May 14, 2010

My musings on the education system...

This morning, I got into a conversation with @JohnMacIntyre and @JenRBoyd on Twitter regarding the "No child left behind" policy that appears to be causing exactly the mayhem it was brought about to prevent.

While I value the ideals that caused this mockery of a practice to be given life, it must've been put together by someone who doesn't understand kids - perhaps doesn't even understand people, or education. Our kids strengths and passions are the future of the human race. Not what we think their future should be, but what they will actually make it.

Over my years, thinking back to my childhood. Having grown up; been married twice; had two kids (so far); and having tried my hand at many things, some more successfully than others; I've observed a thing or two about people that were as true for me in my childhood as they are today. Although, as a kid I lacked the eloquence and insight to express it:

  • We tend to love and are interested/passionate about what we're good at.
  • We tend to be good at things we love and are interested/passionate about.
  • While we may be good at things we don't love or are interested or passionate about, chances are, we'll never truly be happy doing them and we'll never develop the same passion for those things as we would about things we love or are interested in.
  • If we're pushed to do what others think we should be doing, rather than what we want to be doing, we will end up hating whatever it is we're being made to do and end up resenting whoever is making us do it.
  • We like to fit in and be part of our crowd [as opposed to part of the crowd].
  • We want to have our own brand, our own uniqueness if you will and be valued for that.
  • We want to have fun.
  • We tend to enjoy associating with others that have the same, similar or compatible interests as our own.

So why do we force our kids to study in a school system that goes against everything we would stand for ourselves? We force them to socialize with others that may have no compatible interests; We force them to study with and be hindered by others who have no interest in attaining their capabilities in subjects they love and are interested and passionate about; We force them to study subjects they're not interested in, hindering kids that are interested and passionate about those subjects.

Studying alongside kids who don't care puts them in a prime position for bullying and being bullied. I base this on my own observation. When we are forced to do something against our will, it makes us uncomfortable. It's instinct. Kids don't have the benefit of eloquence to help discuss their feelings, so they respond in the only way they know how, deflection, avoidance, disruption, retaliation. They can't lash out at the teachers because they know they'll be reprimanded, but the other kids are fair game. When we're doing something we love, we're at peace, with ourselves and with those around us. It's the same with kids. Just think of them as mini-adults. They have the same feelings, the same thoughts. They are no different than adults but without the experience or eloquence to communicate what they're feeling and thinking efficiently. So why do we put them in this antiquated environment that does more to hinder their learning than help it?

Growing up in the UK, some of our classes were streamed - that is all the kids in the class were of a similar ability in that subject. A number of courses were like this: French, English, Literature, Maths, Chemistry and Physics. These classes made up for all the other shit I had to sit through. Not to say I didn't like the other subjects per se, but the curriculum and thus the material was uninteresting to me. For instance while I'm fascinated by topics that stretch from Ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome to the Vikings; from historic myths and legends to the birth and evolution of religion - the corn laws in the middle aged England taught by someone forced by the curriculum to read it the night before wasn't nearly so fascinating - I got a D in History. To this day the only thing I can tell you about middle age farming was that they invented crop rotation. Why should a kid who is fascinated by History get such a poor grade in that subject? I've learned hundreds times more from the Discovery channel from truly inspiring presenters!

In the streamed classes I got top grades, well...French I buggered up a few of my tenses in the oral exam, so I dropped half a grade from A- to B+ and Science which idiotically was broken into 3 disciplines but only two grades which meant that my F in biology (a subject I detested) dragged down my grades in Chemistry and Physics (which I loved!).

Why then should I study these subjects that I have no interest in? They say it's because they may be useful later in life. I have no need to understand how to disect a frog... "What if you want to be a vet? If you want to be a vet, you need to know this stuff?" 1). It's gross 2). The fact that I find it gross probably means I'm probably not going to be a very good vet. Why put the cart in front of the horse?! I'm more likely to be interested in doing jobs that cater to what I love than finding a job I think I'm going to love only to have to study subjects I'm not interested in to get there... and then finding out I don't love it after all. So now:

  • I've wasted a ton of time studying subjects I had no interested in to get a job I don't like.
  • The time I spent studying those subjects took away from another subject I really enjoyed that would probably have helped me get a job I really enjoy too!
  • I distracted and held back those who were really interested in the subject.

So who did that help? Nobody!

I know mechanics whom I would trust my car with no questions asked. They dropped out of school and have no formal education to speak of, yet they know their way around an engine as well as any professional pit crew on the Formula 1 circuit. I know world class artists that hated school and it hasn't affected their lives in any way either. I'm barely any good at either of these disciplines - I wanted to love art, but I'm just not good at it. I get all my graphic design done by a graphic designer I've been friends with for years and beyond filling my washer fluid and checking the oil level the only thing I know about the engine of my car is that a). my car has one and b). last time I opened the hood to fill my washer fluid, it was still there. Has this affected my life any? No. In fact, lots of people without a formal education in their field have gone on to be wildly successful - see my previous blog post.

I've been admonished for my perspective before - "Your life will be so much more fulfilling if you learned this stuff", "It would be so much cheaper if you did it yourself"...

  1. Would my life really be more fulfilling if I could change my own oil?
  2. Would it really be any cheaper?

One: I don't care to figure out the ins and outs of my car's engine - I vaguely know how it works from diagrams I've seen from time to time and know that if at some point in the future I absolutely had to, I could figure it out. Beyond that it doesn't yield enough interest to take time away from something I love to spend time figuring it out.

Two: It would take time away from doing something I really love in order to figure it out, which is abhorent to me. Why should I stop doing something I love to do something I have no interest in?

Thirdly: It wouldn't be any cheaper because I get paid more for doing what I love than I pay my mechanic for doing (hopefully) what he loves. And even if it were to cost the same, I give you this: By doing it myself, I not only remove an opportunity for my mechanic to do what he loves, but I'm losing the time to do what I love.

I have exactly the same view about life as I have about school - why waste my time doing something that at best I have no interest in, and at worst I hate when I can just pay someone else to do it while I go and get paid to do something I love?

Of course I believe that every kid needs to be taught a few things in order to make the pursuit of whatever life they choose attainable:

  • Social abilities - as a geek, I know that social graces are hard. They're worth the effort and will help you feel more comfortable and perhaps even have fun around other people.
  • Communication skills - goes with social abilities. Being able to express one's self eloquently both verbally and in writing is useful every day.
  • The "three Rs" - reading, writing and... how to use a calculator.
  • Manners - not necessarily table manners per se, although they would be nice, but common courtesy - like indicating before changing lanes, letting people merge, not cutting people off, holding the door for people, saying please and thank you, not talking over other people while they're talking.
  • Social etiquette - how to talk to and/or treat people if you want them to respect you and take you seriously, being polite.
  • How to learn, how to find information and how to use that information effectively - everyone needs to be able to further their own education as they are able.
  • How to look after your money - so you don't end up on the street or without food on the table.
  • Critical thinking - There's far too many people that are inclined just to believe whatever they're told without ever thinking for themselves about whether the information can be trusted.

People naturally want to learn what they find interesting or have fun doing. So I think the key is to find a way to provide an environment where they can learn everything they can about what they love and not force them to learn a whole bunch of shit that will never have any use in their life...

People who do what they love are attractive to companies too. You can't buy the kind of loyalty that paying someone to do what they would be doing anyway brings. Doing what I love is not a choice, it's not a lifestyle, it's not a job - it's who I am. You have no need to worry if I'm going to show up every day or if I'm going to give it my best. Why? Because if you're going to pay me to do the same thing I'd be doing anyway, I'd be stupid not to take your money and run laughing all the way to the bank.

I'll leave you with a story from my childhood...

My mum bought our first computer when I was 8. She was a single mum of two rambunctious kids. She bought this shiny black Sinclair ZX Spectrum with grey rubber keys and a flash of colour across it's shoulder. I begged my mum for games for it, but she was already working her fingers to the bone to keep the roof over our heads, the bills paid and food on the table. She could barely afford this computer, let alone games for it. She'd bought it to learn to program, along with a BBC Micro 30 hour BASIC course to help find a way out of the financial hardship we were suffering.

For all the begging no games came. Christmas that year didn't yield the games I'd so desperately longed for - instead came a book about programming them. I spent hours leafing through that book, writing games I had no way to save, playing them and then when I got bored with the game resetting the power so I could write the next one. I've been programming ever since and I'm still as hooked on it and fascinated by it today as I was back then at 8 years old...23 years ago. To this day, I don't think my mum ever picked up that 30 hour BASIC book.

It might surprise you to know that I failed I.T. at school. A subject I'm passionate about and should've excelled at. But to cater to a class of people that largely not only didn't care about computers, but would rather have been on the playing field than stuck in a classroom prevented me from getting an education in something I dearly love! My final end of year report said: "Ben would do well to avoid a career in I.T. he doesn't appear to have an aptitude for technology". For anyone that knows me and knows my affinity for gadgets this is a truly laughable statement.

As an adult it's easy to look back and think there was much I could've done to change things, get the positive recognition and help I needed. As a kid though, my toolbox was missing insight and eloquence. It's easy for the system to say I failed but the fact is, a kid in this position isn't the failure - it's the system and the teacher that are the failure. I didn't fail, I was just a kid. a kid who wanted to learn.

This experience didn't kill my love of computers or asuccessful career in I.T. though. A bit of paper and an end of year report are no match for interest, creativity and passion.

"Nobody can put a grade on your passion." - Ben Alabaster


  1. You nailed it! As a kid I remember vividly the times my English, Art, and CS teachers told me I was good and even showed my work to other teachers. I chose I.T because I was good it, it was fun to build things then watch them "go", and I knew I could make a decent living doing it. I was exposed and encouraged at an early age. There are many things however that I find interesting, and I sometimes wonder what the result would've been had I had the same encouragement and exposure.

    I loved school, and I thoroughly enjoyed the process of getting my liberal arts degree because I was able to learn about many different things. One of the things I love most about being in I.T is the opportunity to work in many industries.

    Back to passion... A colleague recently pointed out that your passion can be your Achilles heel meaning that if you are unable to pursue or grow that which you are passionate about, it can become your greatest frustration.

    Thinking about my very bright little girls.... I want them to find something they are passionate about that *also* pays enough to pursue the other things they are passionate about. As adults, we have to be honest and careful with our praise and deliberate in what we encourage. We have to be mindful and respectful to our children when their passions and interests do not match our own.

    Does the UK or Canada have magnet schools? We have schools from elementary and up that focus or attract students with specific interests like art, computers, and science. They include the core curriculum but incorporate that which they specialize in throughout their teaching.

  2. @Jennifer

    I haven't heard of Magnet schools before, but that's not to say they don't exist here or back home in England. We do have Montessori which from what you say sounds similar I *think*. I did a quick Google and it seems that there are some magnet schools up here - there's Canterbury High School in Ottawa that was ranked by Macleans magazine as being one of the top ranked schools for the arts in the country... I'm sure there are others.

  3. Interesting article. The only thing I can think to throw into the mix is the obvious question:

    "How do we know we are interested (or not) in a subject if we don't have some exposure to it?" So to provide a devil's advocate point of view, we need at the very least an introduction to a topic before we can really make a decision about it.

    Children have a great deal of energy, but very limited life experience. Part of the job of the education system is to expose the children in a meaningful way to different topics. The key problem, which you also hit on very well was "in a meaningful way". Honestly, the way history is taught in grade schools is appalling. It's less important to know exactly when Columbus sailed the ocean view as it is to know what the impact of that voyage was. Focusing on the stories in history and how that relates to us now makes history much more interesting. That's something that Discovery channel and History channel do fairly well (although some historians might take issue with some of their facts).

    The bottom line is that there are some foundational bits of information we all need--and you listed those. I don't think I can add anything to the list. Beyond that, perhaps we just need a few survey style classes that devote a few weeks at a time to a subject. From then on, letting the students have an active choice in their education is very helpful.

    I'm not sure about other school systems, but in America students are allowed to elect classes much like you would in College starting in middle school. I tried a number of different things, and found I really enjoyed wood working. I don't use it today, but that's because I found other things I'm more interested in.

  4. @Berin

    Thanks for your response, it raises an interesting question. How *do* we give children an introduction to a topic without tying them to a contract?

    It's a topic that intrigues me though - having a (not quite) 2 year old and a 5 month old, it's a problem I'd like to see solved before they make it into the school system.

    My eldest daughter is not yet two, and from watching her and interacting with her, it's already fairly evident that she enjoys figuring things out. What those things are seem to be largely irrelevant, just that it's a puzzle that needs to be figured out. She's also fairly dominant in her peer group, despite the fact that she's smaller than everyone around her. She's hugely social and always seems to draw other kids to following her around and do her thing. It will be interesting to see if she inherits my wife's business acuity and my approach to problem solving - if she does, she'll make an unstoppable entrepreneur.

    At 20 months though, it's really too early to tell what she's going to be interested in. I worry that the limitations of the school system artificially limit the education that kids get and I'd like to see something happen to change that.