School undermines our natural ability to learn

If your kids have been in school for years, they start to seem naturally dense and unproductive. The more kids conform to what school demands, the more dense and unproductive – stupid – the kids look. So when you consider taking them out of school, you worry that your kids are dense and unproductive and that you need special teaching skills to overcome that.

But you don’t. Kids are bright, curious, and dying to learn new things. It’s just that school rigidity obscures those tendencies. Here are eight ways school does that:

1. School squashes critical thinking skills
Educator Aaron Akune explains that school teaches kids to stop coming up with answers. He says, “Rather than asking learners to work towards one ‘right’ answer, we must grow comfortable with there being many answers to students’ questions. And, our practices must support the idea that learning is a process, often one that is messy, non-linear, and will likely include unlearning and relearning.”

2. School rewards intellectual sloth
The Harvard Business Review points out that most grades do not reflect effort, which means that the brightest kids are those most frequently rewarded for doing a minimal amount of work. Also, tools that have been proven to have little educational value, like highlighters, flashcards and cramming, allow kids to pretty much check out intellectually and still do well on tests.

3. School discourages collaborative instincts
The work world is collaborative, and people who are most adept at seeking help and finding answers are the ones who succeed. But in school, teachers encourage the exact opposite. Reddit is a community that is so highly esteemed that President Obabma popped on for an hour to answer random questions. Yet teachers are telling students to stay away. Here is a “please refrain from contributing to homework help” thread. And here is the Reddit community making fun of the idea that seeking help online is forbidden.

In fact, the whole idea of cheating is completely foreign in the work world. What constitutes cheating in school is called efficiency at work. Why would you do something yourself when someone else has already done it?  It’s intuitive to work together, and to kids, who learn primarily from copying others for the first years of their lives, it’s jarring when a teacher tells you that collaboration is rule breaking.

4. School dulls our ability to retain what we learn
Homework teaches kids that they don’t need to learn it to love learning. They need to learn it because someone else wants them to learn it. Here’s a fun video from College Humor showing how we remember almost nothing in the context of forced curriculum.

5. School teaches boys they are stupid. 
Glen Harlan Reynolds, writing in USA Today, compiles data to show the extreme disadvantage boys have in school. “If schoolteachers were overwhelmingly male, and girls were suffering as a result, there would be a national outcry.”

6. School teaches girls they are inadequate.
Psychologists who study personality types know that the majority of women make decisions based on feelings, and the majority of men make decisions based on logic. There are exceptions both ways, for sure. But what this means is that most women will want to stay home with kids, or work part-time to accommodate kids. However school teaches everyone that they are gunning for a big job and that’s why they need good grades. This thinking marginalizes for girls who are likely to be uninterested in the end game that teachers supply for school children.

7. School rewards behaviors that lead to unemployment
Teachers depend on students to act as one, single unit. Kids need to think and learn together so that the teacher can teach the group. Renegade thinking is what investors look for in the startup community, and indomitable drive to lead is what big companies look for in key employees. Neither of these traits are encouraged in school. And in fact, the sense that you will always succeed by showing up and doing what you’re told, is the very attitude that puts you first on the chopping block during layoffs, but that’s also the attitude that school teachers love in a student.

8. Obsession with school-based tasks undermines innovation.
God help the next company that sends me their stupid iPhone app to review. Because all the apps assume my kid is being told by someone else what to learn. The iPhone and iPad are great tools for self-discovery. It’s absurd that developers are trying to use these tools for curricula. For an example of the preposterous industry of brain-deadening curricula-based apps, take a look at KnoMe, which encourages kids to compare how long they spend studying to the amount of time their friends spend.

See that picture up there? It’s a writing exercise from about 75 years ago that I saw for sale on One Kings Lane. (I love shopping there!) The writing exercise reminds me that it’s so easy to see that teaching kids to write by repeating words over and over again actually makes them hate writing. But it’s harder to see the same types of terrible teaching tactics that are still in place today. It’s hard to challenge the status quo.

So I was going to buy that and hang it up in my house, but it was about $200. So instead, I was thinking I’d hang up some of the completely stupid worksheets my kids did in school. And then I thought, no, I want pictures of fun. Because real learning is fun. It’s why I took my kids out of school.

35 replies
  1. Becky Castle Miller
    Becky Castle Miller says:

    That College Humor video is amazing. Thanks for sharing. Even though I was homeschooled, it was a fairly classroom-at-home type of situation a lot of the time so I feel that way about a lot of the things I learned. I have never used physics, for example, in my career as a writer and editor.

    • Becky Castle Miller
      Becky Castle Miller says:

      As a side note, I think different personality types do homeschooling differently. My mom is an ISFJ, so she highly values The Institution, so I think that’s why she chose a structured homeschool setting. She was also very nurturing and caring.

      As an INFJ, I love the idea of piecing together interesting abstract concepts and constructing meaning, which is why unschooling appeals to me. My husband is an ENTJ, and his thoughts about homeschooling are all about teaching our kids extreme competence and business success.

      I’d love to see you do a post about MBTI and homeschooling styles, like you’ve done with MBTI and business.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Becky, you bring such an interesting perspective here. I think a lot of parents assume they are solving for the terribleness of school by homeschooling, but a lot of parents just recreate most of the terribleness of school at home with forced curriculum and regimented learning.


      • Becky Castle Miller
        Becky Castle Miller says:

        I think that’s true. It’s maybe also a function of time period. I’m 31, and when my parents were first homeschooling me and my brothers in the 80s, homeschooling was still a new thing. No one knew how to do it and school boards and state governments were very restrictive. I think a lot of parents in that decade homeschooled in a very formal way because CPS and school administrators were breathing down their backs and making them track attendance and do standardized tests.

      • Kim
        Kim says:

        Right on point, Penelope. This is why we see a lot of burnout by homeschooling families, who are trying to compete with the frivolity in schools.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      The links say flash cards are great for passing tests. You’d have to make the leap of faith that teaching to the test is a good way to educate kids.

      Flash cards are a tool for teaching to the test.


      • Commenter
        Commenter says:

        Nope. Still not there yet. I like your blog, but you might try a bit harder to understand the articles you bring in.

        The article says that cramming helps for tests, but the information disappears right after. Then it contrasts cramming with distributed practice over intervals, and says the longer you want to remember the information, the longer the intervals should be.

        And then it says that practice testing is another good technique, and flash cards are a good tool for practice testing.

        Perhaps in the cursory reading you gave the article, you confused the statement that flash cards are a good tool for the memorization technique of practice testing with the (absent) assertion that flash cards are only good for studying for tests.

        If you are actually interested in the question (rather than just seeking a quick bit of confirmation), the entire study is available free online. The study itself goes on to suggest that the duration of retention may be increased by increasing the interval between practice tests. The study also points out that flashcards are a tool applicable to distributed practice as well as practice testing, and points out (as does the article) that several software utilities may take advantage of the strengths of both techniques by automatically distributing practice.

        You make the assertion that “flash cards are a tool for teaching to the test,” but this is your belief and it is not supported by the article or the study.

        Scoring on tests is certainly one of the main goals of memorization (which the use of flash cards helps greatly with, per the article and study) but it is not the only one. Other uses of memorization include memorization of basic arithmetic to enable higher math and memorization of foreign language vocabulary to enable further study, conversation, or reading.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          I think memorizing for languages is not the right way to learn languages. Kids can go on a playground and learn the language the other kids speak.

          Anyway, whatever. So I got one piece of the research wrong. So what? That’s why I have links to all my research – so you can check anything you want and argue with me.


          • Commenter
            Commenter says:

            Calling it research is a bit grandiose for what you actually do, Penelope. You take a quick google for something that confirms your bias and then don’t read it through before you post it. This is not a one-time error; it’s a modus operandi. Your opinions are usually interesting, but it’s always disappointing to find their support is an inch deep. It would probably be more interesting for your readers if you only linked to articles that actually support your arguments.

            As for good and better ways to learn a foreign language, I’d be interested if you linked to some research on the matter, but before you proclaim yourself an expert, you should answer one question: how many languages do you speak?

            I speak four languages fluently. I have worked professionally in three countries (in three different languages). In learning each foreign language I speak (and developing basic conversational ability in three others), I have used memorization techniques such as flash cards to learn vocabulary, conjugations, and declensions. I have done this because they work.

            If you wish to learn a foreign language, I would recommend learning some vocabulary before you try to have a conversation.

            Here’s a link to an article that talks about a way to make that more fun (yes, I actually read it. It agrees with the article you linked to: cramming is bad, distributed practice is good). Your kids might be interested if they plan to be on any foreign playgrounds anytime soon.


          • gordana dragicevic
            gordana dragicevic says:

            i agree about learning languages.
            @ Commenter: i suggest you learned those three foreign languages well BECAUSE you had to use them professionally, not because of memorisation technieques. and even if they worked for you, in general they are a very inefficiant way to learn anything. the most efficient way is to be motivated and then just throw yourself in, languages or anything else.
            just to add, i have experience learning and teaching languages, i’m reasonably fluent in 6 and can get by in a few more – i stopped learning them simply because i was not using them all and i got bored. flashcards and cramming never worked for me, and my students were all amazed at breakthroughs they made when they realised there are far better ways to learn.

  2. Gretchen Powers
    Gretchen Powers says:

    I like a lot of your stuff, but sometimes think things are painted with too broad a brushstroke. I am sometimes concerned with the level of freedom for creativity in my kid’s school (not enough? she’s only in K, so it’s hard to say)…but at the same time these things on your list seem too harsh and maybe a little antiquated. I have been pretty involved in my kid’s school and have a grasp of the principal’s philosophy about learning and wonder if some of the things you’re observing are based on what we recall our schooling 30-some years ago to be like. A lot has changed. I think some of the better schools now (yes, even public, though definitely not all) are in touch with countering much of what you outline here…

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Hi, Gretchen. Luckily for all of us, I’m not writing about my own experience in school, because I pretty much did nothing from fourth grade on.

      Everything in this post has a link to current research.

      And I have news for you: it doesn’t matter what your principal’s philosophy of education is because I can tell you unequivocally that your principal believes in self-directed learning, and your principal does not have the budget to implement it at the school. This is true of 100% of good principals. That’s the core of the problem of state-funded education. We know what works and we can’t afford it unless parents start doing it.


        • Gretchen Powers
          Gretchen Powers says:

          I went through the links and they don’t really prove that SOME schools are not changing…I didn’t find them so satisfying, except maybe the CEA one, but even there the guy says “When I look at today’s high schools, I still recognize them as the same basic model as the one I went through over 20 years ago.” And I’m saying that’s not what I’m seeing, at least in my kid’s school. It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t strike me as being as bad as this post makes it out to be. Still, I understand the agenda is to promote homeschooling…

  3. Jayne
    Jayne says:

    Penelope, you are so right on with this post. Recently, a friend of mine who is on a school board posted a quote on FaceBook from John Green. The quote included: “So let me explain why I like to pay taxes for schools, even though I don’t personally have a kid in school: It’s because I don’t like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.” This quote aggravated me…because the assumption is that if everyone goes to school, then we will not have stupid people in the country. But there are plenty of people who did go to school, and who are stupid ANYWAY. As you so aptly point out, school doesn’t prevent stupidity. It promotes compliance. And a lot of times, mindless compliance is the very definition of stupidity.
    Up the revolution, that’s what I say.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Okay. I’m writing the post on homeschool styles based on Myers Briggs. Stay tuned…


      • Zellie
        Zellie says:

        I can’t wait to see if what you say about INTJ matches with my style. I doubt it, but I could be surprised. I shouldn’t have had kids and been a stay at home mom in the first place.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “If your kids have been in school for years, they start to seem naturally dense and unproductive. The more kids conform to what school demands, the more dense and unproductive – stupid – the kids look. So when you consider taking them out of school, you worry that your kids are dense and unproductive and that you need special teaching skills to overcome that.
    But you don’t. Kids are bright, curious, and dying to learn new things. It’s just that school rigidity obscures those tendencies.”

    So I decided to replace “kids” with “teachers” in the sentences.

    “If teachers have been in school for years, they start to seem naturally dense and unproductive. The more teachers conform to what school demands, the more dense and unproductive – stupid – the teachers look. So when you consider taking them out of school, you worry that teachers are dense and unproductive and that you need special teaching skills to overcome that.
    But you don’t. Teachers are bright, curious, and dying to learn new things. It’s just that school rigidity obscures those tendencies.

    Because teachers are also “victims” and are “undermined” in the schools. I think they’re very constrained in the school environment.
    I like the post. However, I couldn’t help but think of the obstacles placed before the teachers.

    • Betsy
      Betsy says:

      Mark, thank you for your elegance in underscoring why I quit teaching. As a former classroom teacher and a mother of a toddler and infant, I can’t imagine sending them into the factory-mindset of the public schools. Most educators are doing the best they can but are constrained by the institution and the panting need for sky-high test scores + more funding. I appreciate that you recognize that.

  5. Kris
    Kris says:

    Thinking about worn out kids and worn out teachers and thinking of how hard it is for the local school-trained kids to deal with my homeschooled son. His constant refrain when they disagree? “Let’s look it up, let’s research it.” Strangely, that never goes over well, is often met with, “Why, so you can be right?” It’s a willful ignorance I just don’t understand, and it’s deeply ingrained.

    These are kids who have been taught to rely upon an authority to feed them “facts,” and looking beyond isn’t something that even occurs to them.

    Enjoying your blog.


  6. Mary
    Mary says:

    Try telling all of this to people with children in school and they will think you are pretty much nuts! After homeschooling, however, I have come to see just how much wonder was beaten out of my kids. Thank goodness I wised up and took my oldest out in third grade. I wish I had done it sooner!

  7. karelys
    karelys says:

    I was passing by two different high schools last week and I was amazed at how they looked like jails.

    The one high school I went to in AZ was actually a jail (Go Criminals!??) and they converted it to a school.

    Recently I went to interviews just because. I wasn’t going there looking to land a job for sure. It’s hard to explain. Staying at home has been hard but at least it gave me the option to not have to accept just any job that didn’t fit right. So I went just to practice and it was AMAZING to have the clear mind to choose a job and a place (environment) where it’s pleasant to be in! I could picture myself being happy every morning to go to the office.

    So I got a good job. And I am still amazed. It happened so fast. And I get to ask for all things I want and try to make it happen.

    Anyway so that got me thinking about how it’s so hard to be motivated when you’re in a place you really don’t want to be in. Why are schools compulsive? they are like jails in looks and the way they treat kids.

    And colleges! oh my gosh colleges! I see all these frustrated college students in my feed about their teams, their grades, etc. and I think “you’re paying them in exchange for learning and a paper that you need to play in the world. Why do you act like they are your boss. YOU ARE THE BOSS! you are the one paying!”

    It’s odd. In my prior office we tried catering to the highest paying clients because they paid the bills duh!

    But no one tells college students it’s ok to demand better hours, better treatment, better talks with the professors.

    School prepared me to just go with everything my bosses said. Slowly I learned that I have something of value to offer and they are buying it. If they are not complying with my own requests then they can try and go get my services from someone else. If they can find someone else like me.

    Growing up I thought that school was like paying taxes. You had to do it no matter what or you’d go to jail. Which is funny because I already said that I feel that school is like jail.

  8. AnothrCommenter
    AnothrCommenter says:

    Students are definitely not the boss. That is a misunderstanding of the economics of higher education. Star faculty, big grants, reliable government funding, research – these are the bigger engines of university stability. And a degree is si in demand that an unhappy student can be replaced with another anytime.

  9. Cathy Goodwin
    Cathy Goodwin says:

    I agree with the message of this column. I was a college professor for many years and was constantly aware that students were not taught to think critically. To be fair, it’s not till doctoral programs that most people learn the type of critical skills that everyone can use.

    To take just one example, almost every newspaper article reporting medical advances is seriously flawed; recommendations for testing are almost always ad hoc rather than research based. Many readers (and their doctors) do not realize the probabilistic nature of medical decision-making, let alone know how to look for and interpret probabilities.. That’s one factor driving health care costs, not to mention unnecessary surgery, medication and worse.

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      I agree with the message as well, just not with its conclusions (and, as seen above, some of its unfounded assertions).

      I believe it is true that school hasn’t typically taught students to think critically. However, the changes happening in schools right now – the replacement of individual work and acquisition of specific knowledge with group work and vague yet transcendent ambitions – aren’t making this any better. Instead, they’re letting the peer pressure and bullying of the school yard take over the classroom. They pretend and call it student-directed learning, but it’s still one class after another, cells and bells, but this time with more lord of the flies and fewer conjugations.

      When I was a college professor, I also found most of my undergrads to have poor critical reasoning skills. I was more shocked, however, when I saw a lack of understanding of the fundamental premise of college study: that they would go to class, work, and learn; and that if they did none of these things they would fail.

      I’d love to see more kids coming up with good critical reasoning skills. I doubt very much, however, that the current fashions in constructivist education will produce them. I fear they are instead throwing the baby out with the bathwater and producing graduates who are not only incapable of critical reasoning but incapable of learning as well.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        I am curious as to how “critical thinking” is defined here. Many talk about the lack of it, and then contrast it with learning of facts. I do not find this exclusiveness actually holds true – it is difficult to think critically (in the sense of making new connections, or understanding flaws in old ones) if the basic knowledge is not there. I also am a little dubious about the assumption that self directed learning automatically leads to critical thinking, which brings me back to the question as to what is perceived as critical thinking. Maybe in the contest of learning here it is “only” the ability to ask questions?

        • Mark W.
          Mark W. says:

          redrock, to your point on “critical thinking”. I think it’s a multi-stage process. It starts with “critical reading” which entails the ability to understand the material being discussed and what’s really being said about it. If insufficient material is known, then it’s time to do background information gathering. Then good questions need to be asked including validity of the information being presented and how it relates to other known information. A skeptical approach is helpful.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            interesting. For me (likely due to the field I work in…) critical thinking should include an element of “newness” , a new thought, a new connection not solely recognition and assessment of the material.

          • Mark W.
            Mark W. says:

            I did think of that and thought what you’ve just described goes beyond “critical thinking” and is more in the realm of problem solving.

  10. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Why didn’t you mention teacher’s unions? They are the cause for all the problems you listed.

    If schools operated like your start-up, then the lousy teachers would be fired lickity-split. Because of union protection, teachers who are members of it can do as they please without risking their paycheck. And so, schools are stuck with teachers who are dumber than the students they teach, and nothing can be done about it.

    Also, homeschooling is a bad idea. The trade-off is a better education in exchange for a normal social life. I hated school. I frequently brought home Fs and was in trouble constantly. But man, I made a lot of friends and had a lot of fun. I attribute all my success—I went on to graduate from a 4-year college and now manage a website that gets over 1 million uniques monthly—to the social skills I picked up in the public education system.

  11. anonymous
    anonymous says:

    I agree. I’m in middle school now and everybody says I’m the smartest kid. I usually don’t do much (sloth) and get good grades but i just don’t know what my goal is now. I just don’t know what to achieve anymore.

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