Take a moment to think about it, and you'll find that very few children actually enjoy school. See how happy they are on Friday afternoon when school lets out, and compare that to their feelings on Monday morning. Or take a look at how they rejoice when summer vacation arrives (unless, of course, they have to attend summer school). This has been verified by scientific studies; most kids don't like school very much. They might have friends there, but they could just as well have friends anywhere else. They might like a particular class or teacher, but inevitably they're also burdened by boring lectures and copious homework. Not to mention that there's precious little room for creativity on a standardized test, and kids who thrill at creative pursuits are often miserable when those interests are overruled.
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Why do we do this to our children? What's the advantage?
A Bad Deal
To the extent that we even acknowledge the feelings of children, we typically justify their misery by saying that it's all for their own good. Good grades will lead to a good college, and that will lead to lifelong success. The present, in other words, must be sacrificed for the sake of the future. But what if that wasn't true? What if it were possible to have a good life without going through all the pain and stress of the traditional school system?
The misery of children should not be dismissed out of hand. Kids these days have much less time than previous generations for self-directed play and exploration. Developmental psychologist Peter Gray points to a direct connection between the decline of play and the rise of mental disorders in children. Kids today are much more stressed, more depressed and more anxious than the kids of previous generations.
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The "Standard" Method, and why it fails
Traditional schooling mandates that children should go to a certain building at a certain time and learn certain subjects in a certain order, whether they like it or not. There is no democracy, and students have no real say in how their life is structured. (There's a Student Council, but they don't have any actual power.)
What does this lead to? First off, it leads to a school system that doesn't respect the needs of students. The administrators may decide, for instance, that absolutely everyone needs to memorize the Quadratic Forumla, even though maybe 2% of us will actually use that formula later in life. The school may make other capricious decisions, such as banning all hats (or making them mandatory), and the students will just have to accept it. Administrators are also free to put incredible pressure on children to do good on standardized tests, and if that leads to a childhood of misery and stress, well, so be it. In an autocratic system, the authorities can do just about anything.
Furthermore, despite all our exhortations to "think for yourself", we put kids in a system that deliberately teaches them not to think for themselves. The only way to stay out of trouble is to follow the rules; you're not supposed to question them. And the only way to get good grades is to give the answer the teacher wants; you're not supposed to suggest new answers or new solutions, and you're definitely not supposed to point out that most of what you're being taught is irrelevant to most people's lives.
This performer produced a rap song about the strange priorities of the public school system:
Good Intentions, Poor Results
What do we actually want for our children? Most people say that they want their kids to grow up to be independent, confident, compassionate, happy, sincere, fair-minded, and intelligent. Yet for some reason we send them into schools that do the opposite.
When kids can't make their own decisions, they don't get any practice at being independent, and they don't develop much in the way of justified self-confidence.
When kids are made to compete against each other in a zero-sum quest for the best grade, they naturally become less compassionate towards their peers. And when they're constantly busy with homework, they have less time to make friends and develop social skills.
When kids are forced into an environment they detest, they naturally lose some of their happiness. This can lead to a lifelong negative outlook and a sense of "learned helplessness" which is difficult to overcome. (Have you ever known someone who stayed in a job that they hated, even though they had the opportunity to try something new?)
When schools give a message of "think for yourself" while acting on the opposite idea, it models insincerity. Some of the kids may imitate this in their own lives.
When schools force kids to memorize things that they'll soon forget anyway, it takes up time and energy that could have been used to pursue meaningful education. And when schools make learning painful, they encourage kids to avoid learning more later in life. We talk of creating a "lifelong love of learning", but all too often we inspire the reverse. People avoid learning new things in adulthood, because they've been trained to believe that learning is tedious and painful.
It's time for a change.
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A personal message from our founder:
I can attest to everything on this page. I was always considered a "bright student" growing up, and I got excellent grades. On national tests I scored in the 97th percentile. I went to Stevenson High School and took 7 AP classes, and I went on to get a full-ride scholarship at Carthage College.
And I regret it.
I was always the round peg in the square hole. I'm a deeply free-spirited person, and intensely creative, and I always had to stifle my true self in order to meet the demands of the school system. At the time, I believed that I would be rewarded for my self-denial. Even though I could see the absurdities of the standard system, I put aside my doubt and kept working hard. But my promised reward never came. Not really. Instead I was left with stress, self-denial, and regret.
In recent years, I've worked with kids at existing Sudbury schools and I've seen how happy and creative they are. I've spoken with Sudbury graduates who attest that Sudbury did prepare them for the "real world", and they're happy with the results. I know that a Sudbury School (or any other type of Self-Directed Education) would have worked wonders for me, and now I'm founding Riverwind with the hope of rescuing the next generation.
If someone is honestly happy with the public school system, then by all means, they can stay there. But many people are not happy. There are people who, for one reason or another, simply do not fit into the standard mold. Being a free-spirited person inside an authoritarian system is kindof like being a gay person inside a homophobic system: there's an important part of your personality that just keeps getting denied or mocked or crushed or destroyed. The traditional school system doesn't work for everyone. Some people, many people, need an alternative.
The Learning Revolution
There's a growing awareness that school needs to change. Alternatives include Unschooling, Agile Learning Centers and the North Star model. Here at Riverwind, we're focused on Sudbury. To learn what that is, visit the next page.
Thank you for reading. Here are two more videos to inspire you. (Please ignore the bit at the end where he advertises for Neste. And technically Einstein never said the fish quote, but it's applicable nonetheless.)