4 Defects in the School System

22 Jun 2022

The school system has always been under criticism irrespective of which country you live in. Schools have been rightly criticised for being far too restrictive, 'prison-like', and for not encouraging independent inquiry. To put matters in the words of Noam Chomsky...

"The whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don't know how to be submissive, and so on -- because they're dysfunctional to the institutions."

This not only comes down to how school is structured in terms of needing to attend a physical school for at least 6 hours of your day, but it also comes down to the subjects that schools teach. In Australia at least, schools place an emphasis on teaching subjects such as Mathematics, English and History.

While I have nothing against these subjects (in fact, I love these subjects), often I think they are either taught in such a way that is irrelevant to life beyond school or they are taught to the detriment of excluding other subjects that have more practical applications. 

Here are 4 major issues that I have with the school system and what we can do to fix things.

#1: The proliferation of irrelevant subjects.

This one is unsurprising. As a High School Maths tutor, often I am asked why students are taught subjects such as differential calculus and coordinate geometry when 80% of students won't apply these in their post-school existence or when a number of students won't go on to study further maths at university. 

And it is a perfectly valid critique.

While I believe that mathematical literary is important, sometimes I do think that what students are taught goes beyond what is strictly necessary to subject matter that is irrelevant to most students. For example, general understanding of statistical literary will serve many students well whereas an elaborate understanding in coordinate geometry won't.

So, what should schools actually be teaching? If it's not teaching mathematical concepts that 80% of students will never apply again in their lives or writing endless essays on English literature, what subjects should schools actually teach that are more relevant to students and will equip them for life outside of school? 

Here's a non-exhaustive list:

  • Personal finance - How do lodge a tax return, how to make a budget.
  • Writing - Learning to write for online audiences, how to write a resume and a cover letter.
  • Law - Consumer rights, human rights. 
  • Digital Literacy - How to use Microsoft Excel and Word, how to code. 
  • Critical Thinking - Types of arguments, logical fallacies. 

#2: Emphasis on 'content' rather than 'skills'.

Fundamentally schools need something to "measure" in order to rank students in terms of their academic performance. This is why there is such a heavy emphasis on ROTE-learning 'content' for exams (something that can be measured) as opposed to developing 'skills' more broadly (something that is not as easy to measure). 

This is why learning Maths has turned into a ROTE-learning exercise of memorising formulas and all the different types of questions examiners can ask you in your exams; why English has turned into a feat of ROTE-learning essays to spit out to a question in an exam; and why History encourages the ROTE-learning of facts (which could easily be found on Google). 

In a world where the internet defines our daily existence, ROTE-learning material is antiquated and is not how students will succeed in life. Rather, students need to learn transferrable skills that can be applied in a myriad of contexts. 

For instance, if I am teaching English, why not teach students writing skills more generally as opposed to teaching a very niche subject of writing skills, that is, writing skills for the purposes of writing literature essays? For History, why not have more research projects that encourage students to look beyond the syllabus and critique historical sources? If I am teaching Business Studies (a Year 12 HSC subject in New South Wales), why not get students to actually run a business as opposed to getting them to ROTE-learn material on marketing and operations? 

It's a no-brainer. 

#3: Rigid structure and 'kind' learning environments.

Schools are structured to be 'kind' learning environments where the content students need to know is neatly summarised in a syllabus document; where there are frequent patterns in terms of how content is assessed; and where the flow of work is a predictable pattern. 

This does not facilitate effective learning because students are taught in an environment that will rarely occur outside of school. This makes it difficult for them to extend what they have learnt to different situations because they are so used to content being assessed in situations X, Y and Z to the extent that they don't know how to apply material to situation A. 

Rather, students should be learning in 'wicked learning environments' where information is hidden, feedback might be infrequent or delayed, and where surrounding circumstances are ultimately less predictable. This way, they are forced to adapt and to learn how to be flexible in applying their knowledge. 

#4: Students are discouraged from making mistakes.

Robert Kiyosaki states the case quite well:

"In school we learn that mistakes are bad, and we are punished for making them. Yet, if you look at the way humans are designed to learn, we learn by making mistakes. We learn to walk by falling down. If we never fell down, we would never walk."

Quite frankly, I think school exams encourage perfectionism. While I am not completely against exams, I do not like how there is an emphasis on learning only being defined by how well you can perform in an exam (as is the case in Year 12 in Australia's school system). This creates a culture where students are punished from making mistakes and for not knowing things. 

Schools should be encouraging students to make mistakes as opposed to punishing them. There needs to be a balance between exam situations and encouraging students to make mistakes in their learning in other contexts.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps my reflections are unsurprising to you. After all, schools were initially designed in the industrial revolution to teach students how to work, follow instructions and be docile. Here's an interesting article on this point

Perhaps this is even more of a reason for why schools need to change! 

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nice one keep going bruh
This articles made me remainder of the song 'Don't stay in School'.
Nice article in the site
Pretty Rani
In our country we are only teaches moral values in school rather than giving some practical knowledge their is alot of burdan of Examination in our mindset the best knowledge one can get through YouTube , parents don't understand their child and they take their child to some extra tutor beside school seriously i hate my school system but love my friends
Well highlighted But do you think it's too late to correct these flaws?
Thank you for this amazing article. I agree that we should be teaching skills in critical thinking and ensure they are transferable. Learning is about making mistakes. Great article
Thank you very much for this great and educative article. I totally agree with you. A lot needs to be done in schools to enhance better learning after all the young ones are always said to be the leaders of tomorrow.