I have written blog posts on the history of modern schooling and the philosophy of schooling. In this post, I will consider the practical side of K-12 schooling by answering three questions. First, what’s good about the traditional school model? Second, what’s bad about the traditional school model? Third, since school critics argue that self education and personal interests are neglected in traditional schools, what would a school look like that took the interests of students seriously and helped students to value self education?
What’s good about the traditional school model?
- Bringing students together in person and allowing students to work together is beneficial to their social growth.
- Having knowledgeable and trained people ready to assist students.
- Providing students with a relatively safe place to be for a large part of the day. (Sadly, some students need the safety that school can provide.)
- Classroom discussions that lead to deeper levels of thinking.
- Opportunities to perform – athletics, drama, art, etc.
- Teachers who care about their students.
- Compulsion can encourage motivation and growth. Requiring students to do or know things is not always bad.
What’s bad about the traditional school model? (The following list incorporates common criticisms found in the writings of school critics.)
-Usually consists of large classes (20 or more students with 1 teacher) where students are mostly required to be quiet and listen.
-The model of one teacher for 20-25 students means students often do not receive quality and specific feedback in the learning process.
-Strongly focuses on objective measurable items that can be graded and neglects or even completely ignores important immeasurable things – e.g. character, feelings, motivation, interests, humor, etc.
- Coercive: Students have little to no choice in their schedule, required classes, teachers, classmates, assignments, or learning objectives. The coercive nature of school is not a recipe for training creative and unique individuals. Nor is it a recipe for helping students enjoy their educational environment. It is a recipe for breeding conformity on a massive scale.
- Inefficient: On average students spend about a third of the school day involved in on-task activity. And the time when they are on task may also be wasted when the assignments are mere busy work.
- Unreasonable: At their most energetic and active point in life, students are required to sit and listen for most of the day. Not only is sitting all day bad for the students physically, but the idea that children can pay attention sufficiently to long lectures has been scientifically refuted. According to the studies, students’ attention spans max out at 10-15 minutes. While there’s nothing wrong with the idea that we learn through listening, an overemphasis on this approach to learning leads to a neglect of other ways of learning—e.g. through talking and activity.
- Stressful and competitive: Frequent assessments, standardized tests, and grades produce fear and anxiety, and breed competition among classmates which take away the focus from genuine learning.
- Artificially fragmented: Subjects are artificially divided, bells break up the school day, and students are separated according to age.
- Too focused on rote-memory learning: Most testing focuses on having students rehearse objective facts; students don’t get enough opportunity to think deeply.
Third, what would a school look like that took the interests of students seriously and helped students to value self education? (I know that the requirements of college interfere with creating change at the high school level, but I think a change in how we see college is underway. First, colleges are more flexible than many realize in accepting academic credit. Just consider how easily homeschool students get accepted into traditional colleges. Second, not everyone will or even should go to college. Third, the rising costs of college are unsustainable, so the time to think about change is now.) Here are a few things that come to mind for teenage students.
- High school students should be given more academic freedom than younger students. Young students need to be taught the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic in order to be able to teach themselves to some degree. But once the basics are in place, students should have more freedom to pursue their interests and to educate themselves. Self-education is a necessary skill in today’s world and perhaps the defining mark of an educated person. (Think of the old proverb of giving a man a fish versus teaching a man to fish.)
- Small class sizes or individualized instruction – enables teachers to provide the personal attention needed to ensure effective learning.
- Meaningful discussions – We not only learn through listening; we also learn through talking. To process ideas we need to have plenty of time to talk about what we are learning. For teachers to know where students are at, they need to listen closely to the students’ questions and comments. Meaningful discussions can only occur when teachers relinquish a certain degree of control over their class time (e.g. when teachers stop talking for an entire class period.)
- Genuine engagement with literary classics. Thinking well requires us to engage with the best articulated thoughts and those works that have been the most influential.
- Short but engaging lectures (10-15 minutes). We want to encourage activity not passivity and in general our attention spans are short, but some lecture is still helpful and even needed in the learning process. (For those students who want to sit and listen to a 60-minute lecture, they can have that option.)
- Students not required to sit and listen for most of the day but are free to move throughout the day. Aristotle can serve as an example because he walked and conversed with his students. Recent studies have shown the physical harm of sitting all day.
- Students’ interests incorporated into their curriculum.
- Self-paced curriculum – When students are motivated to learn something, let them go as fast as they want. Holding them back can be detrimental to their desire to learn.
- Inspirational and competent educators – teachers (or guides) who know their content, know their students individually, and care about both their content and their students.
- Interdisciplinary projects – the boundaries of subjects are arbitrary and students need to see how every area of knowledge connects.
- Students given the opportunity to interact with students of various ages. Segregation according to age is artificial and inhibits students from learning important social skills and limits exposure to content knowledge.
- Decreased emphasis on assessments – teachers don’t like grading, students don’t like being graded, and studies have shown that grades harm our intrinsic motivation to learn. Grades may spur students on for short-term learning goals, but in the long-run they turn students off to our subjects by producing fear, anxiety, and breeding competition among classmates.
- Long-term focus – a desire to not only help students get into college but to help them become better human beings.
- Real-world experience – internships and job shadowing for the older students.