What is school for?

(Long Post Alert.  Get that coffee now.)

Seth Godin asks the very relevant question:  “What is school for?”

http://edudemic.com/2012/10/seth-godin-asks-the-big-question-what-is-school-for/What is School For? (Seth Godin)

(Oy!  It doesn’t seem to want to include the video!)

Seth Godin is an innovator, and thinkers like him are critically necessary in today’s world of “ADHD” and outmoded school systems.  Before I say anything further, let me loudly salute him (AVE Seth!) and say that I agree in principle with a lot or even most of what he says.

My 11-year-old son watched the video with me (I’m evil that way).  As some may know, we used to home-school, and when I sent my 3 children to school (in my oldest daughter’s case, back to school, and in fact high school), I impressed on them that we are merely a homeschooling family “doing” the school experience.

This attitude has been immensely helpful for keeping things in perspective.  School can be an overwhelming thing for a child today; and it doesn’t matter if it is a child who is battling with math or acing math and battling to achieve his dream of 100% marks.  The pressure and the sheer amount of hours every day that children are demanded to focus and sit still, is daunting.  This was the case when we were in school too; but nobody questioned it back then, and I honestly believe the competitive pressure wasn’t quite the same.

As a critical thinker you need to ask yourself in the first place:  Why criticize a system that has been working for generations?  Everywhere in biology, animals repeat on their cubs / chicks / pups whatever has been visited on them, from the location of their breeding grounds, to the diet they feed them, to behavioural patterns.  The rationale (and with many mammals and birds one can really call it that) is “it worked for me, I’m alive and well, it must be a good system”.

  • So why criticize a system that has brought forth inventors, thinkers, industrial leaders etc etc?

Here is why:  Our habitat is changing.

As Godin points out, school used to be for obedience training.  Period. 

( –>  Some schools claim to do more than that.  Invariably we find that it’s not the school; it’s the quality of teacher they employ. – Ok, that means it is the school.  Teachers like our 9th grade bio teacher who took the time to chat with the class about moral and development issues; our 11th grade teacher who taught us (not in the curriculum) coping skills for university.  )

Our habitat is changing:  Compliance and being average will only get you so far.  (It will prepare you for an “average” job.)  We don’t need factory workers anymore (on the whole) and there are only limited positions for miners (which will also be replaced with robots soon).  What we do need is leaders, thinkers, entrepreneurs.   The concept of the average “job” is being phased out.  People are becoming responsible for raising their own money again… much like in medieval times.  In a business environment where you have to carve out your own chunk of the roast, obedience will only get you extinct.  “Go away, this is my turf!”

So, yes, for this new kind of habitat, a new kind of schooling is desperately necessary.

Now to the points I disagree with:

  • Compliance and respect:  One of the greatest functions of schools today (how well they fulfil them is up to the individual teachers) is to teach children how to act in society.  “Socialization.”  As much as I have criticism for exactly that aspect of schooling (“im Gleichschritt, Marsch!”), there is a general problem to be addressed in society today.  Mothers work full-time; fathers (where present) generally do, too.  Who raises the children?  Institutions.  So where the parents would usually teach respect and proper behaviour, it now falls to institutions because, simply, the parents are not available! But to solve this crisis is another day’s debate.

Is it necessary to teach children to respect their elders, and each other?  Is it necessary to teach compliance and to perform up to a standard?

Imagine, during life-saving surgery.  “Nurse, scalpel please.” – (no response.) – “Nurse? Where the hell is the nurse?” – “She’s gone for a smoke break.”

  • Godin suggests that there should be no memorizing work – all work is open-book.  Now.  While I strongly agree that far too much emphasis is put on memorizing content rather than making connections, one needs to understand that in real life, what one has memorized is known as one’s “knowledge base”.  It is true that you would probably know exactly where to look it up again, or easier, to “google” it.  But imagine this:

You’re at a friend’s party.  Everyone’s having a good time, when your friend’s toddler falls into the pool and starts drowning.  You notice this and dive in and pull the child out.  Unfortunately she’s already breathed in quite a bit of water and is not breathing.  Now what?  “Help!  Does anyone have their first-aid manual here?  Can someone look it up?”

When drowning, the damage increases with every second.  Even if someone with extremely nimble fingers manages to look up the correct response for you in less than 30 seconds, those might be the 30 seconds in which the toddler dies; or in which she gets severely brain-damaged.  Now if you’d only had the procedure ready in your frontal lobes…

There are countless such situations in everyday life and work, and especially in crisis situations, where the fast recall of some or other person in the room has saved lives, projects or relationships.  Also, without a crisis, a doctor who remembers his course-work better will recognize the symptoms of an extremely rare disease rather than sitting there stumped and futilely testing for allergies.  A friend of mine contracted mycoplasmosis in the lab – an extremely nasty type of cough, the organism is as good as fire-proof to all sorts of medications.  Only by recalling her own knowledge of microbiology and insisting on tests did she eventually receive the correct treatment.

Remember:  The knowledge might be in the book (or on the net) but the book (or the net) can’t do the thinking for you.  First you have to remember that there is that specific knowledge you need.  There is definitely a strong argument for standardized tests and exams.

  • Godin suggests that teamwork is a lot more relevant today and this “doing it all by yourself” should be outmoded.  (Unless I misunderstood him?)

Teamwork is indeed extremely important.  But:  Doing it all by yourself is more important today than ever before.  Examples:

  • In school:  A project “Team” usually consists of one or two doers and half a dozen passengers.  They all get the benefit of the work of the doers; is this fair?  Beyond this, does that 70% tell you anything about the capabilities of the passengers?  The only way around this is if one of the doers happens to be a natural manager and manages to kick the passengers into action, assigning each with a task-and-deadline, and managing to enforce this.  In personal experience, dishing it out is easy; getting them to do it is nigh impossible as passengers don’t take responsibility.  Team projects teach clever  kids only one thing:  That life is unfair and that some can get away with cruising and letting others do the work.
  • In real life:  Who made Microsoft the most widely used operating system on Planet Earth?  The Microsoft Team?  Wrong!  Bill Gates.  One guy.  If you run an enterprise (especially a small enterprise, as is the landscape of the future), you’re it.  Forget about the team.  There is ONE driving force behind each successful enterprise:  The entrepreneur.  (Of course plenty of people will be “on the team”, pitch in, help and “comply”.  But only one driver.)

Conclusion:  While teamwork consists mainly of leadership and compliance (!), the “flying solo” effect needs to be taught more than ever before.  Children need to be raised into independent thinkers and doers.

  • And on the concept of routines (which I can’t quite remember whether he criticized or not):

Routines are there to automate boring tasks.  There is no profession that does not include at least a few of these.  Maybe you hate doing your finances.  But they have to be done.  Teach this to children early and you’ll make them into successful entrepreneurs who don’t shy away from the boring bits.

A closing note on ADHD:

I do have something noisy to add about “ADHD” though.  (He didn’t mention it in the video.)

According to sources (do your own google search, I’m not going to spoon-feed you this one!), if you read the current description of the symptoms of ADD/ADHD, they could include any child under the sun.

To me, ADD/ADHD is a cry for help:  The child objecting loudly to its parents not being available for proper parenting.

We should not fix this with medication.

We should fix it with parental love and discipline.  Yes, discipline.  I don’t mean violence.  I mean, “no, you can’t play a computer game now. Because I say so.  No, you can’t go play until you have finished this math.  No, I’m not bending the rules for you.  Yes, if you do all your work nicely in school this week, there will be a surprise on Sunday.  No, I’m not telling you what (because then you start bargaining).  No, Mrs Smith, my child is not mentally deficient.  Your schooling system is, and so is the working situation of most families today.  Make your classes more entertaining and you won’t have any problems.  No, Mrs Smith, under no circumstances can you give my child any ‘vitamins’ at school, and if you do so, expect to hear from my lawyer.”

We have rules in our house.  No square screens at all during the week, with the only exception, for projects.

That means no movies, no games, no DS nintendo’s, nothing.  IXL math is allowed though.  Old-fangled and backwards?  Maybe.  But also highly effective.  Bored children become readers, they invent games, they go outside to kick balls around  (“Calvinball”!  Thanks, Watterson!) and climb trees.  All the things the OTs moan about, that “modern” children don’t do anymore.  And amazingly:  They play together.  There’s your teamwork.

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7 thoughts on “What is school for?

  1. I’m often asked this question by my three kids (age 10 to 15): What is school for?

    I tell them (and this is the only place I disagree with you here) it’s to learn the basics: how to write so you can get your point across, read to understand, add, subtract, multiply, divide and problem solve so they can work with money and gain a basic knowledge of the world around them. It’s not a place to socialize. Just to get the work done.

    My daughter has been the leader of groups where other kids have done nothing. She gets really frustrated. It’s not fair, and she tells the teacher that she did the project and the other person did nothing. Thankfully, she doesn’t sit back and let herself get taken advantage of.

    I home schooled my oldest because I felt primary had nothing to offer her. She already had the skills to skip right by it, so instead of letting her get bored, I kept her home. She started school in grade one. All my kids are in the public school system at present but I may start home schooling my middle child next year (grade 9) because he doesn’t work well in the system. His ability to become a literary critic is impossible; he doesn’t like fiction (and we can’t make everyone love fiction). If he doesn’t pass English, he fails, and the only thing taught in English after grade eight is literature. So I either watch him fail or remove him and replace English literature with an English course that strengthens his writing and reading comprehension. He doesn’t need to have read Shakespeare to get a good job; he simply needs to be able to write and read to understand.

    I whole heartedly agree that many kids today are ‘failing’ in many areas because of lack of parenting. I see it in my kids’ classmates. Some have been coming home to an empty house since they were eight. Personally, I could never do that to my child. There is no control and the parents feel guilty so shower them with products. Discipline starts at home and it’s enforced in the school system, but it must have an early start in the home.

    My views are about schools in Canada, but they’re probably not much different in the United States. School, as it is structured, no longer works. It needs to be reworked.

    • 🙂 Hi, thanks for visiting!

      I don’t think I actually answered the question “what is school for” in the post. I just raised it. So I don’t think we’re disagreeing…

      What schools call “socialization” is not the same as what kids understand as “socializing”. The first refers to teaching children to behave in socially acceptable ways (example to opposite: A girl in my daughter’s high school got into an argument with a teacher, picked up a chair and threw it across the classroom; following through by throwing her desk, too. What did the teacher do? Nothing.) “Socializing” as the kids understand it means having friends. It’s the only reason my two younger ones went to school; home-school was highly academic but socially boring. And… yes I can be a Tiger Mom but life’s not only about work. Whatever else they need I can still home-school into them anyway. Of course that attitude is comparatively easy to have, with them maintaining acceptable marks. So far so good.

      Re your Grade 9: Yes, I’d strongly recommend you home-school him. As you are aware there are thousands of formal courses he can take that will prepare him better than the school curriculum does. It’s not worth allowing a child to fail, just in order to keep them in school.

      The school system is overdue for an overhaul. The only danger is that in countries with a large contingent of poor (e.g. here in South Africa) a highly technological solution as Godin suggests, would fall flat. All have cellphones; but the fewest have a computer. If one could instead infiltrate the social media (Facebook, Mixit, Twitter) with learning content… LOL

  2. This article speaks to my heart (of course) especially the group work bit. Kids hated it for those selfsame reasons you mentioned.
    Rote learning, like tables and spelling, have fallen by the wayside and essays do not get written anymore, just paragraphs. Even then spelling is not important, as long as the teacher “gets” what the story is about.
    Parents scoff at Maths Literacy, but for the pupil who is not a mathematician, it has some good points that can lead him/her to become an entrepreneur in some field or other.

    • You can usually tell when someone who didn’t learn to spel, writz on da intanet. it sotta getz reillie dof reillie fast… I deeply disagree with that laissez-faire kind of teaching! People won’t even know how to spell “laissez-faire” anymore!

      As for math literacy: Math is really a practising subject. No, true, not everyone has “talent” for it. But everyone can do enough sums on a daily basis that they can pass the tests. But, okay, I do agree there is a place for Maths literacy. How else should all those 30%ers scrape through matric on minimal work? 😉

      (The lowering of the passing mark from 40% to 30% is another of those shockers about our lovely school system. Would you like to be operated on by a surgeon who passed with 30%?)

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