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The Irony of Traditional Schooling 

(part 1 of Alejandra Gonzalez's Capstone project)


What's the first thing that you think when someone says the word “school?” Did you think of it as a space to play? A place to learn the necessary skills to live in the real world? Perhaps you thought about having a choice on the learning things you were actually interested in? A place that allows internal and external growth? 


There is something clearly wrong with the educational system when most young people think of schools as a burden that causes them extreme anxiety and stress, somewhere they don’t feel safe because they face abuse and bullying on a daily basis. The excessive amount of homework and tests students have to endure, instead of cultivating a love for learning, creates hard feelings against it. These factors have definitely caused serious harm to their mental, physical, and emotional health. 


If the purpose of schools is to teach kids important skills they will need in the future, for college and work as well as social life, if they are meant to create a safe space to learn in peace without the worry of being bullied or abused in the hallway, if schools are supposed to find the most effective way for kids to learn without having to deal with utmost anxiety and stress problems and even suicidal thoughts or attempts. If there is supposed to be outside support to help them with their academic dreams and help make them come true instead of shutting down the plans of students because they see them as incapable of achieving their goals, if schools are supposed to be all those things, I believe they are failing. 


I often think about how people take education for granted. Not everyone, but there is a decent amount of adults that simply don’t care for education, and I guess that’s OK if you don’t have children that will have to attend school at some point in their lives. I say this because going to school is so much more than going to class, learning something new every day, taking tests, and doing homework. People overlook the smallest of details and brush them off because they don’t seem too relevant, but over time, those small things could definitely become a big problem if they aren’t handled with the care they require. 


What kind of issues are you talking about? 

There are plenty of issues that are often dismissed as unimportant or that people simply aren’t aware of. One of the most important is the way students are taught in traditional schools. 


The delight of learning and the wish for it doesn’t start to fade only because of tests or studying things that are meaningless. It starts at a much earlier age, when the thing that makes kids the happiest is taken away from them in order to “educate” them and “take greater care” of them. 


Naturally, kids and teens are designed to play, and it’s been like this since the beginning of humankind. In recent years, there has been a decline in free play or self-directed play. Studies argue this decline is correlated with the decline in the mental health of young people. 

Nowadays, it’s most common to see young children with schedules packed with adult-driven activities like sports. There are a few problems with this. One of them is their overpacked schedule. It can be incredibly stressful for a kid to have so many activities throughout their day with very little free time for themselves. Being on the move, from home to school, and maybe after hours, later they have tutoring or sports classes. By the time they are done with their activities, it’s time to head home, do homework, have dinner, get ready to sleep, and repeat. This is not a schedule a young person can sustain without causing them unnecessary stress, anxiety, and, in some cases, depression issues. These are schedules that adults are designed to endure, and even then, it can be hard for them to handle all of it at once. 


The second problem is supplementing free play with activities like sports. It is commonly believed that the sooner someone starts practicing a sport, the more likely they will be able to compete or play professionally one day. It’s not unusual for a kid to start playing a sport at a very young age; by the time they enter high school, they may already be burned out or even have developed a hatred for the sport. Losing and making mistakes can be so much more distressing and traumatic on an emotional level for children than people may think. 


It’s good and healthy for kids to play sports rather than have them imposed on their lives. For example, the big and significant difference between organized sports focused on competition and “play” sports is that when children get tired and their bodies naturally reach their limits, they will stop, but with competitive sports, they have to continue until the coach says it. When children grow up in an always-competitive-and-perfectionist space, they will, of course, come to think that is what everything is about: being a perfectionist and competing with everyone around them to be better than them. 


Through free play, children learn to see everybody as equal; no one is better or worse, no one is smarter or stupider. They arrange their own competing games; however, they don’t do it for the sake of being better than their friends but with the sole purpose of having fun and enjoying their time with other people their age. 


With free play, kids don’t naturally say, “The one that plays and has fun the most will be the best one." They play because they enjoy it, and why should there be a more important reason to let a kid play than the fact that it makes them happy? 


Related to overpacked schedules and starting sports at a very young age, kids nowadays don’t have as much free time as kids 30–40 years ago used to have. This is because of school and the many extracurricular classes they have. 


Free play allows children to engage and interact with the world around them from a young age. Play allows children to develop very important skills they will need in their lives as teenagers and adults. Kids learn to regulate their emotions and physical strength through self-directed play. They acquire skills such as social, communicative, problem-solving, teamwork, self-advocacy, and many other valuable life skills when they’re actively involved in self-directed play. They can naturally explore their personal interests; once they engage with something they find joy in, they will practice it and learn about it until they are satisfied. This could last a day, a week, a year, or a decade; it’s the young person who decides. 


When play becomes a controlled activity by adults, it starts losing some of its benefits for kids’ lives, mainly things like leadership, creativity, critical thinking, and negotiating skills. The sense of ownership and gain of control over situations is more impactful through free play, whereas if it were directed by an adult, it wouldn't be as motivating. 


The article “The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents” by Peter Gray published by The Strong in 2011; reasons that throughout recent years there has been a visible rise of issues regarding mental health in students of all ages. Problems of anxiety, stress, depression, and the sensation of helplessness are all correlated with a decrease in free play. 


One of the main complications a lot of young people express is the lessened sense of control they feel over their own lives. Researchers have found that anxiety and depression have an important role in the locus of control of individuals. While people with an internal locus of control believe their decisions and actions control their own lives, people with an external locus of control often think the world around them controls their lives, thus making them feel anxious and depressed over the reduced sense of ownership and control over their own lives. These same people with an external locus of control are frequently less likely to take care of their health, studies, and futures than people with an internal locus of control. 


Play cannot 100% assure a person will have an internal locus of control if they play more during their childhood and early adolescence; however, it can fight off mental health problems that lead to an external locus of control. With self-directed play, students can learn how to sort out difficult tasks that require logical and critical thinking. It also demands that they take on leadership and ownership roles in many situations. Giving young people the space to learn how to be autonomous through natural activities such as play is one of the best tools they can be offered for when they grow up, and more of their responsibility and critical thinking skills are required for university or work. 


When kids play, they do it with the sole purpose of having fun. Children don’t naturally think of play as a way to defeat their opponent, to overwhelm them, to make them feel inferior and afraid, to win praise from their coaches, or to win trophies and medals. 


If schools cared more for the intrinsic goals of children than the extrinsic goals, a lot of things would change for the better. The things mentioned above regarding winning trophies and praise from teachers and coaches are extrinsic goals. If taught from a very young age, kids will only play and learn to get a prize and validation from their teachers and parents, and while receiving praise and prizes for their hard work is by no means a bad thing, it shouldn’t be the only reason why someone should pursue a sport, work, or study. When solely looking for good marks and medals, the true purpose of play and learning is lost. Instead of being taught to chase after near-perfect scores and validation, which they will only receive if they put themselves in situations of stress and anxiety, they should be taught to go after the important goals that come from within themselves: studying something because they are interested in it, working on their weaknesses because they want to improve themselves to be better at something they want to succeed at, playing a sport because they genuinely enjoy doing it, rather than looking for the approval of a “good job” in the corner of their exam paper or not being yelled during practice because you didn’t mess up the game. 


The reason why so many people, children, adolescents, and adults, oftentimes feel frustrated and depressed about their lives is because they were taught to pursue extrinsic goals, and, sadly, sometimes they don’t notice it until they have reached a point where they would rather not live than change the situation. 


Starting with play and other self-directed activities that put intrinsic goals first should be a top priority in the developmental process of a young person. Living to satisfy oneself first, despite what others think or say, does so much more than living to satisfy others in order to receive validation that will not last so long after it’s gone. 


Give children time to follow their intrinsic goals—things that make them happy—and allow them to learn things they are interested in. Provide a safe space that is full of encouragement and understanding, along with the tools they need to succeed, and they will learn to put their necessities and goals first. They will become adults who will live, study, work, and find happiness and satisfaction for themselves. 


It’s ridiculous how schools expect all students to perform their best while they suffer from depression, anxiety, and stress that are oftentimes caused by the school itself. What the system doesn’t seem to understand is that what helps one student learn, isn’t necessarily the same for the rest of the class. Schools expect students to achieve the best grades, and if they don't, they tell their students it’s useless; they tell them they’re stupid; or they simply feel useless for getting a low grade. If taught well, any subject can be learned by anyone, so really, the students aren’t at fault here. A kid can be incredible at solving math problems, but they can also have a hard time understanding them at first. They may have a different learning process, and while it takes them more time to learn a subject, that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of being great once they catch the hang of it. The issue is the system. 


A great example of why people have a hard time learning or simply don’t enjoy it are tests. Tests have been an increasing problem in recent years. But what exactly is wrong with tests? Don’t they help measure progress on the students' learning journey? Firstly, there are plenty of wrong things with standardized testing, and secondly, no. 


Somewhere along the journey of education, people decided that scores accurately show how smart or stupid a student is. The desire to learn something dies when it's being imposed, tested, and compared to the rest of the class. If you ask a high schooler what they are studying and why, they will tell you it's for a test. Students don’t study because they want to, but because they have to get a good score on their test or they’ll miss the class, and if they miss too many classes, they’ll miss the entire school year. I don’t even think we can actually call studying for tests ‘learning,’ they’re memorizing, and there is a huge difference between learning and memorizing. Students try their best to memorize the topics that will be on the next tests, but after it’s over and they have handed out their papers to the teacher, the vast majority of the things they studied will go flying off the window because they only needed them for a test. 


The French philosopher Simone Weil was a teacher during the 1930s. Weil believed that students should work without any desire for good marks, passing exams, or academic success. She refused to give her students tests or even answers right after they asked the questions. The philosopher gave her students the time necessary for them to ask themselves questions to incentivize curiosity and deepen their desire to solve the academic problems themselves. For her, the true wish to understand something was more valuable than the right and logical answer. She believed that when we have decided to do something, we must desire to do it correctly because such desire is fundamental to any true effort. 


Tests are limiting the desire to learn, ask questions, and be curious. They are perfect for making students work under unbelievable amounts of anxiety and stress while still expecting a perfect score. They are also amazing at making people learn things they don’t have any interest in, and instead of opening a door for interest, they open a door of hatred and resentment for the subject. Schools kill the desire and curiosity of students to learn when it’s shown that good scores are placed above the delightful process of learning and being curious. Students grow up in a system where they’re told the number given to them on a piece of paper defines who they are, how smart or stupid they are, how lazy or energetic they are, and how successful they will be. It is truly ridiculous that the system has made students label themselves based on a number


Learning should be more about the process than the final result; people can learn through the process that studying requires. The studies at traditional schools can be too straightforward. There’s no time to be curious, to observe, or to ask questions; the teacher will always have the answer for them, which, technically, is what they’re there for: to answer questions.


The process of asking a question will eventually lead to an answer, but most of the time, as soon as the question pops into our heads, we have the answer within seconds by looking it up on the internet. It’s important to try and put effort into the process of forming a question. First is why; why is it like that? Second is logic; based on my knowledge and logic, how can I answer this question? Third is solving it; despite if the answer is right or wrong, the effort put into the question and solving process is much more valuable than the final answer. Teachers should be there to answer the question after that exercise of attention, curiosity, and critical thinking is completed by their students. Students shouldn’t just take the answers, memorize them, and then forget them after they’re no longer needed. 


Weil explained how intelligence can only be led by desire; for there to be desire there has to be curiosity and delight in what one studies. Intelligence can only grow if it’s fed with curiosity and pays off in delight when we learn something we have dedicated time and passion for. The importance of pleasure in learning is as important as it is for us to eat and sleep. Where there is no desire, delight, and curiosity, there are no students but simple beings who, when they’re done, will have learned nothing from their studies. 


Life will never give us the answers to our questions right away, or maybe ever. We ought to be the ones to search for them, to go out of our way to learn new things, and to use the best of our knowledge to guide us to our desired answer. 


How sleep affects academic performance 

As a consequence of the excessive use of tests, it’s normal that students face academic burnout from a very young age. With slightly longer school days, more homework, and more tests to study for, one of the main causes of burnout is the lack of sleep. 


In the 1970s, schools switched starting hours to earlier ones, so instead of starting school by 9 a.m., they would begin from 7:45–8:30 a.m. A lot of people wouldn't see this as a major issue, but it certainly becomes one, especially as school gradually gets more difficult and there are more things to do. 


The CDC says kids from ages 6–12 should be getting 9–12 hours of sleep per 24 hours, and adolescents from ages 13–18 should be getting 8–10 hours of sleep per 24 hours. Most teenagers only get about 6.5 hours of sleep. The sleeping schedules of young people have been threatened by the increase of school hours, testing, homework, after-school clubs, and/or classes. Researchers say that there’s a change in the “biological clock” of a person during adolescence. As a result of this change, it’s difficult for adolescents to go to sleep before 11 p.m. This shift in the “biological clock” and lack of sleep truly affect the lives of adolescents. Sleep deprivation can lead to many mental health issues, such as anxiety, stress, depression, eating disorders, and an increase in suicidal thoughts and attempts. This, of course, affects the academic performance of students and their lives outside of school. Stanford School Medicine published a great article that further explains the effect that sleep deprivation has on students. The article’s title is “Among teens, sleep deprivation an epidemic," published October 8, 2015 by Ruthann Richter. 


I can’t help but think about how many other teenagers are misunderstood when it comes to their sleeping habits simply because they’re not aware of these things. As important as this is, it doesn’t get enough attention. I believe both students and adults should be more informed about this particular matter. Being mindful of these types of things can really help younger people understand themselves better and take greater care of their mental and physical health. 


This takes me to another serious issue with the traditional schooling system: the lack of democracy in schools in a democratic country. 


Students rights 

Our lives are based on our own experiences; we believe things based on what we have seen or heard, we learn and work based on what we have lived in our lives. In a way, we live in a bubble of our own experiences. Sometimes that bubble can become blinding and not let us see what's outside of it. We grip onto these things we already know and have already experienced, and we become incapable of letting go of them, even if it is for just a brief moment. Aware or not, we have all been that person who doesn’t want to see past their own bubble. It’s difficult to realize we are limiting our knowledge or beliefs just because we refuse to set aside what we already know for certain. Schools are a great example of “bubble blocking,” if you think about it. 


How come the educational system in a democratic country doesn’t allow for democracy in schools? Democracy has been really important for the US and other countries that function under democracy. Freedom of speech, fundamental rights, equality, and justice. If these four things are so important, why are they not a thing in the popular educational system? Freedom of speech and will, justice, equality, and basic rights are taken away from young people once they set foot in a school; all of those things are non-existent in schools except in history textbooks. The rights of young people to decide things such as the rules of the school, how they will spend their time, and what they will spend their time learning does not exist in traditional schooling. Wouldn’t it make more sense if schools didn’t deprive young people of democracy but instead helped prepare students for the responsibilities that come with living in a democratic country and being a responsible citizen? Students don’t have a say in what they will study; they have to follow their school’s curriculum, even if it means studying things they aren’t interested in or even worse, things they know they won’t need once they graduate. They have to ask for permission to go to the bathroom, and unless the teacher allows it, they will have to sit through the rest of their class until they can do something as basic as using the bathroom. Certain topics are banned from school, and if a student asks about them, the teacher can’t answer because if they do, they may get fired. They ban books from their libraries just because the system considers them “inappropriate” or "dangerous." Giving history classes and deliberately avoiding relevant historical events because it’s just convenient for people to never learn the truth. Ignoring things as important as bullying, abuse, mental health issues, gender identity and sex education—things that, if spoken of more openly, could prevent a lot of unwished and traumatic situations. 


Acknowledging these things means facing the truth about a completely dysfunctional and dogmatic system. 


So many people don’t know enough about where their child is studying. Sure, they know the name of the school, how the campus looks, where it's located, and its curriculum, but are those really the things we should focus on? What about the lack of freedom or rights? Can they play? Can they learn without being stressed all the time? Are they being bullied? Do they have endless amounts of projects and homework? Are they happy? I don’t think some people understand the effect schools have on children beyond academics. To be straightforward, some kids have committed suicide because of the stress school causes them or because they’re abused by their classmates or teachers. 


Some people put more effort and thought into choosing their next phone than the school their children are attending and the repercussions it’ll have on their academic, personal, and work lives.


To everyone, especially young people 

If you read my thoughts based on my experience or the experience of others and the things I have done research about, I wholeheartedly hope they can at least make you question the traditional school system. There’s currently an educational crisis asking for urgent change, but for it to change, we must first acknowledge it and then take action. I encourage everyone, but mostly young people, to stand up for the education you deserve and that has been taken away from you over the past years, because if we don’t take the initiative, who will? 

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