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How Schools Un-educate Children

June 3, 2012

Schools un-educate children.

By all but the most narrow definition of what constitutes learning, schools un-educate children.

When a child enters secondary school, by and large, she is curious, determined to succeed, resilient, confident in speaking in public, willing to give it a go, independent as a learner, willing to work with others who are not her friends, and willing to ask and answer questions.

She already possesses many of the character traits we hope our students will have when they leave school. And yet five years later, these are not the character traits you find in a typical Year 11 student. They have lost most of them, and (arguably) replaced them with just one; they know how to answer exam questions.

A few months ago we ran a project with our Year 7 students to investigate what’s going on in Syria. The project basically involved 3 steps:

  1. find out what’s happening in Syria by asking good questions;
  2. learn about the role of the United Nations through a mock UN debate on Syria;
  3. write to William Hague MP, the Foreign Secretary, with your views on Syria.

Over the past few weeks I’ve repeated the project with my most able Year 10 students. Have a look at the students’ work below, and try to guess which pieces were done by Year 7 students, and which by Year 10. The results are revealed below.

STEP 1 – Find out what’s happening in Syria by asking good questions:

This involves students writing down questions in response to stimulus pictures from Syria. Before they do this, I teach them about the difference between basic questions (what, where, when), and advanced questions (why, what happens next, who’s better of worse etc.). Click on the image to enlarge it.

STEP 2 – Learn about the role of the United Nations through a mock UN debate on Syria:

You can see some of the Year 7 debate in a previous blog post, but I didn’t video the Year 10 debate, partly because they were shy about being filmed, and partly because it was no contest. The Year 7s were more impressive debaters, hands down.

STEP 3 – Write to William Hague MP, the Foreign Secretary, with your views on Syria:

Below are four of the best letters – two from Year 7 students, and two from Year 10. Can you tell which are which?


In Step 1, the first photo was the sheet completed by Year 10 students, and the second was completed by Year 7 students.

Here are what I think are the three best Year 7 questions:

  • what must they be thinking?
  • how could the situation improve?
  • why aren’t they doing anything about it?
Here are what I think are the three best Year 10 questions:
  • what does the world think about this?
  • are they on the side of the government?
  • why is it allowed to happen?
Now these are all good questions, but the Year 10 students are not asking questions that are any more advanced or nuanced than the Year 7 students. In fact, you could argue it’s the Year 7s who have asked the better questions. I’ll call this round a tie.
STEP 3 -Write to William Hague MP, the Foreign Secretary, with your views on Syria:
The first and fourth letter were written by Year 7 students, and the second and third by Year 10 students. You may have guessed by the hand-writing, but if you based it purely on content, are the Year 10 letters significantly better? I don’t think so. Note, the Houla massacre had not happened when the Year 7 wrote their letters. I think overall, you might say that the Year 10 letters are slightly more nuanced, and have a broader understanding of the conflict, but also slightly less optimistic and idealistic. Overall I don’t think there is a significant difference between them.
Which takes me back to my original point. Schools un-educate children. How can it be that in the three years between year 7 and 10, students only show a marginal improvement in a writing task, no improvement in a thinking task and clear regression in a speaking task?
Now I’ll happily admit that this is not a scientifically-controlled experiment. There are so many variables at play, such as:
  • the Year 10s are involved in a number of GCSEs exams this term and may be distracted by that
  • the impact of adolescence may be a factor – particularly in their willingness to speak in a debate
  • I may have not taught the lessons to the Year 10s as well – was I unconsciously hoping they wouldn’t do so well to prove my point?
  • perhaps if I had stretched the Year 10s more, they would have demonstrated higher abilities
BUT, these are my most able Year 10 students, and I have a good relationship with them. So, why are they not achieving significantly more than the Year 7s?
I believe the answer is this. The relentless focus in schools on academic achievement in its most narrow sense, that is exams, means that the development of vital skills for learning and life are being squeezed out. Over their time in school, most students will show some improvement in their ability to answer exam questions, while at the same time demonstrate an absolute failure to show progress in thinking, questioning, team working, public speaking, debating, learning independently and so on. This is how schools un-eduate children.
The tragedy is that this exam-driven model of learning also squeezes out the creativity and joy of learning for both teachers and students. I firmly believe that children love learning – it’s their default status – and if they are not loving what you are doing with them in the classroom, something needs to change.
I’ll finish with another piece of work from some Year 7s representing China at the United Nations. This document is something they put together to prepare for their debate, without prompting from me. This is what I mean by loving learning.

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