School Education: Convenient But Not Really About Learning

This past year, I read a handful of books on education, information, and the brain (see reading list at the bottom of this post for the major influencing texts).  All of it fascinating stuff, but all of it leads to me some rather disappointing conclusions.  As Seth Godin explains in his great TED Talk, Stop Stealing Dreams and Ken Robinson also addresses in his TED Talk turned animation, Changing Education Paradigms, the current education system is not only antiquated, but really, an impediment to learning given all we know about learning.  Given that learning still takes place every day (or rather almost every one of the 180 days students are required to be in school--barring things like field days, ski trips, and other non-education oriented excursions) seems to be a testament to the resilience of children, even when being done a disservice.  

This is not an attempt to bash teachers by any means; their resources and freedom are severely limited and confined.  That teachers are able to find meaningful ways to teach their students despite the impediments put upon them speaks to the resilience and skill of teachers.  Teachers put in an amazing effort to create a genuine learning environment for the students but like their students, that they continue to do so despite such restrictions speaks volumes about their dedication to the artful skill of teaching.  

What concerns me is that we have this rhetoric of wanting to create the best schools possible but often fail at doing just that because it's not convenient or it doesn't work with what school was like when we were children.  I cringe when I hear people say something along the lines of "I didn't do that when I was in school."  That education should be static and standardized during a century in which we have produced entire libraries worth of scientific knowledge about education seems like saying, we should still be treating health according to the bodily humours. 

I don't necessarily think that schools are broken or horrible places, but I do think in many ways we create as many barriers as we remove for different student populations merely for the sake of convenience than actual purposefully chosen reasons.  What follows are some examples of where it seems convenience trumps actual education.

The School "Day"

Typically, school hours for public school are from 7:30am-9am until about 2pm-3pm.  Within that limited and disruptive period of time, students are expected to be exposed to 4-7 topics depending on the school set up in 40-90 minute sections.  Lunch times are truncated to 20-25 minutes, pushing students to wolf down food in order to have what limited time possible to talk and socialize.  But does that format--particularly the 7:30am-3pm slot--actually useful for student education or is it just useful for parents and their schedules.  Would a later start time be useful or would a more dispersed range of time (9pm-1pm and 3pm to 5pm) change learning?  We seem stuck on the this time slot without much reason beyond that it's convenient to the work world, not the learner.

The School "Week"

The 5-day school is meant to mimic the work-week but is that really useful to students?  5 days of learning and 2 days off (of course, that's increasingly not the case for many adults of just working 5 days).  I think about my own experiences and Monday often felt like a throw-away day as we were still settling in from the weekend.  By Thursday, our eyes were set on the weekend.  Would more dispersed education or even less days off improve learning?  It's not that I don't believe children deserve down time, but is the weekend the best form of down time for learning and education.  It just doesn't seem so; again, it just feels convenient.  

The School "Year"

180 days stretched out over 10 months with several vacations interspersed throughout and 5 days a week is the standard rule.  First, why only 180 days?  It equates to just under half the year but is there any other reason for it?  Besides a sense of balance about school and play, it doesn't seem to make much sense (and trust me, I believe there is an essential element of play to childhood and education that we horribly ignore, but more on that below).  And is two months off from education actually conducive to learning since a serious part of the first quarter in the new semester is spent on relearning what has been forgotten or addressing knowledge gaps from the previous semester.  A further extension of this is summer reading where kids are coerced into reading two books among a list of pre-selected books.  This too feels more a product of convenience than actual substance.  I remember my senior year I didn't get credit for summer reading; not because I didn't read (I produced a list of the 42 books I read that summer), but because I didn't read any of the lackluster books on the list.  

The School Classroom

To some degree, I feel this has the most viable change with the introduction of tablets in the classroom and the ways that will change what the classroom means and looks like, but of course, such technology will not exactly be distributed equally for years (that is, until a newer technology comes along and lower-class schools get the hand-me-down technology).  However, having students sit for up to 6 hours a day for their education seems not only detrimental to actual education but to their overall health.  People aren't made to sit for long hours.  It's funny people are quick to yell at video games, computers, etc for making kids fatter because they sit for long hours staring at the screen.  But that's exactly what they do at school; they sit and stare at screens or the instructor or both; allowed to stand up only when it's time to move to the next class or go the bathroom.  We know I'm clearly a fan of the standing desk, but there is something to be said about allowing kids to have some means of control over their body in this regard.  (And I'll even avoid going on a rant about how those chairs and desks are just an invitation to poor posture and back problems).  

School "Activity"

That gym and recess are severely limited instead of highly encouraged is equally challenging.  One of my favorite books of last year was John Medina's Brain Rules. His very first rule is about exercise and how it is connected to learning.  As he says, our ancestors grew up on the move and there was a strong evolutionary tie between learning and moving.  That we virtually banish physical activity and require inactivity seems to do more harm than good.  

Looking Elsewhere for Good Ideas on Education

Overall, I think there is a lot more that we could do with our education than what we have done.  Looking at the Finnish school system and they changed they made in just 50 years, I think there is still much to be done, but so little has.  In large part, I think it's because we're still looking at education through an industrial model--one that treats the parts like automatons being trained to jump through hoops and because it's largely convenient.  If we could throw out the current school model entirely, what would an ideal education system look like to produce learners?

The top list are books specifically, but the rest are books that also influenced and guided my thoughts about this post:


  • A Year Up: Rediscovering America and the Talent Within by Gerald Chertavian
  • The Systematic Design of Instruction by Walter Dick et al
  • Bully: An Action Plan for Teachers, Parents, and Communities to Combat the Bullying Crisis by Lee Hirsch
  • E-Learning by Design by William Horton
  • The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch
  • Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative by Sir Ken Robinson
  • Learning and Change in the Adult Years by Mark Tennant
  • Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? By Pasi Sahlberg
  • A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas
  • The Global Achievement Gap: Why Our Kids Don't Have the Skills They Need for College, Careers, and Citizenship--and What We Can Do About It by Tony Wagner
  • Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World by Tony Wagner


  • Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson
  • The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date by Samuel Arbesman
  • Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by BrenĂ© Brown
  • Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman
  • As Texas Goes...: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda by Gail Collins
  • Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford
  • The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
  • The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human  by Jonathan Gottschall
  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath
  • On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits by Wray Herbert
  • Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age by Steven Johnson 
  • Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson
  • Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
  • Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina
  • Wait: The Art and Science of Delay by Frank Partnoy
  • Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink
  • The The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World by Jeremy Rifkin
  • The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories by Frank Rose
  • Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky
  • Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World by Sam Sommers
  • Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World by Christopher Steiner
  • The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph Stiglitz
  • Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room by David Weinberger

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