Schools as a Holding Pattern

Although it’s not something that I write or talk about that much, I’m actually very interested in science. I’m interested in a lot of types of science, but what really gets my attention is science that relates to people and how they work and how they relate to the world around them. I was probably a neuroscientist in another version of this life (seriously). So it’s really no surprise that I’m a big fan of the book Nurtureshock, which looks at the science of kids and raising them and how what we’ve learned from it doesn’t actually match how we raise our kids. Example: there’s a ton of scientific evidence showing that teenagers don’t function as well in the morning and that when school starts later, they do better, but high schools continue to start at 7am all over the country just the same.

This week I came across an article that one of the authors of the book wrote for Newsweek (as part of a whole series of articles, which are great and well worth reading) back in November about some research and a book by Dr. Joe Allen. The article discusses how Allen has been looking at teenagers and their lives and has come to the conclusion that they are stuck in a holding pattern that artificially keeps them from growing up. This is fascinating, but what really rang true with me was the statements about schools:

Basically, we long ago decided that teens ought to be in school, not in the labor force. Education was their future. But the structure of schools is endlessly repetitive. “From a Martian’s perspective, high schools look virtually the same as sixth grade,” said Allen. “There’s no recognition, in the structure of school, that these are very different people with different capabilities.” Strapped to desks for 13+ years, school becomes both incredibly montonous, artificial, and cookie-cutter.

As Allen writes, “We place kids in schools together with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of other kids typically from similar economic and cultural backgrounds. We group them all within a year or so of one another in age. We equip them with similar gadgets, expose them to the same TV shows, lessons, and sports. We ask them all to take almost the exact same courses and do the exact same work and be graded relative to one another. We give them only a handful of ways in which they can meaningfully demonstrate their competencies. And then we’re surprised they have some difficulty establishing a sense of their own individuality.”

And we wonder why it’s taking so long for them to mature.

Think about that. Think about how school actually is structured. Not just how many kids are in a class and how long the day is and things like that – think about what they’re taught when and how and why. If you went to school in the U.S., how many years did you study U.S. history and how many of those years did you learn the same things over again? Did you take a foreign language? How many of the years that you took it did you learn numbers? colors? days of the week? How many times did your English teachers teach you how to write an essay or go over basic grammar? And now think about college. Did you do any of those same things again?

How many times do we really think kids need to learn about the revolutionary war? And, honestly, why did they get As in Spanish one year if they evidently didn’t learn the colors well enough to not have to learn them again the next? I realize not all those kids got As and that repetition is good and review is helpful. But how much repetition does it take before you’re just teaching them that it doesn’t actually matter enough to bother paying attention? And how much can you repeat the same material before you’re no longer “reviewing”, you’re just teaching the same thing over again?

I don’t know how to fix all this. I do know that some of it would be improved if we put kids in classes based on their skill level, as opposed to their age. Is it so vital that all the seven year olds be in the same room anyway? And by the time you get to the high school level, why is that the model at all? Colleges don’t entirely get out of this either. They are just as guilty as everyone else of the repetition problem. Just because a student learned it somewhere before they attended your college doesn’t mean they learned it any less well than they would if they learned it at your college (and this goes for everything from English Lit to Typing to Biology – mitosis is exactly the same process whether you learned it in grade school, high school, college or all three).

Maybe schools need to actually figure out what their classes teach and what they expect the students going into them to know and to not know. Once they have that information, they can start working on matching kids to the classes, and maybe even schools, that best match their educational needs and wants. And you know what? That’s a whole new set of jobs, too, since it would require a bunch of people to go through and do all that.

Too bad our society doesn’t actually value education enough to fund it. And there’s the real problem. We put our kids in holding tanks for almost twenty years that we don’t even care enough about to fund. And that’s something I really can’t even start trying to figure out a solution for because it’s something I really don’t understand. Maybe there’s a scientific study on it somewhere that will shed some light on it for me…

3 Comments

  1. Anemone said,

    April 20, 2010 at 6:44 am

    A Montessori-style modular approach to education – where students choose what to work on (from a set of standardized modules) and when and how hard to work on it – would solve a lot of these problems, plus increase overall flow in learning. But I think that “society” is afraid to abandon the assembly-line model of education. All that familiar structure is comforting.

  2. Alan De Smet said,

    April 21, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    @Anemone: You also have the question of getting good enough teachers. A mediocre teacher can “successfully” push students through the assembly line. They can’t handle something that requires insight, intuition, and initiative. Sure, there are plenty of good teachers, but unfortunately the ranks are filled out with the mediocre and the outright bad. To extend they fill out the system because on the whole we don’t pay our teachers enough and we don’t support them well enough. Some potentially good teachers see opportunities for more money or a better work environment and leave the profession or never enter. For a variety of reasons, getting rid of bad teachers ranges from the difficult to the possible, in some cases meaning you just end up paying them to sit in a room all day.

    Add in the complexity of standardized testing. That people are individuals with individual strengths and weaknesses isn’t relevant; the system can’t usefully test that a given student is making good progress for that student. So they get standardized tests which really require standardized instruction.

    Bletch.

    When I really think about it, I’m amazed the system works as well as it does.

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