Why We’re Opting Out of School, Part Two: Problems with Mainstream Schooling

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Yesterday I started to talk about why we’re choosing to homeschool (well, unschool) our daughter, acknowledging that there are some weaknesses, and that I’m coming from a place of privilege to be able to make this choice. Today I wanted to explore some of the concerns I have with mainstream education, and the reasons we are choosing to opt out. (Note: most of the following was lifted from a post I wrote several years ago.)

Coerced/Non-Consensual Learning

I’ll come out of the gate with perhaps my most controversial claim: I believe that an adult deciding what a child should learn, and coercing the child to engage with certain material in a prescribed way, is inherently disrespectful to the child. I believe in what John Holt calls “The right of curiosity.” As Holt puts it:

A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.

And not only is coerced learning morally problematic, it’s not very effective. Humans don’t learn well when they find the subject irrelevant or uninteresting. Learning happens best when the topic is freely chosen by the child, guided by curiosity; learning sticks when the child pursues it willingly, because she can see how the subject is inherently meaningful, useful and/or interesting. Anything that a child is forced to learn is unlikely to be retained long-term.


Grades serve two main functions: (a) they’re 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 towards getting approval.

And you can already guess that I’m uncomfortable with using grades to label and classify human beings.


Related to grades is the way that school is designed to pit children against one another in a grand, twelve-year contest, to determine who is the smartest and who is… not. Children instinctively understand that they are in competition with one another, that not everyone can be at the top of the class; and they tend to know exactly where they land within the classroom hierarchy. (I, for one, always knew I was at the top; my husband always knew he was near the bottom. This awareness affects the way we see ourselves to this day.)

The competitive nature of school erodes social bonding and discourages collaboration. I’m not a fan.


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. Tests cannot accurately gauge intelligence, emotional maturity, or problem-solving skills. (I, for one, am a spectacular test-taker, but not much a problem-solver.) They mostly demonstrate how well a child can memorize material. Yet written tests remain one of the dominant methods for assessing student knowledge.

Irrelevant Curriculum

My experience is that much of what is taught in the classroom is largely irrelevant to real life. Moreover, school privileges certain subjects (math, language, and science) over others (dance, art, music, practical life skills), assuming that these are more useful and will better prepare young people for the work force. This is becoming less and less true, however. Teachers today have very little idea what will be important in 20 years.

(More valuable than a pre-determined curriculum, then, would be working to instill a passionate curiosity and a love of learning, so children can learn what’s important when the time comes.)

Crowd Control

Due to the nature of the classroom setting (i.e. one adult to thirty kids), 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, for example. (I’m not even joking.)

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 (or “date of manufacture,” as Ken Robinson puts it). As a consequence, children don’t learn how to interact with people of different ages. We have generations 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. Older kids don’t get to experience the joy of sharing their knowledge with younger kids.


Large groups of children are easiest to control when they are seated at desks, so children spend much of their time in school in a sedentary state. This is bad for their bodies, and fosters sedentary habits that carry into adulthood.

* * *

So these are a few of the reasons I consider mainstream schooling to be a sub-optimal way for children to learn, and why we’re currently opting out.

If I have the time and inclination, I’m hoping to write a post exploring some of the positive sides of homeschooling/unschooling (e.g. it’s fun! The food at home is better! We don’t have to wear foot-coffins!), besides avoiding the pitfalls I’ve explored here. But that one might come a bit later.

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  1. Uh oh, Kathleen. This is really making me think and it’s making nervous that I might rethink my plan when my daughter is school age. :)
    Sedentarism is a really interesting point that I haven’t heard brought up in this context before. But it has lifelong health consequences if it sticks (and it usually does).

  2. Tharaa Alhusain says

    What you are explaining is pretty useful. Actually montessori method it can be easily the substitution for the normal schools. In a montessori environment children are free to choose the subjects they are interested in learning, no desks and the class is more similar to their own homes!
    They learn a lot about practical life, which is the biggest lead to their independency.
    However, I do appreciate homeschooling, and I believe it is the right way for the new generations
    To change this lifestyle we are all carrying according to the input informations we have got through our schools and universities.

  3. Basically, though, why does public school have to suck so much? Why can’t the schedule align to that of the working parent better, but the content be more natural, with longer free play, outdoor time, and rest periods, different ages mingling, more self-directed (this is probably the hardest to apply to any sort of institutional setting), more focus on practical and arts education. I mean, really, none of the problems you list are intrinsic to having groups of kids somewhere together learning things while their parents work (except crowd control to some extent)–there are schools that follow other educational models (Montessori, Waldorf, etc). They’re just only available to rich people. Why should a good education (not a standardized-test-focused, overly academic education but one like you describe) only be available to those with the privilege available to pay for or individually create it? IT’S SO DUMB. BURN IT ALL DOWN. Ha.

    • That’s something I’ve been thinking about, too — how can public school look more like this? It should be possible. Part of the problem might be that our society just doesn’t value children enough to pour the amount of resources into it that it would take. We probably need a higher teacher-to-student ratio . . . and there are a ton of adults (around here, anyway) who would like to become teachers; there’s just not enough money to go around. I was thinking that many daycares pull it off what I would want to see in a school: mixed-aged groups mostly playing together, with and adult closely supervising and guiding them through problems together; rest times built into the routine; etc. I would love to send Lydia to a public daycare for bigger kids! A part of me wonders sometimes if I should be putting energy into trying to make this kind of education experience available to all . . . but then I get tired, haha. Maybe someday.

      • “Part of the problem might be that our society just doesn’t value children enough to pour the amount of resources into it that it would take.”

        Bingo. It’s all about the benjamins. It takes money to do this stuff. That and you’re right, a huge cultural shift in expectations. It’s frustrating, because there just doesn’t seem to be anything just one person can do…I get tired even thinking about it. But obviously then nothing continues to change.

        A public Montessori elementary just opened in our town, and it’s a lottery like the one Hope mentioned (as is the immersion school my son goes to, which does try to address some of these problems but is definitely still more conventional than not). So that’s progress, but I do notice that all these schools are elementary schools–once you hit middle or high school, you’re right back to the conventional world, just when some kids could really, really benefit from a different system. That also seems to be the level at which a lot of homeschoolers merge back into conventional school, as parents don’t feel confident in their ability to teach higher subjects or children place more value on fitting in with their peer group.

        I guess we just have to keep doing what we can and hope it helps nudge the bar in the right direction.

    • I mean, another thing is that people EXPECT school to look like kids in desks filling out workbooks. It’s been like this for so long, people can’t imagine it being any other way. They are freaked out at the idea of kids being in charge of their own education, assuming kids are too lazy to learn on their own. It would take a pretty huge cultural shift for such a big change to happen. And I hope I’m at least helping contribute to that!

    • I live in Eugene, Oregon and there are probably 3 alternative yet still PUBLIC schools that follow Waldorf/Montessori style and they are incredibly popular, so you can only get in by lottery. People WANT this type of education for their children. I wish I know how those public alternative schools got started/run now and what barriers there are to having more like them.

  4. I wonder how you feel about the Montessori method? My kids go to a public Montessori School and many of the points you make don’t apply to them (desks, sedentarism, lack of independence, age segregation, lack of practical life.). I fully support homeschoolers because parents should make the best decision for their own families. I just wouldn’t want to paint ALL public schools with such a broad brush.

    • Hi Jane! What I know of the Montessori method, I love. We used it a lot at home with our first child when she was young. I wouldn’t describe Montessori as “mainstream,” though; so I agree it doesn’t have a lot of the problems I discuss here! (I’m still not sure how to describe what I’m critiquing here . . . “conventional” schooling?) We don’t have public Montessori schools here, so I didn’t know they existed! I thought they were all private! I think that’s awesome, and would be delighted to see more Montessori principles used in mainstream schools.

  5. I would say that I disagree with quite a bit of what you’re saying.

    I think giving children the exclusive choices of what they want to learn will hinder them in later life. It’s comparable to asking children what they want to eat and not making them eat their veggies because “they’re boring” or “I don’t want those”. Being given material that you’re not really interested in can help you cope later in life when you’re in situations that you may not like. The way schools may teach it could definitely be improved, but the way it should be approached in my opinion is along the lines of being creative with what situation you’re in. I wasn’t really a fan of math. I attach money and programming to it, and I’m interested in it. I don’t like the sciences too much, I look at it as how God created the world, and I’m into it. We’re not always going to be able to choose our situations and we won’t always get what we want in life and learning some things in life you’re not interested in is a good way to learn that lesson.

    Grades are not intrinsically linked to a reward/punishment system from my perspective. That is how some/most people can view it, but grades are rather a check up on how you’re doing in a particular subject rather than a scale on how well you did compared to someone else. I may get an A or 85% in creative writing but get a C- or 65% in math. I know that my efforts shouldn’t be fully focused on how to improve in my creative writing, though I may naturally want to keep improving it, but I can see by my grades that I have more to improve in math than in creative writing. Math may be hard to learn, but that’s natural when it comes to any subject that we’re not proficient in. Just because we’re naturally better in one area and are drawn to it shouldn’t mean that we shouldn’t see how we’re doing in other areas in our lives. As the saying goes, “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” Let’s get better at multiple things, even if we’re not fully interested in it because more likely than not, it’ll have a real world application that will make our lives easier later on in life. I will agree with you on the fact that grades are used by other students, teachers, and parents to create a sort of hierarchy of intelligence, but that’s not an inherit issue with grades, but rather how people interpret and represent them.

    Competition is also a fantastic tool to motivate people. Where would our world be if we weren’t competitive with each other? Better yet, where would we be if we weren’t competitive with ourselves? When we’re competitive with others and ourselves, we either strive to better ourselves in that area or we fall back and go to another area we’re stronger in. We realize the importance that area has for us through competition and if properly motivated, we keep trying to outdo others and ourselves. If competition wasn’t in our schooling system we’d lose all the potential progress we would have made. In addition, being competitive and cooperative aren’t opposites, though I know they’re mainly seen that way. When we’re competitive with each other, we see our strengths and weaknesses. Seeing that we’re weaker in a certain area while someone else is stronger may cause us to go to that person for help. Teams can cooperate with each other to try to outdo other teams, such as in sports or competitions. Especially in those areas, we see competition and cooperation in a symbiotic relationship.

    While I agree with you for the most part on the subject of tests, they don’t have to be that way. There are oral tests, essay questions, multiple choice, and simple answers. Simple answers and multiple choice tests are great for people who can memorize material and don’t really require problem solving to be a part of it. Long form answers, such as essay questions and “show your work” questions not only require you to know your stuff, but how to think creatively under a deadline. This sounds a lot like the working world. You’re going to need to know your stuff for your job, whatever you do. Some jobs may not need a lot of memorization, some will require a lot, but what they all require is creative problem solving. What do you do if a problem comes up? How can you take control of the situation, and if you can’t control it, how do you deal with it? Tests are needed to show the student if they actually know the material, and once again, where do they excel or need to improve. When comparing the student’s test score to their previous work, is it better? Is it worse? It shouldn’t be compared to other scores in a hierarchy method, but rather to help those who are struggling by pairing them with those who are excelling to help teach them.

    “Teachers today have very little idea what will be important in 20 years.” Very very true. Teachers are the weathermen of the education system. They’re trying to prepare these children for a world we know very little about, and get a lot of flack for not preparing them properly. This goes for both homeschooling and public education. This makes me go back to my earlier point about learning a multitude of different subjects, some we’re interested in and others we’re not interested in, to be best prepared for that unknown future.

    I don’t know about your job, but at most jobs, we can’t sleep. We need to move from one place to another, go in lines and wait patiently for our turn, and sometimes drive from one place to another. I think if you look at the school system as a place to send your children to exclusively learn real world skills, you should be happy they’re learning these other practical skills. True, they’re not the same skills as subjects taught in the classrooms, but rather useful skills that they can apply later in life.

    Age segregation is a strength in the school system. Everyone can learn at their level. I don’t think a teacher can properly teach math to someone in grade 1 and in grade 8 at the same time. Things would be split up to strengthen both student’s skills appropriately. Yes, the older students could help the younger if they were in the same class, but those are skills that can also be learned outside of the classroom. I went to a school with classrooms for individual grades, to be completely honest I was in a split-grade twice, and I’ve felt comfortable talking to people of all ages. I wonder if this has to do with personality as well for both sides rather than the outcome of how the schools teach children.

    I do agree that sedentarism is an issue. However, to get someone to focus on a subject, depending on the subject matter, you’d have to be seated or standing. That’s why I think phys. ed. and recess are so great because they get the kids moving and let them run out some of that pent up energy. This doesn’t mean that schools are intrinsically bad because of this, but rather they should have a few more moving breaks to help out with that issue.

    If anyone reading this is homeschooling their children, I’m not trying to say don’t homeschool or to send them to public school. I just want to present the other side of the argument that was presented in this article. I found most of the arguments given in this article focused on one aspect of the topic rather than on the topic as a whole. I do understand that the article was all about reasons why the author chose to homeschool, and I’m not trying to say that her reasons were invalid. I just think if you change your perspective on some of the given reasons, you can find that there are benefits to them as well. Yes, there are detriments to everything, but that shouldn’t stop us from pursuing what’s best for our kids, especially if the benefits outweigh the negative aspects. If homeschooling works best for your child, then do it! If public school works best for yours, then go for it! There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods, and to help get rid of the disadvantages of either choice, it’s going to require effort on the parent’s part. I know people who don’t homeschool and say they don’t want to because of the anti-social aspect of staying at home and not going out. I also know there are a LOT of homeschoolers who get together at retreats, get-togethers, picnics, and other events. Those events require additional planning and effort. Why aren’t we willing to put that planning and effort into improving public school? People could adopt better attitudes about grades, tests, age segregation, and sitting around by making sure that their family goes on walks after school with limited screen time when at home. They could talk to their kids about the real meaning behind their grades and how it’s a marker on how well they’re doing compared to how they did before. See if there’s an event nearby for a large age range where people can get to know others of all ages, and if there isn’t one, plan one! The options are endless, and while I respect the author’s reasons and perspective on why her family chose homeschooling, I don’t think it’s the best option for everyone.

  6. Yes!! SO much of this is what I see as problematic with traditional schooling. Right now we live in a neighborhood where the neighborhood school is a Montessori school, and the plan is to send our kids there. We visited and were very impressed. However, we’re skipping traditional preschool, partially because it’s hella expensive and partially because I want to unschool at home. We’re participating in a homeschooling preschool playgroup each week and also going to our local forest school. I’m trying to integrate more art and learning in our daily activities. Your experiences that you’ve posted about have been so inspiring.
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  7. You are sooo right. And your child is so lucky to have you! (I found you by reading your “why I quit dT” and again, you are so right. I have been an independent aromatherapist and author for more than 30 years…)

  8. Epiphonepkt says

    handwritten by the author.

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