Sunday, January 08, 2012


Yesterday #reasonswhyIhateschool was a trending hashtag on Twitter. I know, me too: just a few months ago I barely knew what Twitter was and now I'm not just talking hashtags, but I clicked on one. It looked like it was mostly high schoolers and college students, lining up to get off their one-liner about what they hate about school, a global gripefest that goes back as far, I suppose, as there have been schools.

One of the first things I noticed, however, wasn't the specific complaints, but rather that almost every one of them had left the "bio" portion of their Twitter profile blank, which I find touching, frankly. Every adult person with whom I interact on Twitter has filled-in that bio section, a pithy sentence or two that we hope says it all, but these kids . . . Either not yet or too much to jam into that tiny space. Good on them for not feeling the need to be pigeon-holed.

What I found when I read the tweets was mostly the litany we would expect, and by far the number one complaint, easily outstripping all others, was some version of this:

I hate waking up early.

Of course, no one likes waking up early (aside from, perhaps, yours truly) but it's a fact of life for most high schoolers. Before jumping on them as a pack of whiners, please understand that sleep studies show that teenagers, in fact, are hormonally designed to stay up later and sleep in longer than the rest of us. That so many of them are crawling out of bed a 6 a.m. in order to make it to school on time is a kind of societal cruelty and one that takes an unnecessary mental and physical toll, proper sleep being at the heart of good health.

These studies showing the sleep needs of teenagers are by now decades old. If we had an educational system that was really up on the latest research, we would have long ago pushed back the start times of our high schools, but if anything the trend today is toward even earlier start times in the interest of more "instructional hours," creating an adversarial relationship where their need not be one.

Because I have to wake up early out of my comfortable bed just to go learn about things I won't need in life.

This tweet covers in less than 140 characters what I discovered through my decidedly unscientific research to be the two top reasons for high schoolers to hate school: getting up early and the irrelevancy of the subject matter.

Some of the stuff the teachers teach us is pointless. Like when are we ever gonna use this: 4xy+5x+-2b = b²-√5x?
because I have to take classes that don't teach me anything I'll ever have to know outside of it.
when you graduate all you get is another piece of paper
it's pointless, I've learned more from Google.
we won't use half of the things they teach us in real life.
I'm forced to learn sh*t I'll never even use & never remember in the future.
We r basically in there for 7 hours learning stuff we will NEVER need in life...
it teaches a lot of nothing.
We won't need half the stuff we learn when we leave school!
most of the work is pointless.
learning things that I will never need in my life.
pretty much everything you get taught, you'll never need to know in life

I thought the same thing when I was in high school and from where I sit now as a 50-year-old man I can honestly say I was right. These kids are right. Too much of what happens in school is an attempt to jam kids' brains full of trivia hoping they retain it long enough to "prove it" on a test. As one kid wrote:

it was a game in accurate vomiting ... it didn't matter if you understood or not, as long as you could reproduce it!

And I'm not surprised that someone feels she's learned more from Google -- it's because she was following her own interests, tracking down answers to her own questions, which is what education really ought to be. There were a lot of joke tweets like this one:

We're not learning about beyonce

. . . or Justin Bieber or the cast of Jersey Shore. People often argue against the "irrelevancy" charge by insisting that it isn't the specific information that's important, of course they'll forget it over time, but rather the habit or practice of filling their heads that matters.

If that's the case, why can't the topic be Beyonce? They're going to be learning this stuff anyway, really learning it -- I'm still master of details about The Who that I picked up in 6th grade -- because they're passionate about it. Instead of judging subject matter, wouldn't it be something if we could set teachers free to help the kids really pursue the things that motivate them, to ignite a flame in the Socratic tradition rather than simply fill an empty vessel? I know the kids would appreciate it and they'd be better educated for it. And when there comes a day when they need to know the exact date of the Battle of the Bulge, there will always be the search engine of their choice coupled with the habit or practice of filling their heads with what matters.

Is there any of what I've dismissively called "trivia" that we need every high schooler to know? I suppose so, especially when it comes to how our democracy works. And there are some fundamental scientific, historical, mathematical and other facts we should all share if we're ever going to get on the same page about anything, but wouldn't it be nice to figure out a way to do it without:

Long, boring classes

As one tweeter pointed out:

it wasn't like grease, hair spray, high school musical GLEE. it was all a lie. it was filed with boring CLASSES and TEXTBOOKS 

Of course, life is not a TV program, but the point is well taken. Maybe we should be a bit more creative in how we go about it.

There are a lot of complaints about teachers, both specific and general, under this hashtag (far too many complaining about "coffee breath" for my comfort), most of which focused on the obvious:

teachers talk way too much! It's like give us the worksheet, sit down, & stfu
it's 7 hours of hunger and boredom.
Teachers go on and on about the same topic
teachers that think they know everything. Like you're a teacher not God.
the teachers are ignorant
The teachers think they know every single thing. When they don't. 
I'm sometimes forced to sit in one spot for more than an hour

I suppose there may be some kids who thrive on the top down lecture model of education, with a teacher playing the role of "God" spreading neatly packaged wisdom to the masses, but it's hardly a one-size-fits-all way to teach and deeeeeeply boring to many. That's as far away from igniting a flame as you can get. At the preschool level, we're certainly more likely to acknowledge that education is a two-way street, or rather a network of two-way streets with lots of different ways to get to the same place. There's no reason other than inertia and "efficiency" for that to be any different because the students are older. 

I love this one:

For some reason they kept telling me I wasn't the teacher and to sit down! WTF's up with that?

This sounds like a girl who knew what she wanted out of her education. Stand up, sister!

I've written before about Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College and specialist in developmental and evolutionary psychology, who writes quite simply: "Children don't like school because they love freedom."

My school feels like a prison 
they named the hallways and have street signs for them.
even if you're 5 seconds late they don't care. They still expect you to get a late slip
they treat us like we're in jail. 
it's basically like prison. you have no rights, terrible food, and you can't fight.
we have a dress code.
they throw a fit over self expression
They're too strict! So I can't wear a hat, but there are rebels walking around with their Rooster hair!?
it doesn't prepare you for life after high school they censor everything
Its Like Jail. Teacher=Police, Principles=Judge, Bus=Prison Bus, Students= Prisoners
I can't use the bathroom as often as I would like, but only when them stuck up teachers wanna let us.
because they won't let you be grown...
teachers alwayz staring at u and the gurl u kissing
talking to your friends is a crime at school
Becuz I can't get a drink or go to the bathroom at will and sometimes the teachers decide to not let you
that one annoying security guard that treats us like were actually in prison.

As a parent of a teenager, I'll just say that any moment now she'll be driving a car, voting, making all her own decisions. I want her to have plenty of experience with being treated as an adult, with having adult responsibilities and freedoms, before she's out there on her own. 

And finally I wanted to share a few "special" tweets that, I think, show that these kids are critical thinkers who understand much more than they're given credit for:

The American Education system is a broken sham designed to enforce submissiveness and complacency
they never taught us meditation
I've to wake up early on weekdays, and I've to fret about it over my weekends.
same scenery every day of my life
bc I don't have enough time to live!
pressure to do well and meet expectations that others put onto you.
It perpetuates a no longer sustainable American ideal while secretly funding an already bloated credit market.
No Recess.
wake up early, go to bed late and do a bunch of work in the middle
8 hours being tortured in an isolated building. Then when it's over, another 6 hours of torturous work at home.
I am being prepared to be a factory worker, instead of the next innovator.
God I have so much work to do this weekend
I am being turned into a clone, instead of a creative, critical thinker.
It doesn't exist. Where I live, we just send our children in the wilderness to capture fire-breathing monsters. 

I'm not pretending that any of these complaints are new. We had the same ones when I was a boy: too early, irrelevant, and boring. I also know that I'm looking under a hashtag called #reasonswhyIhateschool, a self-selected place to gripe. And in fairness, there was a companion hashtag running yesterday #reasonswhyIloveschool, under which kids expressed gratitude for their teachers, and the opportunities that education opens for them, but it was never trending and, honestly, most of the "reasons" were about the other kids:

School day is the only time I can be with you, see you and talk to you.


Children don't like school because they love freedom. We are biologically driven to learn, but we are not biologically driven to learn on command. We are not biologically driven to stuff our brains with things about which we have no curiosity. Yet that's what school is for many children: going to a place in which they have few if any choices, where everything is done according to rules and schedules in which they have no say, and then being judged by a system of grades and tests that have no connection to the rest of their lives

It's easy to just dismiss all of this as a bunch of whiney kids. I think we ought to listen.

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Erin N. said...

Thank you. I wish I could be wittier ...and those two words do not even begin to convey the sincere gratitude I have for your blog posts. I hope that your wisdom is far reaching, but I fear the ones who really need to hear it never will. Your insights inspire me both as a mother and a professional working with children. Today's post comes at a time when my husband and I are searching for a school for our soon to be 5 year old son. It is a reminder that the “fight” is one worth waging and that the struggle we face is valid. I also made a donation to your blog. I've been meaning to for a while. Wish it could be more, as your efforts are priceless to me. Again, I say thank you.

Saya said...

I have been following that tweets too...and feeling sad and mad and all sorts of emotions.

Your blog... It is like if I were adequate in my thoughts I would write it just like that... lol

I just had this conversation with college students who are learning to be certified teachers. They were talking about "unschooling" and how it does not help to follow the rules and to success in school, to get into college, and to success in "real life". Their opinion was based on misunderstanding, but, what they said about what education ought to be was scary.
"I'm the teacher, I have education to be teacher, they have no clue" "listen to rules and who enforces it, or you won't succeed in real life' type of attitude.

Some teachers are coming in to this field thinking they are the police/god whatever kids compare them to. And the system allows it.

If you were real responsive educator, then no matter what the system is like, you'd try your best to be authoritative and make it more relevant, not forcing conformity from children.

I will be sharing this blog with those "teachers to be". Hopefully your blog will get to them to at least think. :)

Floor Pie said...

I subbed and tutored in public high schools for a short time in the 1990’s, and I can agree with this to a point. The kids are bored off their butts, some of the subject matter does seem strangely arbitrary and irrelevant at times, and high school does start ridiculously early in the morning. (I used to distribute pixie stix to my first period 11th graders to get them moving.)

I can’t really defend it. And yet, it feels kind of sickening to read a post with a spin like this. Maybe because there’s such a fine line between “power to the people” and a Palin-esque “education is stooopid” attitude. Is algebra really irrelevant? Is Shakespeare? Is good writing? Is American history?

Maybe some teachers are burned out and crabby, but a lot of them are getting up ridiculously early in the morning and working their butts off as best they can within a very imperfect system to make it not boring, not irrelevant, to wake these people up and get them thinking and moving. Some students respond well to that. Some complain just as much. Some complain even more because they want to be lectured at, and who does that enthusiastic weirdo trying to make us care about poetry and big words think she is? God?

Teens push against things and question convention, no matter what. I think it’s been well-proven that they still do better with reasonable boundaries to work against. There’s tons of room for improvement to high school as an institution, but it’s a lot easier to stand outside an imperfect system and point out its flaws. But there’s a lot of good going on in there, too.

At the very least, I believe there is tremendous value in learning how to navigate an imperfect system and still make it through the day with one’s soul and spirit intact. In that sense, school really does prepare us for real life.

Jen said...

This post left me with tears in my eyes. I think we ought to listen too.

Teacher Tom said...

Oh FP, there's a lot of validity in what you write, but to suggest I stand outside the system isn't fair. I have a teenager in high school and I spend many of my afternoons and weekends amongst her friends. These kids come from all walks of life, they go to public and private schools, and these complaints are virtually universal. I think it's too easy to simply fall back on the old prejudice that this is just the way teenagers are. They are NOT complaining just to complain: these are bright kids who know the score. Would it kill us to let them sleep a little more, to let them shape their own education a little more, to give them the opportunity to act Shakespeare instead of just read it, to treat them like fully formed humans who deserve to not be treated like infants or convicts?

What a huge price to pay just to learn how to navigate an imperfect system. And many of them don't come out with their souls and spirits intact.

Aunt Annie said...

My two favourite bloggers in the entire blogosphere are Teacher Tom and Floor Pie. Here they are colliding- and they're both right, in their own ways.

I'm one of the teachers who got up early, tried my butt off to make it interesting and give the kids plenty of room to be themselves and protest their ideas, let the kids bring coffee to early classes (and go and make it in class time if their eyes weren't open) and generally make it as relevant as I could. I also almost never set homework. Floor Pie is right- we're out there.

But do you think I could get anything but a hostile reaction to my methods from other teachers? I was so often a threat to their methods. The Maths staff in particular hated it that I challenged their 'open your book to page 53, do the exercises and shut up' way of getting through 7 periods a day. Teacher Tom is right too.

At the bottom of this is a need to attract people who have a VOCATION to teach to the profession. That means better pay, better conditions, less pointless paperwork and less external pressure to prove something that's amenable to statistical analysis.

My kids generally loved my classes. But they also used to tell me why they hated some other people's classes. You're both right.

Saya said...

That's why "some" teachers like Aunt Anny and FP who are inside of the system and fighting are important!!
I feel both of you on pressure from other teachers and some parents too... if there are more teachers like you two inside the system maybe we can overturn some of the craziness that scientifically proven to not work, and replace it with what really works for children to gain that love of learning for life.

Teacher Tom said...

I've been working in the classroom with Floor Pie for the past 3 years and I'm confident that we indeed form a mutual admiration society! I love that she keeps me on my toes -- in fact, she is often the audience I have in mind as a write. She feels that I often throw the baby out with the bath water in posts like these and I often do. I hope the balance of what I write here makes up for it!

Barbara Davis said...

I can smell another post nomination coming. Well done!

Floor Pie said...

Yes, Teacher Tom and I know each other in real life. I’d agree with his characterization of our mutual admiration society. I’ll also add that when I really admire someone, I tend to show it by challenging and questioning rather than going the disciple route. (Very unfeminine of me.)

Tom, you can disagree with me all you want, but I HAVE to believe that the human spirit is strong enough to survive imperfect institutions. I have to believe it because most of us simply don’t have many other options. We have to get by.

And read “The Science of Teen Rebellion” in NurtureShock before slapping “prejudice” on what I said. I stand by it.

Colleen said...

Loved *NurtureShock* and this post & comments.
'Those teachers' do exist--I taught at a whole charter school full of them. Our curriculum was project based learning and the school was far from perfect but students truly are able to find their passion and create amazing things...
I often think about how different my life might have been if I'd gone to a school like the one where I taught. Even at our school (where kids actually enjoy coming in every day) they complained. It is part of the age. And it is also important that they are heard and empowered. Our students were even part of the hiring process for new teachers. They called us by our first names. There were limits (and there often needed to be more) but students were able to follow their curiosity.
They may never have known they could enjoy Shakespeare until a passionate teacher opened them up to it and let them create their own film adaptations.
I don't think crappy schools are something we should sit back and let happen to our next generation. There can be freedom within institutions and curriculum with relevance. I agree that empowering teachers as professionals would make a huge difference.
Sorry for rambling! I could go on forever...but my thoughts are too sporadic right now. thanks for the post!

Nikki said...

Well, said. I am a mom of 7 children. At the moment I home educate my 3 children and one 2 year old . I also have 3 adult children one of which attended public school. The other two were home educated (One a mommy and one in the military). Val succeeded through high school in public school and continues to succeed in college (Going to be a secondary ed math teacher). Yet at times I wonder if I had come to home educating sooner What more she would have been able to accomplish. She has always been at an advanced level and the teachers have been amazing through it. She tells me college is to easy. It is so great for her that things come so easily to her. Yet on the other spectrum I have a child with leaning challeges . This child began public education and after much conflict and trial I took her out. (long story) She was unable to learn in that format. Taking her out was the best thing I ever did. She was put down and so frustrated. She lost all confidence in herself. To look at her today you would not know any of the battle occured. We worked hard to learn to read and figure math problems but now she can and very well. All of this with her self in tact. Having children in both forums. I can say there are some really good teachers out there but possibly not enough. It is a very frustrating fact that the system is such a mess . That we see it but no one is able to do anything about it. The political asspect of it keeps our children from what they deserve. (keeps us from a lot of things) Anyway thanks for this message this early morning. I am off to spend the day exploring and learning right along with my children.

Have a great day.
Nikki Hinkle

Kelly said...

I want to go to the wilderness and fight dragons. That's my kind of school!

Brilliant post.

Kelly said...

HOWEVER - I do wish everyone, no matter what, would get over the "I'm never going to use this." The thing is about most things we learn, it is then up to us to make the choices about what matters to us. Just bcause I technically never used algebra doesn't mean it didn't do my brain good to be exposed to it. Applied knowledge in and of itself is boring, and if we expect everything in school to be applied in some practical way, then life would be even duller still. A balanced approach, perhaps? Exposure to a variety of academic pursuits, and then a funneling of interests, perhaps?

Emily said...

I went through the IB program in high school, and I am not totally sure how I feel about such a rigorous education. It certainly had it's merits. I learned to write and speak well, and I learned valuable critical thinking skills. But it was also packed with long lectures and useless facts. I spent hours working on homework and essays when I feel like I should have been out in the world learning how to live, learning how to make decisions, interact with others, and basically enjoying my final days of freedom before the life of an adult came crashing in. So, in that respect, I am torn on the concept of modern education. The US is lagging far behind many other countries in this field, but, in my opinion, instead of longer hours and more instruction, I agree that we should be focusing on each child's individual strengths. We should be teaching our children how to learn, how to find themselves and their passion, not loading them down with useless calculus problems. Personally, because I was "smart", I was required to spend all my time on school work instead of engaging my true talents, which were artistic and creative. I love what you do for that reason Tom. I feel like you really help to engage these kids where they are and I have taken many lessons from you in educating my own 2 small girls. Thank you for what you do.

Anonymous said...

Teacher Tom, can I just say that I LOVE you and I love this post! When I taught at the high school level for 10 years I gave much credence to students' gripes like these about their experiences in school because I remember my own feelings about how trapped and put down and dismissed I felt when I was in their shoos. So I tried (whenever I could get away with it anyways) to make my classroom and my courses a place that didn't feel so much like school for the students, and I can attest to the fact that this really worked! I never had discipline issues even with kids that other teachers had a real tough time handling, my students did seriously great, ambitious, relevant, moving, mind-blowing, academically rigorous, deep work, every year they blew their test scores consistently out of the water, and to boot I loved my job. Now, as a teacher educator I shared this post and other things from your blog with my undergrad and grad students in a secondary teaching methods course today, and we had an amazing discussion about concrete ways these soon-to-be-teachers can plan to be shining beacons of hope, and engagement and real, individual, meaningful learning fueled by passion, desire and curiosity for their students. So I just wanted to let you know that your little post helped me do that, that you helped me inspire these pre-service teachers to be true agents of change through their classroom practices, and I am very grateful! Because (in my opinion) it's in teacher education that we have the real opportunities to make some exciting, grass-roots changes to how schooling happens in this country! So, THANK YOU! Keep up the great work!

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