A Few of My Quarrels with the Classroom

Before I go any further, a note on teachers: every school teacher I ever had was amazing. Every teacher I ever encountered was patient, compassionate, creative, and astonishingly enthusiastic about their work. In my experience, public school teachers are incredible human beings who do incredibly hard work. Ben doesn’t have a single negative thing to say about a single teacher he ever had, either. Teachers have our deepest respect and admiration. If you’re a teacher, this post is not meant to be criticism against you: you are doing important, often thankless work, and I’m grateful to you.

The qualms I have with classroom-style education have more to do with the systemic problems inherent in any attempt to educate children en masse, and not the teachers who work in the system.

So I’ve been talking about my and my husband’s experiences with schooling, and how these experiences have shaped the way we want to educate our own child(ren).

As I said in my introductory post, we still don’t know how we will educate our daughter or any subsequent children. We very well may eventually determine that public school is the best option for us as a family. We have a few years to make up our minds, and even then, we might change our minds.

But we are definitely drawn to unschooling — that is, a child-led approach to education, wherein children learn by way their own curiosity and natural life experiences, rather than through a curriculum imposed by adults.

(Whether or not we’ll ever be able to do this is another question. I suspect the greatest obstacle to homeschooling of any kind in our family will be my incredible need for alone time. I NEED alone time, and lots of it. We’ll see what we can figure out.)

I’ll say up front that it’s unlikely that we will ever send our kid(s) to private school. Our main reasons include:

(a) We’ll probably never make enough money to be able to afford it. My husband is self-employed and I’m a stay-at-home mom. Enough said.

(b) Most of our concerns with public school carry over into the private sector, since they have to do with the classroom setting and not the curriculum. In other words, our hesitation with public school is not so much about what is being overtly taught, but the way it’s being taught (i.e. one adult talking to a room full of kids of identical age, giving them arbitrary problems to solve which are unrelated to real life, and then assigning value judgments to their performance, etc). Most private schools replicate this model of education.

We’re not particularly concerned about the secular content taught in public schools, because we find that in well-connected families, children’s beliefs are usually more strongly influenced by their parents than by their teachers. Moreover, we feel that the beauty of Christ’s message — which we hope to make manifest in our home — is ultimately more powerful and alluring than any lies that might be spread outside of it.

Now that I’ve covered those introductory issues, I want to (very briefly) examine some of the qualms we have with mass education. This is just meant to provoke thoughts and questions on the matter, and is by no means an exhaustive study of schooling or education.

A Few of My Quarrels with the Classroom

Grades. As far as I can see, grades serve two main functions: (a) they act as a reward/punishment system, to motivate children to perform in a certain way; and (b) to sort children – i.e. to determine who’s smart and who’s not, and where they should go in life.

I’ve discussed the problems with rewards and punishments before: they distract from the real issue at hand; and they discourage intrinsic motivation (i.e. doing things for their own sake) in favor of extrinsic motivation (i.e. doing things for the sake of the reward); and to make matters worse, they’re actually remarkably ineffective at getting children to do what you want them to do.

I believe that children are naturally curious and want to learn. There is no need to use reward and punishment to coerce children into learning – they will learn things on their own if given the resources, time, space, and encouragement.

By contrast, I believe grades can – and do – dampen a child’s natural love of learning, turning the focus on getting approval.

And you can already guess that I’m uncomfortable with the way we use grades to label and classify human beings.

Tests. Written tests are perhaps the worst way to assess how much children know, how intelligent they are, and how successful they’ll be at performing important daily tasks. They cannot gauge intelligence, emotional maturity, or problem-solving skills. I, for one, am a spectacular test-taker, but not much a problem-solver. Yet written tests remain one of the dominant methods for assessing student knowledge.

Curriculum. My experience is that most of what is taught in the classroom is largely irrelevant to real life. Moreover, it privileges certain subjects (math, language, and science) over others (dance, art, music, practical life classes), assuming that these are more useful and will better prepare young people for the work force. This is becoming less and less true, however.

Crowd Control.* Due to the nature of the classroom setting, teachers have to expend enormous amounts of their time and energy on crowd control. So much time is spent getting kids to line up, moving kids from one classroom to another, getting everyone to quiet down and focus on the task at hand, etc., which I feel could be better spent doing more interesting, meaningful things. Like sleeping. (I’m only half-kidding…)

Age Segregation. In order to make teaching more efficient, and because we want everyone to learn and develop at the exact same rate, we segregate children into classes based on age. As a consequence, children don’t learn how to interact with people of different ages. We have a generation of teenagers who feel uncomfortable around babies and old people, children who are scared to talk to adults, and parents who feel disconnected from their kids.

* * *

For me, then, it seems the ideal learning environment would enable children to learn at their own pace, regularly interact with people of different ages, and have access to one-on-one attention from caring adults. It would eschew reward-and-punishment as a means to get them to learn, but instead would foster a love of learning, and would refrain from judging or labeling children based on their performance.

So far, I can’t think of an environment that better offers these things than the home, or an approach more appropriate than unschooling.

That’s just us, though. How about you?

*I’d like to give a shout out to my friend Rachel who gave me the language to talk about this issue.

* * *

Further Reading: The Beginner’s Guide to Unschooling – Zen Habits

Further Watching: Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk on Education: Does School Kill Creativity?

Image courtesy of Thomas Favre-Bulle
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  1. What you’ve written about grades holds so true for me. I didn’t perform well in elementary school and I was a fairly average high school student. Sure, I earned A’s in my English and art classes, but otherwise I was a fairly solid B student. My parents never encouraged me to go above and beyond. In fact, my mom assumed I’d take a few college classes and become a dental hygienist. Sometimes I wonder what might’ve happened if they had.

    I felt stupid for many years until I fully embraced the fact that my grades had nothing to do with my intelligence. My great-uncle was the head of history at U of T. My Nan, his sister, spent her entire life reading (mostly non-fiction and mysteries) and learning. She taught herself photography, how to needle point, cook, paint with watercolours, and garden. She learned all about Hitchcock. She’s one of the brightest people I know and yet she was a terrible student.

  2. This is something I’ve been thinking about lately, although my first won’t even be born until March! I have also had great teachers, but I sometimes feel that the public school system (US) has a lot I could have done without. In general, I think so much of it all just depends on what works for the family.

    If you are interested in unschooling, there is this blog that I read sometimes : http://homeschooling.penelopetrunk.com/ I don’t always agree with everything she says, but I think she offers a good perspective.

  3. This is a great series; I’m sure you and Ben were pretty surprised when you learned about each other’s experiences. I went to private school my entire life; a tiny Lutheran school through 7th grade, and then the much more expensive Christian Academy in town (my mom got a job as the third-grade teacher there. Free tuition, yay!) My husband attended the same Academy from K-12. We both loved our experiences there, and always planned on our children going there too. Until I started really adding up the tuition costs. $5,000 a year might be manageable, but $5-7,000 per year, per child, for 13 years each? Ouch. So now we are planning on homeschooling, or rather a mix of unschooling and homeschooling. We’ll have to see what the exact ratio is down the road, when my oldest actually starts school. At this point we’re planning on sending them to the Academy in high school.

  4. I feel like some of the issues mentioned are problems from the past. My take on the current and future curriculum, in Canada at least, is that it is moving to a more broad understanding of the different ways children learn and a variety of methods for assessing progress. There is also an exposure to interesting technology and experiences that a child might not otherwise encounter. There are many benefits in public schooling as well that are difficult to replicate in homeschooling (I’m guessing), such as the exposure to different people from different cultures and experiences on a regular basis and the learning that comes from dealing with those people. More than that, I feel like it is important for a child’s development to interact with others without a parent present, to solve problems and deal with conflict all on their own. That being said, I do understand the desire to homeschool, I would love to do so with my children but I worry about my ability to teach/guide my child in acquiring the wide variety of knowledge that will give him the option to do whatever he wants in life. I want him to go to university if that’s what he wants or else to follow a different path but I don’t want to limit him. Love the debate, thanks for your perspective!

  5. I often wonder if the older methods of schooling weren’t better in some ways – you only had to go until 8th grade (anything after that was for those who wanted to pursue a career in something that needed “book learning” or wanted to be scholars), you advanced when you had mastered a subject and not by age, short days and hours spent and school with an emphasis on the fundamentals (reading, writing, math, basic science and history). There are pros and cons to this of course.

    I keep wishing that I could send my kids to part time public (or private) school. They would spend about 4 hours a day in school focusing on the fundamentals stated above with options of extra classes or activities to fill up time before or after “school” when desired or when extra help was need, but have it not be required to fill up 8 hours everyday with lessons. The time spent away from public school could then be used to pursue individual interests and needs – maybe extra reading time for some, hands on activities for others and more physical activities for those with extra energy to burn with options to fill the extra time with formal lessons or a more un-schooling type of approach depending on the individual child’s needs.

    p.s. one thing that concerns me about old students – which is why I have the goal of being able to homeschool for the teenage years if needed – is that the public school system does not take into account a growing child’s (teenager’s) need for sleep. Simply put, teenagers need sleep and a 8-4 school day (7 am start if you’re in early bird PE here), plus extra curriculars, sports, homework, etc. does not allow for most teenagers to get adequate enough sleep.
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  6. Hi Kathleen,

    I’ve been enjoying these series on education because it’s so much on my heart these days. I pulled my daughter out of pre-school and decided we are doing this unschooling thing. And we’ll take it year by year. But the philosophy has resonated always when I first learned about it and when I started reading Holt’s books and other related literature out there.

    Everything you’ve written here, I’m finding that even education reformists are agreeing to and many are now looking into studying the homeschooling model and seeking ways to integrate it into the schooling system. I’m hopeful because here in Seattle, I’ve seen such a huge increase not only in the homeschooling community (when my daughter was born four years ago there was mostly one big huge homeschooling group) but also alternative education that could blend both. We’ve seen an increase in homeschooling coops, a community-run part-time waldorf learning center, community centers being turned into family learning centers run by homeschooling families. It’s pretty amazing. I predict that as more and more people really look into what research tells us and what our hearts tell us and what our children are telling us loud and clear about how they want to learn, things are going to TIP. It’s exciting to be part of that TIP. And I see my little girl thrive so much with the freedom and the attention she gets at home.

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  7. Ah, I wondered if this was the approach you’d be most attracted to :) I think many of your quarrels resonate and bring up important topics, but I have to say that when I was researching homeschooling, unschooling was the one approach I knew I absolutely did not want to do! :D That’s the beauty of homeschooling, though, right? You find what works best for your family and all the members of it!

  8. I figured it was unschooling you and Ben leaned toward! I do too, in some ways, though I’m not entirely sure.

    One of my friends in college was unschooled. He now works for the National Security Administration cybercrimes unit. His younger sister is a hairdresser. Certainly the world needs hairdressers as much (in some ways maybe more) as it needs computer geniuses, but I still struggle with those sorts of biases. The fact is, some children just aren’t as curious or interested in learning things as others (I’m not saying that because my friend’s sister is a hairdresser; it’s not like she’s passionate about hair. She’s kind of lazy and a little boring. But she’s happy, so who am I to judge?).

    The DDH and I discuss this on and off. He was homeschooled until fifth grade, went to private school from fifth through eighth, and then attended a ginormous public high school; I went to public school all the way. We both attended a small private university. So. We’re at the point where we can’t afford private school either, even if we could find one that solved some of those same problems you point out with classroom education, but are not sure about the public schools in our area OR about our ability/desire to homeschool. We’ll see how it goes with T-Rex, I suppose. I’m like you–I NEED my alone time, and lots of it!

    One thing, a lot of commenters have commented that they wish they could send their kids to school part time (ME TOO). There are some private schools that have schedules like that. At the school where my MIL teaches, students don’t attend for full days five days a week until third or fourth grade (it would be nice if they kept half-day schedules even longer, I think, but at least it’s something). She is desperate for us to send T-Rex there, but though I love a lot of what the school sets out in its philosophy, I worked there for a year and I do not see that philosophy being carried out in practice. So that’s another frustration–even if you find a private school that sounds great on paper, works to fix a lot of the problems with traditional classroom settings, and manage to scrape together to send your kids there–it doesn’t mean that they’re going to get the advertised experience. Sigh. Anyway, I had some other Major Issues with how that school was run, so between the money and that, T-Rex will not be going there no matter how much my MIL nags.

    The DDH and I are cautiously open to exploring all the options, even private schools, depending on the financial situation. Because I really don’t know what the answer is! I’m so shy and insular that I’m afraid I would make a terrible homeschool teacher for my children (we would be the example of the unsocialized family who never interacts with other children). But with public school around here you face not just the systemic/philisophical problems with the system but also crime and Real Bad Influences–ten-year-old burglars, eight-year-old arsonists, twelve-year-old drug dealers. Blargh!

  9. as a first grade teacher who retired at the age of 28, i can say that the public and charter school systems do not resonate with my ways of teaching and learning organically. great post.

    recently i read an article on an unschooling mother whose young children have started a pet sitting business. she blogs at daynamartin.com.
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  10. I think my one question with this post concerns the value of a private education, apart from the consideration about the methods of education. We’re about to send our oldest to Kindergarten, and to us, the public school she is zoned for would be a weak education and somewhat dangerous location. So curriculum is a pretty huge consideration. We’re also hoping to put her in a Christian learning environment. I resonate with your thoughts on sleeping :D The general atmosphere and day-today of homeschool is appealing, I’ll admit. I have learned through a bit of experience that now that my daughter is 5, I’m no match for some of the great teachers out there. That takes a lot of humility for me to admit, but we have very seriously considered homeschool and I don’t think I’m fit for the job.
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