Is the American School System Damaging Our Kids?

Education has become an American institution—of the worst kind.

kids sitting by the lockers
Richard Foulser/Trunk Archive
Parents send their children to school with the best of intentions, believing that formal education is what kids need to become productive, happy adults. Many parents do have qualms about how well schools are performing, but the conventional wisdom is that these issues can be resolved with more money, better teachers, more challenging curricula, or more rigorous tests. But what if the real problem is school itself?

The unfortunate fact is that one of our most cherished institutions is, by its very nature, failing our children and our society.

Children are required to be in school, where their freedom is greatly restricted, far more than most adults would tolerate in their workplaces. In recent decades, we’ve been compelling them to spend ever more time in this kind of setting, and there’s strong evidence that this is causing psychological damage to many of them. And as scientists have investigated how children naturally learn, they’ve realized that kids do so most deeply and fully, and with greatest enthusiasm, in conditions that are almost opposite to those of school.

Compulsory education has been a fixture of our culture now for several generations. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are so enamored of it that they want even longer school days and years. Most people assume that the basic design of today’s schools emerged from scientific evidence about how children learn. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Schools as we know them today are a product of history, not of research. The blueprint for them was developed during the Protestant Reformation, when schools were created to teach children to read the Bible, to believe Scripture without questioning it, and to obey authority figures without questioning them.

When schools were taken over by the state, made compulsory, and directed toward secular ends, the basic structure and methods of teaching remained unchanged. Subsequent attempts at reform have failed because they haven’t altered the basic blueprint. The top-down, teach-and-test method, in which learning is motivated by a system of rewards and punishments rather than by curiosity or by any real desire to know, is well designed for indoctrination and obedience training but not much else. It’s no wonder that many of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs and innovators either left school early (like Thomas Edison) or said they hated school and learned despite it, not because of it (like Albert Einstein).

Most students—whether A students, C students, or failing ones—have lost their zest for learning by the time they’ve reached middle school or high school. In a telling research study, professors Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeremy Hunter fitted more than 800 sixth through 12th graders, from 33 different schools across the country, with special wristwatches that emitted a signal at random times of day. Each time they received a signal, the students filled out a questionnaire indicating where they were, what they were doing, and how happy or unhappy they felt at the moment. The lowest levels of happiness, by far, were reported when the children were in school, where they were often bored, anxious, or both. Other researchers have shown that, with each successive grade, students develop increasingly negative attitudes toward the subjects taught, especially math and science.

As a society, we tend to shrug off such findings. We’re not surprised that kids are unhappy in school. Some people even believe that the very unpleasantness of school is good for children, so they will learn to tolerate unpleasantness as preparation for real life. But there are plenty of opportunities to learn to tolerate unpleasantness without adding unpleasant schooling to the mix. Research has shown that people of all ages learn best when they are self-motivated, pursuing answers to questions that reflect their personal interests and achieving goals that they’ve set for themselves. Under such conditions, learning is usually joyful.

The evidence for all of this is obvious to anyone who’s watched a child grow from infancy to school age. Through their own efforts, children figure out how to walk, run, jump, and climb. They learn from scratch their native language, and with that, they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, charm, and ask questions. Through questioning and exploring, they acquire an enormous amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them, and in their play, they practice skills that promote their physical, intellectual, social, and emotional development. They do all of this before anyone, in any systematic way, tries to teach them anything.

This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children reach five or six. But we turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of our system is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.

The focus of my own research—I’m a psychology professor at Boston College—has been on learning in children who are of “school age” but who aren’t sent to school, or not to school as conventionally understood. I’ve examined how children learn in cultures that don’t have schools, especially hunter-gatherer societies, the kind in which our species evolved. I’ve also studied learning in our culture by students who are trusted to take charge of their education. In these settings, children’s natural curiosity and zest for learning persist all the way through adolescence into adulthood.

Another researcher who has documented the power of self-directed learning is Sugata Mitra. He set up outdoor computers in very poor neighborhoods in India, where many children were illiterate and most did not go to school. Wherever he placed such a computer, dozens of kids would gather around and, with no help from adults, figure out how to use it. Those who could not read began to do so by interacting with the computer and with other children around it. The computers gave these young people access to the whole world’s knowledge—in one remote village, children who previously knew nothing about microorganisms learned about bacteria and viruses through their interactions with the computer and began to use this new knowledge appropriately in conversations.

Mitra’s experiments illustrate how three core aspects of human nature—curiosity, playfulness, and sociability—can combine beautifully to serve the purpose of education. Curiosity drew the kids to the computer and motivated them to explore it; playfulness motivated them to practice many computer skills; and sociability allowed each child’s learning to spread like wildfire to dozens of other children.

Next: What self-directed learning looks like »

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