Why Schools Fail To Teach Our Children

Most six-year-olds can't wait to go to school on that first day in September. It's a sign of coming of age. They get to go to school like the big kids. For an alarmingly large number of these children, however, boredom, anxiety, and fear of learning quickly set in.

This happens because societies build schools that achieve much less than they promise, are frustrating for students, and generally fail to help children become adults who can think for themselves. Education has always been considered to be a process whereby some essential body of knowledge is transmitted to students; schools have simply been places where that transmission officially takes place. The development of flexible, inquiring minds has rarely been the primary consideration in the design of educational systems. Making students into proper members of society has usually been of much greater concern than developing students who are creative thinkers.

Today, the level of dissatisfaction and even outright anger at the educational system is tremendously high. We hear a great deal about the failure of our schools, about falling test scores, and about inequalities in education. A variety of solutions have been put on the table, solutions that run the gamut from applying corporate methods to gain efficiency to simply spending a lot more money. Some of the proposals to fix the situation are even more frightening than the situation they are trying to fix.

Clearly, the schools are a mess. Today's schools are organized around yesterday's ideas, yesterday's needs, and yesterday's resources (and they weren't even doing very well yesterday). Consider the most common classroom approach: one teacher standing in front of thirty children trying to get each one to be at the same place at the same time. This approach has the advantage of being relatively inexpensive, but it flies in the face of everything scientists have discovered about children's natural learning mechanisms, which are primarily experimentation and reflection. In other words, learning by doing. Consider also the concept of curriculum: that there is a particular body of knowledge everyone should know. This idea may comfort those who are concerned that our children know the "right stuff." Children, however, learn facts about the world because they feel the need to know them, often because these facts will help them do something they want to do. What is the right stuff for one may be the wrong or irrelevant stuff for another.

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