Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The system doesn't work

I just finished reading How Children Fail by John Holt last night, and it made such a tremendous impression on me that I wasn't even able to choose a few quotes I especially liked... it's just a very informative, eye-opening book, and even though the many particular examples of backward thinking in schoolchildren can be tedious to read, I would still highly recommend it to anyone who is interested to know how children learn, how they think, and how they feel. 

I think I have told before that socially, I suffered much all through elementary and middle school; what saved me from being utterly miserable was that academically, I was a success. It was mostly because I was such a bookworm I couldn't resist reading even my schoolbooks, and generally knew them by heart before the school year began. So, I came to class not to learn, but to show off my knowledge, and thus to get the confidence boost I needed so badly. I was a docile child and generally did what I was told, which, combined with me always knowing the right answer, made me the teacher's pet in most classes, or the class nerd, put it however you wish.  

And so, not as a student who failed, but as a "model" student, someone who had gone through all the steps successfully; as someone who scored excellently on her high school tests and got into a good university with a scholarship, and earned a degree with high grades, I say - the system doesn't work. It doesn't work for those who fail, and it doesn't work for those who succeed. Furthermore, it does a great disservice to the supposedly "good" students by making them believe they know everything because, after a long drill, they got  a "perfect" exam paper. It doesn't work in first grade, or tenth grade, or even, mostly, in college. It doesn't and cannot work, because when you need to control/occupy/evaluate a lot of children at once, you need standartized papers and exams and scores, and a regular artificial environment that has little to do with the  real world.

I do have to say that I had some very good teachers, who enhanced my interest in learning first and foremost by their personality, their genuine humanity, and their friendship. They did good, and above all did no harm, because they were such good people, not such good teachers. The system itself, with its classes, timetables, lines, scores, report cards, its mindless discipline or mindless lack thereof, its bullying and its peer pressure was so destructive that I can only be thankful for not coming out of it more damaged than I am.

Once, years ago, I tutored a 15-year-old girl in math; she was the eldest child in her family, and I was struck by her kindness, politeness, responsibility and patience towards her younger siblings and her duties at home. But as soon as we sat down to "study", she would become dull and listless and - I have no other word for it - stupid. I knew she wasn't truly stupid, of course, and I realized her dullness has more to do with boredom than anything else, but neither I nor she had the power to break the system. At the end of the year, she passed her exam successfully, which was celebrated by both of us, but when all was said and done all those  rows of numbers and letters meant as little to her as they did in the beginning of the school year. As far as she was concerned, they were still useless, but it was required of her to go through some paces and, like a trained dog, she now could do the trick she once failed. Perhaps this made her school experience a little less miserable, but did this in any way enhance her learning? Of course not.

Do I have sureproof answers? No. But I am even more convinced of what I have proclaimed for a long time: that what we consider "normal", even good, is in reality deeply flawed, useless at best, and permanently damaging at worst. I am comforted by the thought that we human beings have an amazing ability to recover - our mental capacity among other things. Many who fail at school later become successful, intelligent adults. 

I am certainly going to read more works by John Holt.

11 comments:

Thursday said...

I would caution you from relying so much on your experience to assess the worth of educating children in their communities. Not everyone has a personality or indeed home life suitable for home-schooling.

Bearing in mind that you are introverted, under what circumstances would you have enjoyed being forced to mix with other people whom you didn't particularly like? Not everyone is like you. It's worth noting that some people positively enjoy socialising with other people, and derive huge satisfaction from it. Extroverts, for example, are energised by this.

Bearing in mind that unless you wish to live in total isolation, isn't it a good thing that you had to mix with some other people (including those with whom you wouldn't necessarily have chosen to spend time) on some level? Isn't it better to do it when you're young than face it for the first time when you're older and set in your ways?

I'd be interested to know whether your mother's view of your schooling is as negative as yours. Did she see some worth in the experience?

Mrs. Anna T said...

It goes deeper than being forced to mix with people I didn't particularly like; from the beginning of my life and to this day, I feel most comfortable in cozy small groups, and I can see no benefit I received from being locked in the same classroom for 7-8 hours a day with 35 other children, some of whom taunted, humiliated and tortured me on a regular basis. The scenario was repeated in every school, in every class, until I was about 14. It didn't improve my personality, it didn't make me more extroverted, and it scarred me - without exaggeration - for a lifetime.

Of course, it isn't that I would *never* mix with other people unless I was made to; saying something like this is as absurd as claiming I would starve myself to death unless someone made me eat. I actually found pretty great friends *outside* school - kids who lived next door, friends of my Mom's friends, etc.

I don't believe I, under my particular circumstances, could have been homeschooled. But if it could have been, it certainly would have been better for me.

Avigayil said...

John Holt was the messiah of the early homeschooling movement in the US and his works are what my Mom started with when my parents decided to homeschool me and my brother in the early 1970s. Can you provide a link to the free downloads of his writings? I wonder how they would strike me now? Thanks!

Miriam said...

Very well said!

What are your thoughts about Montessori system? It was born/created to challenge the 'normal' system, am I right?

Mrs. White said...

I have also read the writings of John Holt and have found them greatly beneficial. I first found one of his books, in a library, when my oldest (who is now 25) was 2 years old. I was amazed at a new world of learning/ teaching ideas that opened up to me. Education is so important. It is incredible that we have the priviledge to be able to homeschool.

Thursday said...

I'm sorry that your schooling was so unpleasant for you. A class of 36 strikes me as too big for most teachers to maintain order adequately. Most of my classes for example were between 25 and 30, dropping to about 20 by the time I was 14, and then to even fewer people as my education progressed. (Btw, my parents did not pay for my education. That was the norm in state schooling where we lived).

I'm sorry that you were bullied at school, but the fault for that lies not with the system, but rather with that particular school. They failed you, but that is not a reason to condemn the entire system. In a good school, teachers maintain discipline and allow enough debate and room for discussion to prevent people from feeling stifled. There is a happy medium, although I accept that your teachers failed to find it.

I would ask you this: at this stage in your life, you are clearly happier with smaller groups of people where you do not feel pushed out of your comfort zone. You do not have high energy levels and you frequently say that you need to slow down and not do too much. Fine, that's your choice. There's nothing wrong with that. But not everyone is like that, or needs that. What are you going to do if your children need more? What if they like school, positively enjoy the rough and tumble of it in fact? Given your experiences, I presume that you and your husband will either find them a good school which doesn't have the problems you experienced or be extra vigilant should such problems arise, and that you will demand that they are corrected. Would you be happy for them to be in public schooling then?

I ask because I do not believe that any one person, even a parent, can provide everything that a child needs to live, learn, and grow and I am curious to know whether you agree. Without denigrating my family in any way, some of the most interesting and useful experiences I had growing up were gained outside my family and their social group. Reading your blog, I'd say that the same was true of you. Aren't those experiences worth having?

Lady Anne said...

Honestly, Anna, I can really understand how you feel. I went to an all girl boarding school for most of my "career". (Tells you a lot about what kind of kid I was, doesn't it? Boarding schools in the States are pretty rare.) I went into the public school system in the tenth grade, which is a rough age for both boys and girls, and when you're not used to boys, anyway - ugh.

In addition to the usual teenaged angst, I was using text books I'd finished two years ago, so I knew all the answers, and the teachers even let me grade papers. You can imagine how popular this made me!

It took me a looong time to recover, and I still refuse to attend reunions for the public school. It's a rabbit hole I don't want to fall into. For years I was very shy - I even earned the nickname "Mouse" - but as I began moving in circles where intelligence was appreciated, I blossomed. Now I am a history teacher and public speaker. Made a full recovery, you might say.

I just want to add I enjoy your blog so much!

Salyan said...

I would like to speak to the first commenter as one who was homeschooled for her entire education and chose to take her college diploma via distance education as well. I have also spent time working for a home education registering authority (required in my county), and have assisted with the education of other homeschooled children as well. While I would agree that homeschooling may not work for everyone (due to home situations, lack of dedication by parents, etc.), I have to disagree with the thought that homeschoolers live 'in total isolation,' or that they do not 'mix' with other people. Homeschoolers are some of the most active people I know. They spend time with family, extended family, neighbors, friends - they volunteer, join community groups, take lessons (music, art, sports, you name it) - they are active in political activities, religious groups, community events. They interact with a broad range of ages and personalities from an early age, having time for such activities since they are not limited by rote school hours, and are not limited merely to the age-specific groupings found in the schools. There is certainly enough opportunity for extroverts to be energized. The idea that such children are 'under-socialized' is an old myth - my mother had friends 25 years ago that expressed similar concerns. A quarter of a century later, this myth has been thoroughly debunked.

Mrs. Anna T said...

Miriam, the Montessori method looks interesting, but I honestly didn't research it very thoroughly. I definitely plan to, though. The problem here in Israel is that Montessori schools don't provide a religiously-fitting (for us) environment.

Avigayil, I searched all over the web and downloaded from various websites... just drop me a line via email to remind me, and I'll send you the PDF files I have.

Thursday, perhaps I didn't make myself very clear. I went to 4 different schools, 5 if you count kindergarten. I was bullied and humiliated, and suffered in *every one* of them. The fault was not with one school; it was just that I, as a quiet, very shy, very introverted, somewhat quirky, nerdy kid, didn't fit in.

For the rest, see what Salyan wrote below, specifically replying to your comment.

Joluise said...

I loved school, even though I wasn't an excellent student. It was lots of fun. I was shy, but forced myself to be outgoing and it worked, even though painful at times.

I love the company of others and not keen on isolation. This is one of the reasons why I'm not a stay at home wife, I would get very lonely and bored. I love talking to others which is why I'm in a job that requires working with others. I love nothing better than bouncing ideas off others and having lively discussions . Whilst many bloggers are negative to working women, people like me just do far better around others than stuck at home alone ( now my children are all grown up). I'm quite the opposite to you and love the energy that I get at work and don't need to slow down, perhaps one day when I'm older.

Public schooling is not all bad and many of us have done quite well. One of my children did far better than the other.

MarkyMark said...

If you ever want to see how wretched and miserable a FAILURE modern 'education' is, just read the writings of America's Founding Fathers; I'm talking about stuff like The Federalist Papers, Anti-Federalist Papers, etc. Here were men who, though they had little formal education as we would understand it, wrote works that were so deep, so profound, and so complex that modern English professors would have trouble understanding them! Formal education does not work-end of story.