How to Stop Schools Wasting Our Youth!

This was my ‘flag’ originally published on Tackk.com

This mini-thesis is built up around philosophical theories on intellectual development, ancient understanding of human character and modern entrepreneurial practices. In addition, this piece combines observations from my own student experience, years of absorbing research around the topic of education and, after all this, quiet reasoning.

When faced with the ongoing and seemingly endless challenge of improving nationally-funded schools, the kinds of solutions we get (usually top-down, from government bodies) do seem sensible; subject choices, ability grouping etc. Here I’ll show you why enforcing these kinds of solutions, however rigorously, will never elevate schooling by more than a tiny fraction. If you believe that perhaps a little more than a tweaking of your national schooling system is necessary, then read this. First, here are the usual solutions. You’ll recognize them;

  • More Subjects = More Choice
  • Teacher Training = More Student Interest
  • Streaming and Ability Setting  = More Confident Learning
  • Compulsory Schooling and Punish Truancy = Universal Access
  • Year Groups, Qualification Levels  = Achievable Milestones
  • Provide Textbooks, Equipment, Food e.t.c = Practicalities Covered
  • Raising Exam Significance = Encourages Learning
  • Reward School Success  = Appropriate Reflection

While each solution is a genuine solution, none address the whole challenge. For example, a person who is amazing at inspiring others looks at classrooms and bemoans that many teachers don’t inspire. So how can we expect great results? Kids must be inspired! The issue is clearly an inspiration problem, and therefore a teacher training problem. Someone else looks at the same classrooms and says, “It’s no wonder there are issues, we need modern IT equipment and the old text books need replacing! Let’s make this happen!” This goes round and around, and the main focus can change with every new education minister. But none of the policies are wrong; this is key. It is just that implementing them misses the entire point of education and of schooling.

While we are here, let’s explore that question: What is the entire point of schooling?  “Learning”.

OK… learning what? facts? skills? in preparation for a job? to get along with people? to pass exams? to take our place in this world, or to MAKE our place in this world?

What exactly is ‘learning’ anyway? If you google “how to learn” you’ll find that learning is so hard for so many people that entire industries exists to help with it; text books, tuition, ‘learn to learn’ workshops… So many people find learning stressful, even those who have a talent for learning find it stressful within school systems; exam nightmares anyone? Right. So we have created an institution that gives our ‘educated’ adults nightmares! Why? How? Here is a suggestion; the actual process of learning is only one part of what it is to be human. We also have industries in the fields of building confidence, connecting people, project management, sparking creativity, expression… these are all human skills that many people struggle with (services do indeed exist where there’s demand), and the people who excel in these super-important fields may have struggled with learning and, as a result, struggled in school. And yet, these people are so important in the real world, beyond the school gates.

In every school there are students with great exam results and those who fail. There are students who go on to be happy and fulfilled and those who don’t… And there is overwhelming evidence in the media and in life which speaks this truth; School Success does not mean Life Success. So we can conclude that the entire point of schooling, in whatever way it is currently defined, is not good enough. It is not human enough.

Just as it isn’t your boss’ job to entertain you, it is not schools job to entertain students. The purpose of a school must be more grand, more worthwhile, and really… more entertaining than entertainment!

Intellectual Development, please. Nothing more and certainly nothing less.

Intellectual Development happens when a person discovers and lives within their greatest natural abilities, is driven forward by their own values and collaborates with others whenever they need to, to live their own version of success. Everyone who is truly happy and fulfilled does this. They may not have seen it mapped out as it is here, but they find a purpose then handle several elements to reach a higher level of understanding, then continue with their purpose at a higher level with the same elements; spiraling upwards.

This is absolutely not the “learn-test-repeat” mind numbing mantra of many national school systems.

This is real life where each spiral takes you to a level you could not reach directly, and possibly could not have imagined when you started. It’s real progress with real collaboration and all students have 16 to 25 precious years to find and become them-amazing-selves! Or, well…maybe they can figure it out later, once schooling is done.

Let’s stop schools misrepresenting life through awkward and contrived structures!

How?

The very first thing we need to own, is that life is awesome! Anyone who is really living, or has had a glimpse of really living, knows this. Oh man, there are tough times! but if you find yourself within yourself, then stretch yourself by sharing your strengths and your values with the world, combining vulnerability and courage, reaching out to others when you’re struggling, then you are living! If this is life, then we do not need to protect students from life any more, so let’s stop doing that, OK?

The elements of Intellectual Development combine personality profiling systems, with the Hero’s Journey, niching principles and many other works available calling for this: that people find and live within their best strengths, rather than endlessly striving to improve weaknesses.

If your heads in the sky then talk with a person who’s naturally grounded, so your wonderful ideas gain real-life traction. If your strength is with people, then share your project with a person into processes that multiply the energy you inspire. Your see? There is so much good, and fun!, to be created if only we drop our ego’s and our judgements and collaborate!

So, let’s swing our attention to schooling. Teachers are normally taught about different roles such as mentor, trainer, inspirer… they are also expected to be all of these roles. My issue? No one can be all of these. It’s simply not humanly possible and, what’s worse, trying to be everything is not only exhausting, it causes misery.

In many of today’s schooling systems the job of the teacher has been reduced to this: drilling students in defined learning outcomes so that learning can be demonstrated via exams. Does this suck for everyone? No. This specific job is actually perfect for teachers who are natural coaches. And this situation is perfect for students already motivated to learn what is on offer. Here is where this system falls down: no coach should be working with any student who is not interested in being there. This is because coaches, though naturally able to instil, hone and refine skills, do not naturally inspire. They can inspire, of course they can! but, simply put: would you give very the best football coach in the world a class of 30 teenagers when less than half even care about football? Would you say “you’re scheduled two hours a week and every student must pass exams on these minimum skills”.  Could you do all this with any real expectation of that world-class coach creating any world-class footballers, within those limits, with those expectations? Change the word ‘football’ for maths, art, science, writing, music… you see where we are going?

It’s becoming painfully clear that any student desiring to go beyond minimum standards at anything must seek mentors, guides, coaches and peers outside of the school system. In addition, they must do this outside of the time demanded by school for class attention and homework. And, sadly, they risk being targeted and made to feel incompetent by teachers under pressure to get their students to defined minimum standards, even though the student’s heart and interests are elsewhere. What a shame this is!

School are full of people, so there is a way to make this work. Change isn’t easy. Changes on this scale? Tough. The first step is to understand the issue.

Here is my issue: presenting the honest truth of exactly why I was an A-grade student…

Core: I believed that good school grades lead to an awesome job and happiness forever!

  • Choice = OK, no real choice… but syllabuses are designed by clever people
  • Interest = the threat of no university and no future happiness inspired my interest
  • Confidence = because I understood the lessons, I received praise
  • Access = attended school (tick), teachers were there (tick)
  • Milestones = learning authorities make qualifications manageable
  • Practicalities = necessary equipment was always provided by the school
  • Learning = homework and exercises were set; I was compliant enough to work
  • Reflection = over time I figured out how to use any syllabus to get top marks

Result: tonnes of top grades, many prizes, delighted teachers, delighted parents, university offers, 1st class degree, university prize, big money corporate options… and an empty feeling inside that I had wasted my youth losing myself within a system. And I know I’m not alone… we are, after all, the quarter life crisis generation.

School does this: demands mass conformity, feeds instant gratification and pacifies participants into forgetting their own interests for the sake of selection to the next step – high school, college, uni, first job, second job, promotion…

The whole time in school I never felt the level of achievement that teachers and parents expected me to feel. I knew the grades only meant I’d learnt to satisfy a grading scheme. Other students secretly, or not so secretly, hated me for getting grades they were under so much pressure to ‘achieve’. But the thing I understood, and what tore me up, is that getting the marks is just a process; a learning process for exams and a writing process for essays. Why let so many wonderful people beat themselves up over how they measure against this one process? Schooling designed for high volume learning and technically excellent writing does sound awfully grand, but eventually you enter the real world and this happens…

Core: You have no idea who you are, what your values or strengths are… or where to begin to figure this out!

  • Choice = then someone (or a computer program) says “you could be a –job title-” and this becomes your new career goal.
  • Interest = you can’t differentiate between the excitement of possible praise and the joy of doing something because you love it.
  • Confidence = you have an ‘out of the box’ idea… STOP : people might laugh.
  • Access = but, you do know how to write a CV and apply for jobs…
  • Milestones = your life goals align with the career path defined by, well, anyone who’ll tell you what your life should look like.
  • Practicalities = enter adulthood with a mountain of debt and a job guaranteed for the notice period…financial planning is daunting.
  • Learning = when ‘faster’ and ‘more’ is all you hear in work and life you learn the importance of holding back effort to preserve energy.
  • Reflection = thinking about your life makes you want to have a different life.

When governments work so hard to provide pre-packaged school solutions for ‘Choice’ right through to ‘Practicalities’, when they test on ‘Learning’ and ignore ‘Reflection’, they have set-up all students, especially those who trust the system, for a life of blind compliance and dependence. In order to cope (to cope!) so many graduates develop an attitude of self-preservation while slowly succumbing to the belief that they are powerless over the direction of their own lives.

It’s scary that ‘top-students’ like me are so often held up as examples of a system working, and examples for their class mates to follow. I am not an example. I only learnt how to do school. I learnt school, that’s all. I figured out what they wanted, and none of it is real.

It’s scary that adults think school provides experience in many important subjects. It does not. We go though the same loops on all subjects: lessons, memorize, exam.

As you are here- smiles!- I’d like to open up and share this personal story…

The only class I struggled with was languages. I did try but as predicted I got my ‘fail’ in the national oral exam 2 months before the exams for reading, writing and listening. To avoid the embarrassment of a complete fail I used those weeks to scientifically apply my understanding of how to learn and crammed like crazy, even missing a family holiday. The other three exams came out as A’s… making the final grade a ‘B’, phew!

At the close if the final language exam I promised myself to never learn a language again. This thought made me smile. It was German that I had rote-learnt for a grade and then swiftly forgot. As life happens, some years later, I fell in love… and he happens to be German. Hello irony! And, you know, living the language is actually fine. Sure, my skills aren’t ‘professional translator’ standard, but I do have fun in conversations and especially enjoy the lovely kids books I wouldn’t think to explore in English. Those years of being predicted a ‘fail’ nearly crippled my confidence for this real life challenge, but…

The process of taking responsibility of my own language study, after school was done, gave me insight to the higher levels of intellectual understanding and self-belief possible within my own – one precious – life.

Here is how it happened…

Core: why was I doing this? …well, not to be nationally ranked, that’s for sure!

  • Choice = as textbook language learning wasn’t for me, I found alternatives.
  • Interest = free from commands, I tailored everything to my unique self!
  • Confidence = I’m scared, but important people believe in me…
  • Access = with excellent websites and free resources; I found what I needed.
  • Milestones = small self-defined goals kept me sane.
  • Practicalities = the need to practice snapped me into scheduled study.
  • Learning = ‘practice makes perfect’ became a self-imposed mantra.
  • Reflection = over time I found a level of comfort with the language I had no idea was possible!

After just 2 years of self-directed study, on top of full time employment, I gained an understanding of how all languages work, not just German. It was like a revelation! One day I looked up the school exam papers that caused so much self-doubt at age 16: they were really simple! They were also boring. Man, were they boring! Why did I have to finish school to discover this subject? This process gave me confidence to consider larger and more complex projects and challenges.

I’ve since stumbled on my own taste in literature, free from straitjacketed-syllabuses. And I’m no longer buying number puzzles after discovering that real maths (which is different to school maths) is so entertaining. Who’d ‘av thought? Well, not me, and school gave me the maths prize!

So, back to the question of re-shaping the jewel that is national schooling…

When people say that the whole point of School is “learning” this means that all school solutions are addressed with the aim of making learning the only thing students have to worry about, in the hope they will all just “buckle down and do it!” Don’t believe me? You saw the typical school solutions at the start of this piece. Aren’t they all addressing possible excuses students might have to not learn? You saw exactly why I was a top-student. Do you see that the only action required of my youthful, imaginative, energetic self, from age 5 to 21 was to learn? Thoughtful reflection only meant I quickly found learning methods that worked for me… but it was just learning! This is such a waste.

Many of today’s national schooling structures outright deny students, especially compliant ones, the chance to; choose their own paths, discover their own interests, self-identify and overcome confidence issues, find and access their own resources, set their own milestones, think of ways around their own practical obstacles and to reflect on their own personal journey…

Let’s play game: imagine taking a healthy adult and arranging his life so that all he had to do was to breathe – you provided the food, you decided on the entertainment, you chose the company. Can you imagine that adult being very happy that to live required only his effort of breathing? Is it really surprising that teenager’s are known to rebel, when all they have to do is to learn… when all other intellectual challenges are done for them?

It’s so easy for governments to dismiss the importance of personal control over studies when it is only learning, demonstrated via national exams, which is easily measured. Breathing is also easily measured.

People who are really alive don’t stop, roll over and take what life gives them. They have ideas, make choices, seek support and make things happen! But when students dare to propose that revision and exercises are an insensible use of their time they are systematically pacified by well-meaning teachers and parents to “just hold on, get the grades, because good grades open doors.” If you told any adult, “sorry, your not allowed to decide how to use your mental energy for the next ten years”, how does this sound?

A plea from a student who conformed; don’t let us end our youth with a list of letters on a piece of paper and a mountain of school notes we can’t wait to burn.

Is there ever a time when governments are happy they’ve instilled enough of the basic skills – reading, writing and arithmetic – to allow students to take charge of their own studies, in the same way adults must take charge of their own lives? I don’t believe it would be so hard to make schools this way, and it might work! It might cost less and benefit teachers, students and communities more than what we have. Couldn’t we facilitate, even encourage, students to run their own studies as adults must lead their own lives?

But first, what is the whole point? Not of just schooling, but everything?

Why. What is your ‘Why’? Your core values, your instinctive interests, your message? Yours will be different to anyone else’s and no one can define this for you. How much time, freedom and encouragement do students have to find their core?

A necessary note for all the wonderful people who’ve experienced school: this world is not about recalling facts quickly, neither is it about linear progress, neither is it about being ‘better’ than the person sitting next to you. More than ever this world is about collaboration, and that at the heart of this project.


Soooo… hello!

I was inspired to create this mini-thesis, and present it to you, after reflecting on my own core values and life experiences. At this early stage my hope is that you see why vigorously applying the kinds of school solutions, outlined at the start of this piece, are missing the mark. Perhaps this will spark more of your own thoughts, anecdotes or solutions to our global phenomenon of dehumanized school-systems? I hope so! And I truly hope that, whether you agree or disagree, you’ll contact me to share, because I love conversations on this topic of schooling.

Would it be impossible to shape the places our youth spend so much time into hubs of true intellectual development, where students begin to ‘live’ instead of endlessly preparing for…what, life? I don’t believe it’s impossible. But I do believe that ‘learning’ will remain the only aim of schooling if the system is unchallenged and if no feasible national-scale alternative is on offer.

If all this sounds too fanatical or Utopian, then please keep thinking about the ideas here. While no system can ever be perfect, my reasoning leads me to conclude that so many national school systems world-wide have become so far from helpful that we must, at least, try something. This thesis outlines a few ideas to start a conversation.

Yours timidly, Leah


P.S. Something for fun. Think about the people in your life, especially the ones you go to when you need help. Don’t they all approach problems from different angles? Some address your emotional side, some the practical side, others your lack of contacts… that’s because people are different (“oh, really Einstein!”) soooo, when you’re stuck on any element, there is always a person with the perfect natural strengths to help you forward.

Who are they?

  • Choice: Find yourself a peer at approximately your level to bat around ideas and occasionally be struck with a need to explore something new! Your peer should not be selected only on the basis of age, social class, gender, location, religion…or any of the many ways that national schools split populations.
  • Interest: You want to find a topic that is really exciting? An inspirer can’t help but make their topics shine and get you super excited. These wonderful people are everywhere, and are increasingly found on-line. TED talks, for example.
  • Confidence: You have this voice in your head saying you should give up before you make a fool of yourself? A reflector is a person who shows you your abilities and real interests, especially when you can’t see them and they have unshakeable belief in the abilities you have that you’ve forgotten about.
  • Access: If you have no idea who you could reach out to for your project and google isn’t helping, find a connector in the field you’re interested in. These people know who’s who and who can help.
  • Milestones: Arrrgh! Where to begin? It’s all too much! Find a guide as they are ace at grounding ideas in reality so they, er, actually become real.
  • Practicalities: The facilitator is expert at finding ways to tackle or work around practical obstacles. What exactly is stopping you; time, money, resources?
  • Learning: You just can’t make yourself do the practice you know you should? Very normal; find a coach. Coaches hone skills and provide challenge at just the right level so you make giant leaps forward. Ace!
  • Reflection: Reached your aim? Fantastic! Congratulate yourself and reflect on the journey, perhaps with a reviewer. Reviewers naturally look backwards and can’t help seeing ways to improve what’s there.

Through collaboration we lift each-other.