study to start, a break for lunch and a little “recess” afterwards, one more class, a break and then two more classes to finish out the day. Boom. That sounds like a recipe for high energy and active education.
  • Focus on Mindset: I can’t stress enough how impressive Carol Dweck’s research on Mindset is. It’s worth diving into and I highly recommend it. One example is simple changes like praising students for their hard work. Focuss on the process not the product. Encouraging students to learn from mistakes and failure can make an incredible impact on their lives.
  • Leadership Skills: Being a leader does not mean being the best, the brightest or greater than everyone else. It doesn’t mean being in charge of anything or any groups of people. It means being in charge of yourself, taking responsibility for your own actions and how they affect the people around you. When you’re in control of yourself, you’re much more ready to work effectively with groups, regardless of role.In their book Extreme Ownership, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin talk about leading up and down the chain of command. I’d recommend reading the book to get a full feeling of what that means. Essentially leadership can move both up and down the chain of command. A leader of a group can give orders or set examples for the people they’re in charge of. People at lower levels along the chain of command can lead by setting strong examples. Through asking questions they influence the people around them for the betterment of the whole team. These kinds of leadership skills are teachable, practicable and practical. Yet we seldom teach them to the young people who are going to need them the most.

So here’s what I want to know:

How can we make this pretty good school even better?

How do you answer the question: Why do I need to go to school? 

Answer in the comments below or feel free to contact me directly.