5 Ways School Damages Us – And 5 Ways to Fix It

Some years ago Sir Ken Robinson gave a massively popular TED talk, entitled “How Schools Kill Creativity”. The modern school has taken a hit or two since, being criticized for having students listen to mindnumbingly boring lectures, or directing their motivation to wrong things like grades and SAT scores instead of learning.

Having looked in depth at how learning takes place, I must admit much of such criticism is in place. That being said, the modern school does do a tremendously good job in many ways. After all, ubiquitous Western literacy is not something to be trifled with, if you take a look at countries where it does not exist. Being armed with just the scope of the critic, it is easy to miss on all the good things we have achieved.

Be that as it may, while we have come a long way, there’s still work to be done. And while leveling criticisms can be fruitful, I believe it is better to also offer alternatives to the objects of critique. Hence, here are five ways in which I think school does really damage us – and five ways to fix them.

1. Fixed Mindset

The Damage: Schools teach what the Stanford professor Carol Dweck calls the ‘fixed mindset’. It is a way of regarding oneself as consisting of a fixed set of properties and skills. In other words, you are either talented at something, or you are not, period. The standard testing of schools is very inclined to maintain this point of view, since grades are not regarded so much as indicators of future work, but of current competence.

The Fix: instead of locking our kids into fixed mindsets, we should help them embrace Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’. This means that skills and talents are not fixed, but grow with practice. Modern science seems to point towards this being in fact the more realistic view of the two. To establish a growth mindset, students should be allowed to progress at their own pace, with grading used to find the focus where further work is needed. In the growth mindset there are no grade C students. There are just “not quite yet A” students.

2. Focus on Weaknesses

The Damage: Here is another artifact of the modern school grading system. It tends to guide focus to the weaknesses of a student. Whereas weakness-based grading may be of use to point out where work is needed (as per above), the fact is that nobody can be great at everything. (Yes, even straight-A students have their weaknesses.)

The Fix: Instead of finding systematically what weaknesses students have, we should rather focus on emphasizing and clarifying strengths. Studies show that focusing on strenghts not only makes learning more fun but also adds up to general well-being. There are also existing pedagogical models that can be tapped into, such as the Montessori model that constantly seeks to single out the most enthusiastic interests of the students and focus on those.

3. Extrinsic Motivation

The Damage: In motivating children by having them aspire towards greater grades, and scaring them with sanctions if they do not succeed, school creates a strongly extrinsically motivating environment. Too bad, studies show that extrinsic motivation not only kills creativity but also seriously hampers even basic learning.

The Fix: Schools should tap into intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation consists of trying to fulfill the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Autonomy means that students should have more freedom in how to study. Competence means what was said above: personal growth and focus on strengths. And relatedness means working with people you really feel accepted with. By tapping into these three areas, I am sure teachers will see a soaring in learning experiences.

4. Lack of Collaboration

The Damage: It is utterly idiotic that at the most critical moments in school life, children are stripped of their most powerful tool: collaboration. It does not really help that much to have kids participate in tedious group work, if when push comes to shove, working together is interpreted as cheating.

The Fix: There are practically no situations in real life like test taking, where you simply cannot ask or go look for an answer to a problem. Why then do we drill our kids up to 12 years with this idiotic exercise? The brain is social to begin with. Let it work the way it is meant to. Kids will flourish and thrive if they get a tough problem to solve – and they can dive into it with all their social and networked might.

5. Killing Creativity

The Damage: Kids aged seven were asked who was creative. Everybody said yes. Then kids aged twelve were asked the same question. Only about half of them said yes. And once high schoolers were asked the question, only a fraction considered themselves creative. Why? If you have lived over ten years in an environment where it’s been signalled that there are right and only right answers, it’s rather hard to be creative.

The Fix: Questions are wonderful things that should not be killed with right answers. Also, coming up with solutions (note, not answers) to questions, there are a million avenues of inquiry one could pursue. Consider for a moment, what kind of a wonderland of creativity the school could be if only this one little thing was changed: when a question is asked, there are no wrong answers. And when a solution is generated, there are no wrong methods.

The problem is, it does put a lot of pressure in coming up with interesting enough questions.

But that, I guess, is what teaching is all about.


7 thoughts on “5 Ways School Damages Us – And 5 Ways to Fix It

  1. Tuomas says:

    Interesting post! Another system I’ve been introduced lately is the Steiner/Waldorf schooling. Though not perfect (it seems a bit secretarian), the kids who have been there seem to be incredibly creative and social.

  2. You’ve got it so right.

    At my daughter’s school the other day there was a parent teacher consultation and I was told she was only 1a for literacy when she should be level 2. Mainly she is doing good writing and very creative, but missing spellings e.g. hav instead of have. I immediately went off on one about what I could do to help her learn her spellings, thinking of games to play to inspire her to want to learn for herself. I also mentioned that the school reward systems seemed a bit overwhelming, but I was told that she believed in them and so did all the other teachers (so they must be right) and they were to get my daughter ready for the world of work (?!?). I told her they were in direct contradiction to my beliefs and said I’d take it up with the head and then it was time to go.

    On reflection I’ve realised that the teacher seemed to be passing the buck. Your daughter isn’t learning, what are you going to do about it? I should have asked her what she is going to do about it. I have created a well behaved, creative child who is eager to please and eager to learn, so why has she not progressed (by their measurement) since last year?

    I actually think it is all down to the reward systems and failure to mark spellings as wrong in case they hurt her feelings. My dear daughter lives very much in the moment and when she writes she does so for speed and efficiency. If her spellings aren’t marked wrong and the teacher can understand the writing why should she write have instead of hav? And why does she only ever talk about how much golden time she will get on Friday and who is “special person” (chosen randomly, they sit on a chair while others are on the floor and are first in line for the day)and who will sit on the Head’s “top table” at dinner time.
    I am a qualified teacher and I know that rewards should be a last resort, but in a very well behaved school with a good cohort of supportive parents the children are being controlled by their teachers in a really negative way. What is the psychology behind special person and top table? Doesn’t that impose on the children from an early age the thought that there are some who will always be above them, or if they are lucky they will be in that ruling elite? It is so wrong. It also prevents the children from working out for themselves the skills and attributes needed to get along with others.
    My plan is to tell the teacher to remove my daughter from the rewards schemes, I’ll tell her the teacher thinks being a special person makes children believe they are special, but she knows she’s the only one of her in the world so she doesn’t need to be special person. That way every time a special person is called she’ll either feel hard done by – so all her future achievements are her own, or she’ll feel proud that she doesn’t need to be told what she knows deep inside. As for golden time, presented at the end of every Friday – talk about mind control, it is just so wrong, and isn’t all time golden when you’re learning anyway? If she gets the average amount of time and never any extra or less then she doesn’t have to spend all week worrying about it.
    The school is truly removing all her intrinsic motivation to learn. AAARGH!!!

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