Sucky Schools – How To Repair Our Education System

by Vlad Dolezal on May 31, 2008

A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and decisions are made all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or composer.

Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious black dots and lines must constitute the language of music. It is imperative that students become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed, it would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a thorough grounding in music notation and theory. Playing and listening to music, let alone composing an original piece, are considered very advanced topics and are generally put off until college, and more often graduate school.

As for the primary and secondary schools, their mission is to train students to use this language to jiggle symbols around according to a fixed set of rules: “Music class is where we take out our staff paper, our teacher puts some notes on the board, and we copy them or transpose them into a different key. We have to make sure to get the clefs and key signatures right, and our teacher is very picky about making sure we fill in our quarter-notes completely. One time we had a chromatic scale problem and I did it right, but the teacher gave me no credit because I had the stems pointing the wrong way.”

In their wisdom, educators soon realize that even very young children can be given this kind of musical instruction. In fact it is considered quite shameful if one’s third-grader hasn’t completely memorized his circle of fifths. “I’ll have to get my son a music tutor. He simply wont apply himself to his music homework. He says its boring. He just sits there staring out the window, humming tunes to himself and making up silly songs.”

In the higher grades the pressure is really on. After all, the students must be prepared for the standardized tests and college admissions exams. Students must take courses in Scales and Modes, Meter, Harmony, and Counterpoint. “It’s a lot for them to learn, but later in college when they finally get to hear all this stuff, they’ll really appreciate all the work they did in high school. Of course, not many students actually go on to concentrate in music, so only a few will ever get to hear the sounds that the black dots represent. Nevertheless, it is important that every member of society be able to recognize a modulation or a fugal passage, regardless of the fact that they will never hear one. To tell you the truth, most students just aren’t very good at music. They are bored in class, their skills are terrible, and their homework is barely legible. Most of them couldn’t care less about how important music is in today’s world; they just want to take the minimum number of music courses and be done with it. I guess there are just music people and non-music people. I had this one kid, though, man was she sensational! Her sheets were impeccable every note in the right place, perfect calligraphy, sharps, flats, just beautiful. She’s going to make one hell of a musician someday.”

Waking up in a cold sweat, the musician realizes, gratefully, that it was all just a crazy dream. Of course! he reassures himself, No society would ever reduce such a beautiful and meaningful art form to something so mindless and trivial; no culture could be so cruel to its children as to deprive them of such a natural, satisfying means of human expression. How absurd!

I took the above directly from A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart. It’s a great piece of writing and I totally encourage you to read it. He talks about math education. (“I complain about the lack of mathematics in our mathematics classes“). But there’s a lot more wrong in our education system than just mathematics teaching.

In this article, I will show you what’s wrong, how did it get so bad, and what we can do about it.

What’s wrong with our education system

John Dewey, while visiting a classroom one day, asked the students what they might find if they dug a hole in the earth. The students exchanged puzzled looks, and nobody answered. He asked again, and was met with silence. Finally, the teacher suggested that Dewey had asked the wrong question. “What is the state of the centre of the earth?” she asked her class, and all the students chorused, “Igneous fusion!”

1. Facts instead of understanding

Our schools are fact-junkies. We teach students thousands of useless facts that will be forgotten as soon as the next exam is over. Hell, usually they’re forgotten even before that, and then you see students cramming late into night, only to forget it all within 48 hours. How’s that for effective use of everyone’s time.

The worst subject in this regard is mathematics. Here is a type of problem. Here is how to solve it. Yes it will be on the test. Do exercises 1-35 odd for homework. What a sad way to learn mathematics: to be a trained chimpanzee.

Math educators are consistently finding examples of how kids can do calculations without really knowing what they’re doing. Students given the problem (274+274+274)/3 set about laboriously adding and then dividing, completely missing the point.

Which brings me to the next point.

2. Facts and techniques instead of creativity

Somewhere along the way, our education system forgot the value of creativity. People are saying things like “there’s no need to reinvent the wheel” and “experts have spent years thinking about this, why should you think about it?”

It’s like all the answers have been found and all that’s left is learning facts and doing routine tasks.

The fact is, creativity is like the car’s spark plug. A spark plug gets a car’s engine started, and then the whole car can move forward. Yet if this little gadget is damaged, the whole car will become just an inert hunk of metal.

Your mind is an amazing biological machine, but it would be just sitting there idly without creativity. That’s why the current education seriously hurts learning. It takes away the joy of discovery, it takes away the students’ enthusiasm, it takes away the fun of learning.

Creativity is what makes us human, and what makes us far more valuable than a machine. Companies value creativity very highly. (at least the better ones. Think Google). If our creativity is stomped upon and discouraged at school, the schools are doing the exact opposite of what they were created for.

3. Grading

This is a huge topic, I can only scratch the surface of it in this article. I’ll explain it fully in another article devoted solely to this topic. And yes, I’ve got everything backed by scientific research. Wait for my article about this to get all the references.

The gist of it is that emphasizing grades:

1. Undermines students’ interest in learning

Once good grades become the point of learning, students stop caring about the learning itself. In fact, they come to hate the idea of learning. Once they leave college, they’ll never want to hear about learning again. And that’s perhaps the worst effect of our education system. Not only does it do a great job at stopping students from learning anything at school, it even stops them from learning for a long time after.

2. Makes failure seem overwhelming

Hey, failure’s not a big deal. It helps you learn. In the words of Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM: “Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.”

Avoiding failure leads to needless perfectionism. It leads to stress. And most importantly, it leads to less learning. See my article Learning Mastery 3 – Fail Early, Fail Often on more details why failure is good for your learning.

3. Leads students to avoid challenging themselves

Here’s a question for you (get ready, it’s a tough one). Will you build more muscle by lifting a 20 kg weight, or a 1 kg one?


Similarly, you learn more by tackling challenging tasks. You learn by tackling tasks you don’t know the answer to yet. Avoiding challenging tasks gives you better grades – but worse learning. Plus, easy tasks are boring. This, again, undermines interest in learning.

4. Reduces the quality of learning

This is almost a paradox. The whole point of grading is to help students learn. But emphasizing grades makes students focus on the grades instead of learning. And as a result they remember less.

“The archer who sets his eyes on the prize will miss the target.”

Grading really is like shooting yourself (or, rather, the students) in the foot.

Simplicio: So you’re saying we should just stop assessing students? Let them to do whatever they want?

Salviati: I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying we should move towards more meaningful forms of assessment. Verbal assessment is much more accurate than summing up the whole year of a student’s work in a single number or letter. I’ll say more about verbal assessment later.

Simplicio: But verbal assessment is very subjective. Number grades, on the other hand, are objective and precise.

Salviati: Just because you add up all the year’s marks and average them doesn’t make them precise. Each of the individual marks remains just as subjective as it was. Averaging all the grades and calling it accurate is like the story of the Emperor’s nose. A long time ago, the Emperor of China wore a veil, and never showed his face. The people wondered how long his nose was. So one man went around and asked a thousand people what they think – how long is the emperor’s nose? Then he averaged those numbers. Surely the resulting length of the Emperor’s nose must be accurate, because it was found scientifically.

Simplicio: You’re saying all the individual grades are subjective. But what about standardized tests? Aren’t those objective?

Salviati: Standardized tests have probably done more harm to our education than anything else. Let me explain…

4. Standardized testing

If grading is like shooting yourself in the foot, standardized testing is like cutting your leg off with a chainsaw. To quote a teacher:

“We spend 25% of our time taking standardized tests, 50% of our time preparing for standardized tests and 15% of our time resting after tests. There’s only 10% of our time left in which the students can actually learn something.”

Standardized testing is like a black hole that sucks up and annihilates any learning it gets close to. It bends the very fabric of curriculum and students’ time. The teacher above might have been slightly exaggerating, but she’s closer to the truth than most of us would dare believe. In the words of another teacher, speaking about demands to raise standardized test scores:

“Sure you can raise standardized test scores. Just eliminate arts, restrict extracurricular activities, and spend hours on end drilling the students on test-taking techniques. And sure enough, the test scores will increase. What a meaningful measure of learning.”

Not only does standardized testing annihilate meaningful activities like arts, it also emphasizes all the wrong things. Since it’s “objective”, it assesses facts instead of creativity. Therefore preparing students for these test means teaching cartloads of pointless facts, rather than meaningful concepts and ideas.

5. Competition instead of co-operation

Researchers know that the best way to progress is co-operation. They live in big communities, sharing ideas, openly discussing things over lunch and helping each other. If everybody kept their ideas secret in fear of losing them, we’d still be living in the middle ages.

Yet schools somehow didn’t catch on to this. In schools, co-operation is called cheating, laziness, “not doing one’s work” and a dozen other unpleasant names. Schools would have us believe that the only way to achieve something is on your own. It’s quite a wonder our schools don’t churn out crazy sociopaths, who are afraid to share any of their ideas or feelings with others.

Humans are like individual parts of a machine. Each of them is amazing in its own right, but together they are so much more.

The schools also teach us that everybody else is competition. After all, the standardized testing is all about sorting people in baskets like “the top 1%” and “the top 10%”. This leads to students becoming adults who undermine others’ efforts and trash-talk people behind their back. Because their education has taught them that everyone who’s more successful is taking opportunities away from them.

Someone in the top 1% richest people in a third world country is much poorer than someone in the top 20% richest in the US. Similarly, giving everyone a great education would stop the need for sorting people. After all, if the top 20% of students were as good as the top 1% now, none of the top universities would complain about receiving “average” students. Students could spend their time learning instead of being sorted.

6. Students as passive receptacles of knowledge

Have you noticed that in a traditional classroom, a teacher does about 80% of the talking, and the other 20% is divided among all the students? I mean, sure, it makes sense. The teacher knows more. Therefore his talking will be more useful than the students’ talking. If the students are allowed to talk, the air will be filled with half-baked ideas and misconceptions. On the other hand, if the teacher is talking the whole time, the air is filled with pure distilled wisdom.

There’s only one problem. The classrooms are there for the students, not some third-party ethereal observer who might happen along.

Learning is an active process. When the students discuss, talk about the new material, try to explain it to each another and figure it out together – that’s when learning happens.

Simplicio: But you can’t get students to talk about topics they know nothing about. You’ve got to tell them about it first, so they can discuss it.

Salviati: If you just tell the students about the topic, they won’t really understand. Sure, they’ll be able to answer carefully crafted questions that exactly match what they were taught. But they won’t be able to use their knowledge in new creative ways. They won’t have real “gut-level understanding“.
Concepts need to be actively created by the student. They can’t be passed from the teacher to the student. You can pass on facts, but you can’t pass on concepts.

Simplicio: Create the concepts for themselves? They can’t be passed on from the teacher to the student? It sounds to me like you’re saying teachers should just sit back and let the students learn on their own. Like we don’t even need teachers in the classroom.

Salviati: Oh yes we need teachers. Teachers help the students discover concepts by asking the right questions. Then they let the students discuss it among themselves without immediately jumping in and correcting every little mistake.

Simplicio: Wait, teachers shouldn’t correct the students’ mistakes? I thought the whole point of a teacher is to help the students overcome their misconceptions and teach them the truth.

Salviati: The teacher shouldn’t immediately jump in and correct the mistakes. Instead, he should ask the students another question that reveals their mistaken assumptions. For example, let’s say the students are trying to simplify the fraction 19/95 . They come to the solution of crossing out the nines to get 1/5, which is the correct answer.
A bad teacher would immediately jump in and say “No, no, no! That’s wrong. THIS is how you simplify a fraction…” (In fact, the teacher probably wouldn’t even let the students try to figure it out on their own. He would begin the lesson by “This is how you simplify fractions. Now do exercises 11-25 on the handout. Stop talking, John! Turn around David, and pay attention. This is important, it will be on the exam. Come on, get going.”)
A good teacher would just say “Ok, how about simplifying 3/12?” and let the students figure it out. This might involve the students fiddling with a group of twelve marbles, to really get a deep understanding what 3/12 means (3 marbles out of 12)

Simplicio: Doesn’t that take an awful lot of time? It seems simpler to just tell the students how to simplify fractions. Why the whole circus with “figuring it out” and “inventing the concepts for themselves”?

Salviati: Because that’s the only way the students can really understand the concepts. You can’t pass on understanding, it needs to be created by the students themselves. If you just teach them a technique, it will be forgotten as soon as the next exam is over.

Simplicio: I’m still not convinced by this whole “actively creating concepts” thing.

Salviati: Let me show you another example…

A first-grade teacher in Massachusetts shoves aside all the classroom furniture and uses masking tape to outline a large boat on the floor. Its the Mayflower, she tells the children – the very ship we’ve been learning about. She hands a piece of paper to a student named Zeb and says it’s a message that the king has given him to deliver to the class. Zeb reads aloud that the ship can’t sail until we tell the king how big it is.
“What should we do?” the teacher asks. “Who has an idea?”

After some false starts and some painful silences, a boy named Tom volunteers that it can’t be three feet because he knows (having just been measured by the nurse), that he is four feet and the boat looks bigger than he is. Other children now join in, one suggesting that they find out how many times Tom can fit in the boat. It turns out the boat is four Toms long. Problem solved!

But wait a minute, says the teacher. How will the king know what that means? After all, he’s never met Tom. She waits for someone to remember that Tom is four feet tall. No one does. Instead, Mark suggests that the boat can be measured with hands. He does this several times (rather sloppily) and gets a different answer each time. After more discussion, the class realizes you have to start right at the end of the boat, and then make sure there’s no space between your hands when you put them down. Finally Mark concludes to everyone’s satisfaction that the boat is thirty-six hands long. Done!

Well, just to be sure, says the teacher, let’s have Sue (the smallest child in the class) measure it again. Oh, no! Now the boat is is forty-four hands long! Confusion and animated discussion follow. The children realize that all hands on deck are not of equal length. By the time someone proposes using people’s feet instead, time has run out. But the teacher has them return to the problem the following day. One child now remembers that the king knows Zeb, and argues that the boat can therefore be measured in multiples of Zeb’s foot. The class is so excited by this that they decide to use Zeb to measure everything in the room, and the teacher lets them.

It isn’t until the next day, returning to the topic yet again, that she begins to make the lesson explicit for them. She invites the children to think about the importance of a standard form of measurement. And only after that does she finally introduce them to the use of rulers.

How did the system get so bad

Some people (like Howard Gardner) argue that schools are doing their job perfectly. That is, that their job is to dumb people down, take away their enthusiasm and creativity, and create a timid, uncreative, easily controllable workforce.

Normally I’m all for conspiracy theories, but I don’t believe this one. I believe everyone is doing what they think is best.

1. Teachers don’t know better teaching methods

I’ve met teachers that have lost interest in teaching, and just sort of come to the classroom as a boring job. They don’t care about the students and wish the day was over as soon as it starts. But these are rarity.

Most teachers want to help students learn. They care about the students. And that’s what hurts me most – they do all the wrong things, but with the best intentions. If this majority of teachers only knew that there are better teaching methods, we could change the system for the better. They would be glad to help the students learn better.

2. The administration wants accountability

Students and teachers generally realize standardized testing is bad. But we’re powerless to change it. The school administration sort of realizes it. But the big administration out there, who never set a foot in a classroom except for a photo shoot for their campaign, they adore standardized tests. They want accountability. Because then it seems to them like they know how much learning is happening, when they see the standardized test scores.

The trouble is, they don’t realize that learning has nothing whatsoever to do with standardized test scores. They might be in fact inversely correlated.

3. The Current system is *familiar*

After going through the system for 12 years, we don’t realize things could be different. In fact, we might even start to resist change (“If it was bad enough for me, it’s bad enough for my kids”). I personally hope as few kids as possible will have to suffer through what we had to suffer through.

Parents also pose a big problem to making effective changes. To them, it’s reassuring to see students get grades, and to have the teacher firmly in control of the classroom, talking most of the time. After all, if the parents have gone through the system and turned out fine, surely the children can as well. And also, if it’s boring, annoying and painful, surely it must be good for you.

It’s as if they subscribe to what might be called the Listerine theory of education, based on a famous ad campaign that sought to sell this particular brand of mouthwash on the theory that if it tasted vile, it obviously worked well.

Parents get very nervous if you propose them to put their child in a progressive school. They get nervous when the students don’t get grades (instead they get specific and positive feedback, to really help them learn). The parents get nervous when the students do most of the talking, when the teachers seems to fade into the background and let students learn instead of being the center of the classroom, they get nervous when students are allowed to get involved in the creation of their own curriculum.

Thankfully, most parents’ worries dissipate if they actually visit such a school. They see the students sitting or lying down in groups, excitedly discussing things. They see students’ projects plastering the walls (and I’m not talking about twenty look-alike projects set by the teacher. I’m talking about projects the students take on themselves). They see the teacher giving helpful advice and guiding the students, without telling them all the answers and without being the ultimate authority.

What we can do to change it

I’ve described a lot of positive changes we could implement. While it’s by no means a complete guide, it gives you a good idea of what schools could be like.

I know we won’t change the system overnight. That would involve all the people at the top suddenly realizing the truth. Unfortunately, they’re buried too deep in paperwork to notice what’s going on in real classrooms.

To quote Alfie Kohn:

[The educators] sit on Mount Olympus, where no children live, and insist that students be made to learn. They like to talk about motivating kids, as though motivation could be imposed from the outside. They are fixated on observable, testable behaviors (such as correctly pronouncing the words on a page) while ignoring the people who are doing the behaving (and whether they care about, or understand, those words.)

It would be a damn near impossible job trying to change the people at the top.

The change will have to come from the bottom. We need to spread awareness among students and teachers. Let everyone know that things could be different! We don’t have to suffer through 12 years of boredom and mindlessness! Learning can be fun!

In fact, learning and fun go together. Taking the fun away from learning is like taking tires away from a car. You can still move the car along, but you won’t get very far, and it will require lots of effort.

So what can you do to help change our education system?

1. Send a link to Lockhart’s Lament to your maths teacher.

This isn’t guaranteed to make a difference. It probably won’t. When I sent the link to my teacher, he went right on teaching in his old way. He simply called it “the same old rant, but written in an interesting way”. But it’s worth a try. If even one out of a hundred math teachers will start teaching REAL mathematics, it will be worth it.

2. Send a link to this article to anyone you think might be interested.

I sent copies of Lockhart’s Lament to several of my friends who I knew would be interested. They then sent it on to others, and those to others.

If you know someone who isn’t happy with the current school system, or is generally open to change, you might want to send him this article.

Or, the simplest and yet very effective action:

3. ReTweet this article, or give it a thumb up in StumbleUpon.

The more students and teachers realize that schools could be fun and interesting, the better our chances to change the system. Saving our education doesn’t get easier than this. Just one click, and you can make the world a better place.

Let’s change the world!

{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous May 31, 2008 at 16:25

This is a *really* great article. Hope many, many people read it. Applying the principles you talk about requires thought on part of the teachers, administrators and the overall ‘system’. But as we know, people go to ridiculous lengths to avoid thinking, sometimes evidently teachers too. Look at this, though it may be an urban legend.

BTW, to nipick, in your profile which I looked up on being impressed with your article, the Devanagari label for your gender reads ‘lagi’ when it should read ‘ling’ in Hindi/Sanskrit.


José May 31, 2008 at 18:11

Once again, I loved the article. I was quite impressed with both the length and how solid it is.

By the way, check out this video:


Brian Burtt May 31, 2008 at 22:37

I really appreciated this post. (I’m an aspiring philosopher of education, and a big fan in particular of Dewey, whom you quote.)

I think, though, that at least in the American context Howard Gardner is in part right.

You might be interested in John Taylor Gatto’s “The Underground History of American Schooling.” It’s all on-line at:
It’s a lot to read. I’d pick a few nits with a few of his historical interpretations, and at time the intensity of his rant can get the better of him, but there’s a lot there worth thinking about.


Anonymous June 1, 2008 at 01:21

You have many great ideas, and in the ideal world, your suggestions would be well founded. I would like to comment on your ideas about having students figure out their mistakes rather than teachers telling them how to do it, as in your reducing fraction example.

I’ve tried, I’ve really really tried, to get kids to figure out their own mistakes, using leading questions to give them clues as to where to find them. But, when I have done this, the kids just get passionately angry because I don’t just tell them how to do it. Granted, if we started doing the more investigative approach in say, third or fourth grade, and it was consistent, then they probably wouldn’t get so angry. However, this would have to be consistent from teacher to teacher, both young and old, and completely approved by the administration. Unfortunately, we don’t live in the ideal world and this won’t happen.


Raving Ranting Lunatic June 1, 2008 at 03:03

Nicely organized, well written and good ideas.

Most of the education seems to be geared toward the testing system or exams and fail to recognize the needs in the realworld.

I tend to follow the similar concept when I used to “teach” (help out) my Sis during her school [ ask leading questions and let her discover the solution instead of directly telling it] She used to get so mad with me, she stopped asking my help 🙂

Hence consistency is needed when coming to teaching methologies so that children can rely on it


Full Embrace June 1, 2008 at 11:35

I’m glad to read feedback from someone “on the inside” (the teacher posting as the second “anonymous”). I always wonder what the people who have to deal with the present system for a living think of criticisms and ideas for improvement.

One thing I wondered- what kind of students do you mostly deal with? Are they bright, college-prep types, or average or struggling students? I.e. I’m wondering about the current percentage of students willing to struggle, interested in the thrill of self-discovery. What’s the baseline to be improved upon?

Anyway, you are probably right that it is best to start kids early on figuring things out on their own, and importantly, using their knowledge (which often generates natural discovery).

The same goes for what you wrote about school administrations. My experience is that every teacher I’ve talked to has lots of complaints about school administrations. And when I was a student, I liked nearly every single one of my teachers, as people, and I could see their sincerity and competence. But I hated the “system” that these caring people enforced. Unfortunately, I think most students don’t make this discrimination- they think the teachers are to blame for their personal experience of academic meaninglessness and inscrutability I always pitied my teachers, every single one of them.


Anonymous June 1, 2008 at 12:42

We need to know how students think. We need to understand what mathematics is all about. See the new book on “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better”.


Vlad Dolezal June 1, 2008 at 16:58

Nice picture there. I’m guessing it’s an urban legend, but it’s still cool.

@anonymous2, @Raving_Ranting_Lunatic:
Ah yes, the students who get angry when you ask them to think instead of just giving them the answer.

Reminds me of a story my history teacher once told me. It went roughly like this:

“I was teaching the situation after WW1, and the Treaty of Versailles. I strongly hinted that the terms of the treaty were unfair towards Germany, without explicitly saying so.
Then I asked one of the ‘star’ students if he thought the terms of the treaty were fair towards Germany. His answer?
‘Tell me what I should think, because that’s what I’ll have to write in an exam.’



Full Embrace June 2, 2008 at 04:55

That’s a funny story about the treaty of Versaille :). I admire the student’s honesty, even if it seems harsh.

And thanks to the last anonymous poster for the book recommendation- it looks really good!


Ed-Tech Guy June 5, 2008 at 22:00

Great article. I’ve been working for a public school district for about two years, now. I was hired right out of high school (having done some work for my school while I was still a student). As an employee, I have a whole new perspective on our system – despite not having much faith in the system as a student, my disillusionment grew tenfold after just a short time speaking to teachers and staff, and after seeing with my own eyes and experiencing what I couldn’t when I was just a student.

As a co-worker, I would be told the real stories behind the daily goings-on and hear honest opinions (that no staff member would talk to a student about, or anyone but a colleague, for that matter). It’s incredible to finally be able to understand why schools do the things they do; rather, to finally understand the reason (or lack thereof) behind all the things that made school so painful and ineffective for me and so many of my peers.

Cliché as it may sound – the sheer stupidity present in our education system is mind-boggling. You hear stories in the news, or read it in books, but to experience it first-hand as both a student and employee makes it so much more real and frustrating. (if you can, take a look at the LAUSD school board meetings – “Motion to look into this issue and get back to it next week.” “Second.” “Motion carries.” – repeat ad nauseum.)

Anyhow – I think you hit the nail on the head. Standardized testing should make way for arts-integration and teachers need to be taught about practical (effective) application of pedagogical principals; these changes along with a few dozen others and we’d be on the right track.


Anonymous June 7, 2008 at 01:53

very interesting and well written article! I still have a vision of what schools should be like but after 25 years in the classroom, I don’t think the changes will come from the schools. Looking back at history, change has always come from the young. They have more to gain and less to risk by changing the current system. The primary problem as I see it is that those with the power to enact change never listen to those who are most able to enact the change (students and teachers). Believe it or not, most teachers would agree with the students and until these two groups are given a voice in the process, no real change will occur.


Anonymous June 7, 2008 at 04:22

I am a middle school math teacher, and I agree with most everything in this article. I am one of the few in my school that teach using discovery. I don’t even hand out math books to my students. We “create” our own math book by writing things in kid friendly language, making lots of drawings and pictures and giving examples that prove and disprove our classroom theories. I give credit for “completed” homework- this means every problem attempted and all thoughts/work shown, not how many are right or wrong. I also give the kids ways to check as they go when working on their own so that they can self correct. Homework is “practice”- so if we get 100% every time, then why do we need to practice?? Kids learn best from making mistakes, but don’t penalize them for it- reward them for their thought and effort.

The way I deal with standardized tests is that I use the preparation time as discovery and problem solving. The class is posed a sample problem as they would see on the test. However, instead of just answering it and moving on, we ANALYZE it. We find common vocabulary that signifies why we might use a particular operation. We share ALL of the different methods that the kids came up with to solve the problem. Many times they come up with things that I have never thought of! We also take time to look at the wrong answers and try to figure out why the writer chose that particular answer. The kids figure out quickly that the wrong answers are not random. By Christmas, they are experts at not only solving the problems, but can tell you why each wrong answer is wrong, how the problem relates to others that they have done before and can write their own question relating to something that they may be faced with in real life.

I can’t write the laws or overcome the rules set out by school districts and administrators, but I can be the best teacher that I can be, and do what I know is best for my students. After 12 years in the math classroom, I am moving to an instructional math coaching position. I can only hope that I can influence at least one teacher to help his/her students to become “mathematicians” and not just students that do math.


Hannah June 9, 2008 at 19:52

This is a fantastic article, well written, with many if not all the major issues of why there is an issue. And your suggestions of how it can be changed can work, I’ve just lived through it. I went through 12 years of school, but here in my final year I experience a year long class where the teachers do all the things you’ve mentioned, and have been teaching it for over 20 years. It’s a social studies class, but in reality it was a class about learning how to learn, and to be active and responsible for your own mind. Was it hard? Yes. Was it the best class I’ve ever had? Yes. This IS possible, it just takes time, and work. Thank you for writing this!


Cooper Brown June 9, 2008 at 22:26

As the rest of these people have pointed out, this is an amazing piece of work and I agreed with all the points. I was even enlightened a bit on the point about co-operation, something I hadn’t seen before. Thank you for producing this!


Baker June 11, 2008 at 17:29

This is interesting because I wrote a similar article about teaching people to think critically.

I think that this is the key problem in the education system is the lack of indirect teaching of critical thinking. You can not teach children to think with static text, but only with indirect activities.

Small World Great Minds


stencil June 12, 2008 at 00:58

Zeb reads aloud that the ship can’t sail…

And through what process did Zeb learn to read? In what self-actuated way did Sue learn to count to 44? At some point – and it had better be an early one – each child has got to learn to communicate, using natural language, mathematics, and the social norms of gesture and voice tone. Primary schools exist to provide these skills, and the basic data sets that are used – by some – to achieve creativity and to express it. Lecture, drill, recitation, testing, and review may be boring to the teacher but they get the job done. It’s not bored students that are the symptom of a malfunctioning education system, but bored teachers, who lack the intelligence, discipline, and strength to apply the immemorial technique in a productive way


nate June 27, 2008 at 04:17

Claims of flaws and how to fix them:
1. “Facts instead of understanding”
– “We teach students thousands of useless facts that will be forgotten as soon as the next exam is over.” “The worst subject in this regard is mathematics. Here is a type of problem. Here is how to solve it. Yes it will be on the test. Do exercises 1-35 odd for homework. What a sad way to learn mathematics: to be a trained chimpanzee.”

– for one you discuss techniques instead of facts in your example (out of place, but we’ll forgive the off-topic-ness). For two that is the best way to learn what we want a student to know of mathematics. You have to put into perspective what the goal is. The goal is not to “teach math” or even to “make the student realize what the concepts of division and addition are” – those all come naturally as the student uses them over time. Teach a student by the standard method (this is a type of problem, this is how to solve it, do this type of problem 40 times tonight) – then ask them that same math question when they are in 7th grade. Thats not something that needs to be taught. What needs to be taught in math is both simple logic and how to solve simple equations. If you can teach them to apply these to real life (using money, gas mileage, etc), then all the better – but math should be all about simplicity and accuracy first.

2. “Facts and techniques instead of creativity”
– “…our education system forgot the value of creativity” “Your mind is an amazing biological machine, but it would be just sitting there idly without creativity.” “Companies value creativity very highly. (at least the better ones. Think Google). If our creativity is stomped upon and discouraged at school, the schools are doing the exact opposite of what they were created for.”

– for one, your mind would not be sitting idly without creativity. For two, there are plenty of ways to insert creativity and wonder into a normal classroom. Google does like creativity and encourages it, but it also likes accuracy and intelligence more. A artsy person with no knowledge and poor techniques won’t be able to get into much of anything.

3. “Grading”
– “I’ll explain it further in another article devoted solely to the topic.” “I’ve got everything backed by scientific research.”

– Nice, I look forward to it. Please provide a bibliography.

1. “Undermines student interest in learning”
– “…students stop caring about the learning itself. In fact, they come to hate the idea of learning. Once they leave college, they’ll never want to hear about learning again. And that’s perhaps the worst effect of our education system.”

– makes sense to me, and I agree completely. Its scary that people associate learning with sitting in a classroom with a teacher that knows about as much as you do.

2. Makes failure seem overwhelming
– “Hey, failure’s not a big deal. It helps you learn.” “avoiding failure leads to needless perfectionism. It leads to stress. And most importantly it leads to less learning.”

– Its amazing how this happens. failure is something to be cherished. There is not a successful person alive that didn’t have multiple failures. the discovery of DNA was wrong on the first draft, the invention of the lightbulb had hundreds of failures, string theory (which MIGHT unite all of physics) has had numerous failures – its how we progress – like blind mice running into walls until we find the cheese.

3. “Leads students to avoid challenging themselves”
4. “Reduces quality of learning”
– “the point of grading is to help students learn.” “we should move towards more meaningful assessmeent. Verbal assessment is much more accurate than summing up a whole year of a students work in a single number or letter.” “just because you ad up all the years marks and average them doesn’t make them precise.”

4. “Standardizes testing”
– “Therefore preparing students for these test means teaching cartloads of pointless facts, rather than meaningful concepts and ideas.”

– some of the facts are meaningful… but your right in that they don’t measure what we want the students to learn.

5. Competition instead of co-operation
– “Researchers know that the best way to progress is co-operation. ” “In schools, co-operation is called cheating, laziness, “not doing one’s work” and a dozen other unpleasant names.” “Because their education has taught them that everyone who’s more successful is taking opportunities away from them.”

– Your missing the point of competition – it can be a very powerful motivation to push a student forward (especially boys in my experience). I’d like to see your research that competition isn’t as good of a way to learn as some form of cooperation. It would have to be one heck of a study to account for all the different forms of competition and cooperation. As far as cooperation being called cheating or laziness, I think your twisting cause and effect. If your being lazy or you “borrow” a friends work without thinking the work through – then you will want to call in cooperation to make yourself sound better. Eventually though you won’t be able to do this anymore, and you still won’t know any of those topics. As for the statement that education “taught them that everyone who’s more successful is taking opportunities away from them.” I think that is learned more from parents and friends. There are plenty of students that still look at rich people as very hard working intelligent people who found a great opportunity and road it all the way in. Also, the comparatively poor population has often been distrustful of those in power – this goes back as far as history does.

6.” Students as passive receptacles of knowledge.”
– “learning is an active process. When the students discuss, talk about the new material, try to explain it to each another and figure it out together – that’s when learning happens.” “If you just tell the students about the topic, they won’t really understand. Sure, they’ll be able to answer carefully crafted questions that exactly match what they were taught. But they won’t be able to use their knowledge in new creative ways. They won’t have real ‘gut-level understanding'”. “Teachers help the students discover concepts by asking the right questions. Then they let the students discuss it among themselves without immediately jumping in and correcting ever little mistake.” “Instead, he should ask the students another question that reveals their mistaken assumptions. For example, let’s say the students are trying to simplify the fraction 19/95 . They come to the solution of crossing out the nines to get 1/5, which is the correct answer.” “A good teacher would just say “Ok, how about simplifying 3/12?” and let the students figure it out. This might involve the students fiddling with a group of twelve marbles, to really get a deep understanding what 3/12 means (3 marbles out of 12)” “Because that’s the only way the students can really understand the concepts.”

– This is an error in how a classroom should be run, and how a student learns. “learning is an active process” is a cliche, without much more meaning than “you listen with your ears, not your mouth.” If you tell a student a fact, they can learn it just as well or better than if they come up with it themselves. The difference is quality of how well they learned it comes from the time spent on learning the fact, and how interested they are. This may involve the complexity of the curriculum, but I was teaching an 8th grade class about the different types of hormones when a student asked me a question about hermaphrodites. Using your method, I would have a 3 day discussion about what hermaphrodites might be, and how you can have both male and female in one body – or I could do what I did and explain (with diagrams) that most hermaphrodites are not both male and female, but are instead just males that look like they have female parts.

Also, using your example of the 19/95, if
my student showed me that, I’d tell him “that method doesn’t work for 19/96 though, or 29/95”. This would be much faster, provide less time of confusion while he struggles to understand 19/95, and help him solve future equations without resorting to counting or imagining all 95 balls in his head. By this point the student should know what 19/95 means. Playing with 12 marbles to figure out the proportion that 3 is isn’t so bad (I can imagine 12 marbles in my head). Soon though (and at about the same time that your studying division of numbers up to 95), the student has to learn to rely on the math system over the concepts, or risk falling behind when it comes to advanced algebra, trigonometry, or even calculus later in life.

– sorry for the long post, but I like to cover everything in a critique


Dave July 2, 2008 at 19:48

I have Stumbled this article! Keep it up.


paresh July 4, 2008 at 06:35

nice subject.


Cindy Powers - Owner, BRAIN-athon Emporium July 7, 2008 at 00:50

A very thorough and concise article that gets to the very core of the “gaps” educational administrators are so afraid of creating or missing.

Whatever happened to critical thinking, logic & reasoning puzzlers, visual spatial games, and Socratic Questioning?

They’re out there – now to educate the “system” into allowing educators to empower children’s minds instead of just teaching content.

Thumbs Up on this one, for sure!


machiner July 7, 2008 at 13:55

Hey Nate,

I liked your post, but it’s “you’re” and not your.

“- Your missing the point of competition”
“… I think your twisting cause and effect. If your being lazy or you “borrow” a friends work without thinking the work through…”

you are missing (you’re)
you are twisting (you’re)
you are being lazy (you’re)


Mark Freedman July 8, 2008 at 19:05

Great article. I just discovered your blog, and really enjoy how you approach your topics.

One of your commenters (#4, anonymous) claimed that “Unfortunately, we don’t live in the ideal world and this won’t happen.”

This is very sad, and the reason why it often takes so long to change the world even a little. People give up way too easily. Just because this isn’t an ideal world, does that mean we should just throw in the towel?

Yes, starting this approach early will make the transition smoother, but you have to start somewhere. I’ve heard plenty of stories about how a certain teacher made a huge impact on someone’s life just by taking such an approach. Just because it’s difficult for some kids to learn how to think for themselves does NOT mean we should give up trying. When we do, the pattern continues, and the problems continue to spin out of control.

I use this approach at work when mentoring people who work for me, and it works wonders. And it’s so satisfying seeing people figure things out. I never just give the answers, and 99% of the time, with my only input being just some minor adjustments in their direction of thinking, they figure it out.

I hope enough people take your post to heart. I know some will, and whatever little difference it makes is better than nothing.


Valerie July 8, 2008 at 21:25

I love the article, as far as it goes. I think one thing that needs to be mentioned is that every student has a different way of learning and processing information. Therefore, any system that tries to teach en masse is going to fail for a reasonable percentage of the students. The cookie-cutter method isn’t working because students are people, not blank templates to be inscribed with the wisdom of the ages.

As for the solution…ah, that is ALWAYS more difficult.


Patrick from Switzerland July 9, 2008 at 23:03

Just discovered your blog. Good analysis. I do think you could go way further in your suggestions. The worst ennemies of education are teachers and parents. Students are per se curious and active once they are put in the right environment. Look at some european active learning programmes – such as the scandinavian system. Montessori, Freubel and Steiner principles seem – even though hundred years old – forgotten by many. I find them very inspirational.And why not think about competencies from the younger years on instead of “content”. Another starting point is to re-educate the teachers so they have the skills and tools for active learning and active interaction with the parents.Parents want the best for their kids. The problem is that the references they use to evaluate quality of their kids education is their own educational experience….


Joe July 11, 2008 at 18:05

I think teachers should learn more about the human brain and the ways we differ physically to understand how we perceive and process differently.

The left side of the brain is analytical and very fact oriented. When it comes to solving problems it “thinks” linearly and is well suited to a x+y=z format.

The right brain conversely is more creative where it is more important to discover why x+y=z. Is the right brain thinking more desirable in a structured school system? Nope. Human beings are different. Some think with one side, other…the other. For an “oh yeah” thought…

Right brained people tend to be introverted, stop and think about things, mull over facts and details, and plan explicitly. They can be slower to react, slower to answer and can become overwhelmed with too much information or sensory input, but, after it is all digested and understood you’ll have an expert at what you throw at them.

Left brain people tend to be more people orientated, outgoing and can react quickly and on instinct. Creativity comes easier to them so they can solve a problem right away and sometimes “out of the blue”. They can be impulsive and act without thinking first, they can be loud, obnoxious and overbearing without realizing it. The are often leaders because their somewhat lack of sensitivity allows them to barrel through problems and situations.

Now, having said all that, perhaps our education system isn’t geared towards serving the gamut of brain types and clearly human beings don’t fit in one side or the other. I guess my point is just keep this in mind when you are teaching the learner about something. You can’t blanketly say the existing system is broken or flawed because for some types of people it works fine.

It would be better to gear a lesson and reward towards the kind of learner.

Both types of people server essential functions in this world and in our education system, as teachers and students.


Joe July 11, 2008 at 18:13

One more note:

Left brain people will fail more often because they don’t think ahead. They will also care less about failing. For them jumping into something is no big deal so they will also do, or try it more often.

Right brain people will fail less often because they plan and think ahead so much. But, they tend to be perfectionists and care very much about failing. Rarely will they just jump into something without knowing all about it first. (FYI – all those help and how to articles on the internet that let you learn or fix anything was probably written by a person with a more active right brain)

I tend to be right brained and for “my side” of the coin it is a trite and insensitive thing to say “fail more” and “just be more creative”. I don’t work that way naturally. Good for you if you do. I hope I don’t slow you down too much or stand in your way.

Maybe you can be the creative leader with big ideas and I can keep you from screwing everything up by jumping head first into everything. Sound like a good partnership?

— Joe


Joe July 11, 2008 at 18:14

…now let’s work on an education system that supports that partnership.

…and God help us if the scientists figure out how to genetically modify humans with a third hemisphere!


Joe July 11, 2008 at 18:17

…dang, in rereading my comments I got the brain sides mixed up, I feel so horrible about it…darn my brain’s left side!!!

Right brain says: “oh well, they’ll get it. move on.”


Phizzi July 12, 2008 at 11:44

Hey, I loved this article. It highlights much of what I have learned through volunteer teaching and my time observing classrooms. I had a number of teachers who encouraged a lot of experimentation and creativity while still moving students through a lot of material. There is a myth that teachers only teach to the test, but this is not true. Many teachers understand and value demonstrative and creative teaching styles and if we reward these teachers as parents and citizens then we will bring about change.

I want to point the finger at a few places that I think manage to go under the radar. The first sin of outmoded teaching is the legacy of incorrect and useless textbooks that we continue to use in our schools. I think we would be better off throwing some of these books out than continuing to use them. Mind you, I think a good resource is critical to backing up teaching, but if we get more supportive resources (media, not limited to books) it will eliminate at least one thorn in the side of those teachers who are already putting in the effort in the face of the storm.

Almost as restrictive as books are our classrooms. It’s becoming virtually impossible for teachers in some districts to even get a day out of the classroom, because of regulations and liability. Perhaps children would be more inspired to learn if they got to pour liquid nitrogen in a research lab, or if they were able to see salmon actually spawning in a stream. Just a thought.

The final finger I want to point is at leaders in business and higher education. These people decry the quality of our k-12 school system, but I don’t see IBM setting up labs for high school students to work in, or universities moving to drop standardized tests for incoming students who have, say, published research already. Worse, most college level classes are more lecture based and less focused on student involvement than high school courses.

As you suggest, there are many road blocks to changing our education system to encourage more exploration, but I don’t think it is out of reach for a single person to make a difference. If you run a lab, you should offer to let a high school teacher bring their class, maybe even work with them on curriculum. If you know a teacher who really does ask the students to teach each other (but guides them in the right direction) then send a letter to the administrators saying how wonderful the teacher is, and how GLAD you are that the administrator is facilitating programs like this. As is stands now, administrators don’t get much public feedback at all, except funding cuts and complaints when programs are eliminated.

By the way, I would love to see a post discussing the “text book problem”. Any ideas?


jasmine celion July 16, 2008 at 15:47

Great post
i really appreciated your effort
Nice [post thanks for sharing it

jasmine celion


Mrs. Antelman July 21, 2008 at 20:15

Thank-you for this awesome information. I am a teacher…but do not have a classroom yet…I just graduated. I have been through soooo many classes and lectures about this topic…and so many potential teacher still did not understand the root problems. While I was reading this, I began to feel really good about what my teaching style will be like. I will definitely help repair our school systems from the bottom up. I know I’m going to be one of those teachers that “other” teacher talk about in the lounge. They are going to walk by my classroom and assume chaos and disorder…but what is actually happening will be learning. I can’t wait to have my own room…but sometimes get a little scared about what peoples reactions will be. Trust me..I’ll say…there’s learning…stop in and see!

ps. I totally agree with the cooperation/competition aspect of this article. Wow…you are so right.


Steven January 15, 2009 at 04:19

Came across here through stubleupon , I completely agree with you. I’m a Junior in Highschool and I can tell you that our education system sucks completely. The periods I actually look forward to are Computer Science and P.E. . In Comp Sci our teacher is very loose and lets us work on our own , or in pairs on projects. I have learned so much more when he lets us free to do our own thing. P.E. is honestly a blowoff class and that’s why I love it. First off , I’m not fat or anything. In fact we ran the pacer test and I got first place. The thing is they force you to to have 3 P.E. credits to graudate so I have to take it. Anyway , I just talk to 2 of my friends in there. We talk about so much stuff, politics, smoking bans, singularity, simulism, and computer science . I’ve probably learned more in PE then in any other class (excluding Comp Sci). Liked the article, thumbs up 🙂


Snyder March 15, 2009 at 03:00

The Governments of this world are afraid of creativity because it overturns old stuck in
the mud customs and set ways to follow established procedures. Administrators in education
fucked up when they made teachers third rate citizens. Schools would be much better ran by
seasoned and retired teachers that have already been there and done that and need a
jerked off superintendent like a freak needs an extra hole in his head. Ron Paul has already
given you idiots the solution and you selected obamma instead. Lots of Luck !!


Lit Guy May 23, 2009 at 04:20

Your article proves to me that I have probably never had an original thought in my life. I have used the teaching music analogy in a less elegant form when discussing literacy instruction. I believe we have sucked the life out of literature, reading, and writing by entrusting publishing companies with the education of children. Anyway, great job on this piece.


Anon June 28, 2009 at 13:19

Beautiful article.


Sam September 8, 2009 at 15:59

Some of the things you’re saying are definitely correct, but some I think aren’t. This blog adds more to this topic for those who are interested.

Teaching facts is an important thing. And while I agree that “understanding” should be taught as well, I feel that facts are just as important, since they form the basis of understanding. For example, to use an example from higher mathematics, you can not do any of the complicated intellectual stuff in algebra till you sit down and memorize a group of about a dozen axioms… And yes, I mean straight up memorize.


X-man January 6, 2010 at 16:40

A very good article , a lot of interesting information and great analysis of a very important problem which is a crutial part of our system. I have only one thing to say..and is related to the part refering to grades and how they depress and alter our vision from the main thing, which is Learning. We live is a social-capitalist society and there are a lot of humans in the world. We live in a pretty mobile world were everyone is fighting for his proper place in the system, to achieve stability, progress and to furfill his goals. No dought Learning, knowledge and skill is a essentiel part in achieveing these things. Thats why grades are created ,to compare humans to one another. For the system to work, some must get the job and others must not get the job ( not because they are less capable but simply because there arn’t enauph places( same thing about quality universities( limited amount of places, limited amount of people permitted) and etc etc…which all end up in a capitalist web of ideas : Greater chance For Success). So grades is one of this things which was not at all created for stimulating learning and it didnt have any psyhological structure behind it, its simply another mesure created by humanity to compare each individual to the other one and to give or take from him certain rights. There are many other reasons for grading, but stimulating more education and learning is not one of Them. So the conclusion is that people shouldnt rly care about grades if they want to learn because as you said they will only stress them and they will miss the “”target””. 🙂


Vlad Dolezal January 6, 2010 at 16:57


Spot on, I couldn’t have said it better!


Jon Vellner September 18, 2010 at 19:18

Best… article… ever!
Long live learning! (the real kind)


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