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How Schools Wreck Imagination

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As many of you know, I homeschool, but I don't want this post to be about homeschooling. Most of you, my readers, don't homeschool, and I just simply want to present a very real problem, and then ask what we should do about it (without necessarily getting into a fight over homeschooling in the comments, if that's okay!)

While I do homeschool my girls, they also take a few courses from an online school, run by our Board of Education in my province. Rebecca has done Science and some senior level math (to get the high school credits, to make it easier to get into university), and Katie is now doing French and grade 9 Science. I teach everything else. It's a good mix.

But I have no illusions that the Science is actually taught well all the time. Katie's first assignment of the year, for instance, was really about becoming acquainted with the help that is available on the internet. She had to formulate 4 questions, one in each area of Biology, Chemistry, Astronomy, and Electricity. Then two of the questions she had to research in an online library run by the Ministry of Education, and two she had to ask using the "Ask The Teacher" resource run by our Ministry as well. Students can sign in at night and ask high school teachers (not their own) questions they're having problems with.

Here was our chemistry question: We've been talking about honour killings abroad, and how in India and Pakistan acid is often poured on women's faces. She asked, "why is acid called burning when it's not hot? Why does it actually burn?"

That sounded like an interesting question to me. Here's how the online conversation went:

Teacher: It burns because it's a chemical reaction.
Katie: What's the reaction?
Teacher: It's a reaction that burns the skin.
Katie: Yes, but how?
Teacher: You're not supposed to know that yet.
Chat turned off.

How's that for encouraging learning?

Rebecca took the same course two years ago, and had the same assignment, and had the same experience with one of her questions she asked ("what is heavy water"?).

I told Katie to just reproduce the conversation, as it was, and put it in her assignment, and then we spent about 3 minutes searching the web for the answer (because I honestly don't know how acid burns skin; I wanted to find out). We found the answer, and wrote it down, telling her teacher that the Ask The Teacher thing is useless.

Here's the thing: Teachers are supposed to TEACH. They're supposed to inspire a great love of learning, a curiosity about the world, that is insatiable. A child who has an insatiable curiosity will do well in life, because they will always be expanding their horizons.

Instead, though, teachers often cut off any kind of imagination because it doesn't fit with what they're trying to teach (or because they don't know and they don't want to seem ignorant in front of students). But this isn't really teaching.

Coming from a homeschooling background, my attitude whenever we come across something I can't answer is to say, "Wow, that's interesting. Let's figure it out." And we do. The girls learn how to research, and they get answers to their questions, even if they're years ahead of where they're supposed to be in school. Who cares? If they're interested now, let's go for it!

Schools, though, usually don't have time for such pursuits. Now I know there are teachers who are exceptional, who do encourage this sort of thing, and perhaps we'll have teachers in the comments section saying that they would have figured it out as well. That's great. But on the whole, this does not happen, and to say that individual teachers may be different doesn't really help. The problem is that as an institution, education, the way we do it now, does not encourage curiosity. It encourages conformity, and more of the "just be quiet and listen" method of learning, which is not engaging whatsoever.

It reminds me of one of the reasons we decided to homeschool in the first place. Rebecca was starting senior kindergarten and was reading Amelia Bedelia and Junie B. Jones books on her own. (She was an early reader; Katie was not. Same household. Same reading out loud to kids from 6 months old on; but Katie didn't read until she was 6 1/2. So it's not necessarily that we caused Rebecca to read early; I think she was just intellectually ready). Anyway, the school would send home these "book in a bag" programs to encourage kids to read, and they were 10 page books with pictures that went something like, "It is sunny. It is cloudy. It is raining." You get the idea.

The child could "read" it even if they couldn't read because of the pictures, and it was supposed to enhance reading readiness.

The school would send home these books, and I would send back Junie B. Jones for Rebecca to read at school. The teacher knew Rebecca could read, but it didn't stop her from sending home these "baby" books, because that's what all kinds were supposed to be doing. There was no room to take a child who was excelling and move her forward. She just stagnated.

John Taylor Gatto has written a ton on how the school system, as a whole, is completely antithetical to real education, because it kills imagination and it kills true comprehension. It actually dumbs students down, because it squeezes out that which makes us smart--the quest for knowledge. Certainly an exceptional teacher can make a difference, but it's the institution that is bad--the idea of having 30 kids of all different ability levels learn together just because they share the same birth year. And then the stuff they learn, and the way they teach it, isn't necessarily ideal for learning.

It just makes me sad. Katie and I laughed off the incident last night, but it still makes me cringe when I think of all the kids who could otherwise be learning in a different environment, wasting away in school. And I do mean wasting away. I absolutely hated school (even though my marks were very good) because I was bored out of my mind. I always learned more from reading books than I did from school. And yet we force kids to endure this.

What's the answer? I really don't know. Homeschooling is an answer for an individual family, but it isn't an answer for society as a whole, because obviously not all families will ever homeschool. But I think we have to do school completely differently. Not just look for better teachers--there aren't enough of them. I think we need to do school differently. I just don't know what that would look like. Any ideas? Or have you ever been frustrated like this with your child's school? Let me know!

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At 9:33 AM , Blogger Christie said…

I'm a former school teacher who now homeschools. The system is broken and really resists efforts to fix it. I had to beg, plead, and finally threaten to move grade levels in order to do what was called "tracking" for underacheiving 7th and 8th graders (that means grouping kids by their academic abilities to better teach based on their learning needs).

It lasted for two years despite an increase in 8th grade graduation rates. Two of my low acheiving kids wound up going to an exclusive private high school. One gave me flowers at his 8th grade graduation saying, "I never knew I COULD learn this stuff." Tracking worked for those kids, but the administration put an end to it. Not because of any academic or philosophical reason: it was for self-esteem. The kids might feel bad about being in the "bone-head class." My answer was that they might, but that feeling goes away when they are successful.

It isn't just the students who stifle in the system. It's the teachers, too.


At 9:54 AM , Blogger Sheila said…

Christie, I love your last paragraph: It isn't just the students who stifle in the system. It's the teachers, too.

I never really thought of it that way, but it's so true. School, as we currently do it, drains all of us.


At 9:55 AM , Blogger Llama Momma said…

I think online learning in general would stifle imagination, just by the nature of it.

My boys are in a gifted program at their public school, so there experience is probably really different from the average kid's.

Their teacher's have each done an amazing job at expanding their thinking and imagination. It's not unusual for me to get an email saying, "Wow. B. was so into this unit on weather and couldn't get enough. Did you know the science museum has a special exhibit on weather right now? I think B. would really benefit from a visit there."

I think so much depends on the school and teacher. And parents! Providing a rich learning environment at home will carry over to school.


At 10:13 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

That is a tough one. I think some of the answers lie in 2 areas.

1 - Give the teachers more freedom. I used to think all of this accountablity testing was good until I saw how much it frustrated good teachers. I know so many wonderful teachers who quit or moved to lower grade levels because the system would not let them teach like they felt they needed to. Our standardized tests come so early that teachers are cramming information down in half the school year, and they havve no choice. I have a friend who quit teachng high school because she was tired of being asked to graduate seniors who read on a 4th grade level. I see teachers move into their dream career and then get their dreams crushed. They either quit or stop trying, and that's sad.

2 - If we quit grouping students by age level and let them learn according to their actual development (as you already pointed out), I think we would see better results and less students losing interest in school. Many kids are not ready for formal schooling until 8 or 9, but we treat 5 year olds who can't read as though they are "remedial." Then you also get the opposite problem that you had with your daughter who was ready to move on.

Sometimes we regulate ourselves right out of our own good sense.


At 10:55 AM , Blogger Harter said…

I was from a small town and my high school science teacher was extraordinary! If we asked questions like that and he didn't have time to explain them he said that he would give extra credit to anyone who found the answer and turned it in with their next homework assignment. So he encouraged us finding the answer, but he didn't stray from his schedule that the school insisted he followed.

That being said, I believe he was a rare gym. My children are in grade school and have not had any such teachers encouraging them. We are homeschooling them this year.


At 11:48 AM , Blogger Tessa said…

Hubby hated school and I actually enjoyed it because it gave me something to do. But my favorite course was the grade 12 math course. Not beause I love math but because I barely passed grade 11 math. I just farted around in class because I knew that I could pass without doing the work. (i.e. I was bored). So when grade 12 came my teacher thought I should take the "easier" version of the course but I stuck with it and it was fun because I actually had to put in an effort. I graduated with honors.

Hubby, who was told (mostly by his mother...grrrr...) that he was not a good reader, not good at school etc. HATED school. But he does have good memories about and alternative (remedial) program that he was in for one course for a few months in Jr high. They learned the exact same stuff as they regular course except they did more hands on activities instead of just reading.

I'm planning to homeschool for similar reasons. I don't believe my son is either gifted or remedial but I just don't want him to be stifled by the education system. Sometimes it would be nice to go back to the one room schoolhouse where kids get more one-on-one and can learn from other students and progress at different rates and learn in styles that work for them. Not to mention back then they didn't spend as much time in a classroom as they did discovering and learning from real life experiences.


At 12:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

Where I live (Texas), the laws require students to pass a state exam and the teachers are therefore required to teach to the test. There is enormous pressure on both the students and the teachers. My teacher friends are frustrated because they can't take the time to nurture creativity. They have too much required information that they must shove down the students' throats.

I also home school my children and I agree that homeschooling will never be an option for everyone. But it seems that education is too big a task for the government. They do the best they can, but honestly, aren't we expecting too much from them? (Or to rephrase, aren't they trying to do too much for us.) Educating 100% of the population would be daunting for anyone. I don't know the answer, but it seems that if parents were encouraged to seek alternatives - home school, private school, etc. - then the government would be left with a manageable task.


At 12:01 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

Perhaps this is one of the reasons homeschooling is "catching on!" Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought I would attempt such a thing (and why on earth would I want to?) -- and then circumstances changed and my son got bullied and I said to the principal "Maybe we will have to homeschool" and she said there was no need to go THAT far!!! And the school division made it sound so extremely difficult that what parent would want to try?! Anyway, I did alot of research, phoning and talking to people, finding out about curriculum, the homeschool association about 45 minutes from my home, etc. And here I am -- finding great freedom teaching my 11 year old Grade 6 son. My Kindergartener wanted to go to school so she is in the regular system - so I have a foot in both worlds! Last night we were at a homeschool association meeting and they said that the group started as 5 people around a kitchen table -- and now they have a lengthy list of homeschoolers and about 22 people showed for the meeting (so that was at least a dozen families as there were many couples present). Already this fall, I had a lightbulb moment -- Sitting on the Bob the Builder blanket on the front lawn, my son drinking green tea while I read a book about the Titanic to him (and my husband sitting on a lawn chair nearby listening) ... and thinking to myself "This is school??!"

I don't know how to "fix the system" but, in our case (so far at least) homeschooling seems to be the answer - bringing family togetherness and more "fun" to my son's learning experience. Now I am wondering why I didn't try it years ago!!

I wonder if the online science teacher didn't know the answer to why acid burns and didn't want to appear ignorant so just shut the whole thing down?! I agree, if you want to know something -- find out and let them know -- as 5 years from now, when they are "supposed to know that" they might not be interested in the topic any longer.

Thanks for the post!

Denise in Saskatchewan


At 1:14 PM , Blogger A'ine said…

My kids are in public school. Fortunately, they have both had teachers who actually want to get to know the kids they teach and figure out what gets them hooked (and not just on phonics!). My daughter can read really well...she started off with the weekly reading bags last year in Grade 1, and they were easy books...what I thought was too easy for her at first, till the teacher told us that our daughter was struggling with reading fluidly and then she started sending home 2 books: one easy one for her to get used to rhythm of reading aloud, without having to stop for new words, etc., and one "challenge" one that was a bit above where she could read, to challenge her. I thought that was really cool. Her SK teacher did the same thing...she read with all the kids, and she had a range of books to send home with the kids, depending on what level they were reading at. She had no problem sending home books that challenged kids who were reading way beyond grade-level.
Am I under any illusions that I might not luck out so well in the future with "good" teachers? Nope.
Here's how I see it:
1) There are good teachers & bad teachers in the system. Unfortunately, like anything else, stuff gets geared to the lowest common denominator...and you end up with teachers in the system that really should be doing something else.
2) The public system has bowed too much to a pressure, real or perceived, that they can't do anything because of "those kind of parents" (and you know which ones I'm talking about). While I believe parents should have a say in their kids' education, sometimes I think we've created a monster where, again, we've bowed to the lowest common denominator..."that kind of parent" in this case...and teachers feel like they are damned if they do and damned if they don't. I have a friend who teaches and she ran into this very problem at one school she taught in a few years ago. Parents who think the teachers shouldn't grade their kid so seriously, parents who want the teacher to push the kid through, parents who fail to realize that a kid might be at one level academically, but at another one socially/behaviourally. Sometimes the teacher DOES know what the kid needs, and the parents don't.
I have seen this same thing repeated at our church's DVBS program, where parents push and push and push (and NOT in a good way, don't get me wrong!); I've heard from friends about this in regards to "hockey/soccer/ballet" parents. I think this is part of the puzzle as well.
3)I believe the public system NEEDS to be fixed, because, I'm sorry, but not every parent can afford private or Christian schooling and not every family can or wants to homeschool. As a Christian parent, I believe I have a role to play in my kids' school...if for nothing mroe than to validate and affirm the Christian teachers that are there (yes there are Christian teachers in the public education system).
I realize that I'm probably going to get an electronic earful from the things I've said, because I'm a Christian who chooses to put their kids in the public system.
Those are my preliminary thoughts.


At 4:11 PM , Blogger Liz said…

This comment has been removed by the author.


At 4:17 PM , Blogger HomeEdUKMum said…

A'ine said...
"I realize that I'm probably going to get an electronic earful from the things I've said, because I'm a Christian who chooses to put their kids in the public system."

Hi A'ine,
It grieves me that the issue of schooling/homeschooling can be such a contentious issue amongst Christians and to express your views could result in an ear bashing. We are where we are be it our local community, church, job, school or homeschool because it is God's will and that is where He wants us. My dear friend's children both go to state school and her dd often ends up befriending children who come from broken homes etc. They minister to these children and if the opportunity arises, to their mums.

I homeschool because the system here in the UK is also broken and it is right for my son. How to fix the system, I don't know. However, we must encourage and build one another up in the Lord no matter where He has placed us.

Every blessing,


At 4:57 PM , Blogger Shonda said…

Interesting, I had a similar conversation with a prof today at the university. He's for year-round education. I support year-round education too, but it also depends on the learning environment and what is being taught. (We are in a year-round school district.)

I used to homeschool and I loved it. My son is now 8th grade and in public school. We felt that is the way the Lord led us because, he's athletic yet he's also well rounded academically, but particularly excels in science and math (not my forte). To solve some of the problems you brought up that we've encountered, is placing him in Pre-AP (advance placement) classes. Now we're applying for him to be enrolled in a science/math magnet school (within the school so he can still play sports) that will challenge him even more academically.

Yes, I miss the spontaneous exploring of answers when we homeschooled. It's disappointing that more teachers do not encourage it more, but as parents we can continue to encourage it with our children.

Lastly, I really, really believe that as parents, no matter where we are led to have our children educated, parents are ultimately responsible. We, as parents, need to be involved in their education and obviously homeschool parents are, but especially those of us who send our children to public schools. It is essential we know what they are learning and encourage them to learn.



At 7:51 PM , Blogger Herding Grasshoppers said…

I don't know how to fix it. Or if it can be fixed.

I don't think anyone learns best when they're institutionalized. No matter how motivated the teachers are (or aren't), how can they inspire 30 restless kids from such a wide variety of backgrounds?

When our kids were in public school we had some great teachers, who loved what they did.

But, as mentioned, they are required to teach to a test. They are required to teach all the kids A, B and C. And kids that are ahead or behind or off to the side (curious about other things) have to conform or be left behind. And they are required to spend X number of hours on all manner of things that have nothing to do with academics.

And now, with the economy in the toilet, the classes (numbers of kids) are bigger, the specialists are scarcer, and hard decisions have to be made based on finances rather than what would be ideal.

It's just all kinds of sad.


At 2:03 PM , Blogger Brenda said…

One thing that might help is to stop thinking of education as happening from 8-3. Parents, for the most part, have washed their hands of educating their children and expect the schools to handle that. Of course, with school taking 8 hours a day not to mention after school programs and tutoring that go's pretty hard to have any time to help your children in any area. I was a teacher for 11 years, then my daughter was in school for 3 years, and now I homeschool--so I've seen this from a lot of angles. When she was in school, she was struggling in some areas but after eating supper, playing for a few minutes, completing 1 1/2 hours of homework in first grade, and taking a bath...when was I supposed to help her in those areas?

So parents do not participate enough in the education process, but cannot either. But they do need to know that school is not ideal so they will know what their children are not learning.


At 5:16 PM , Blogger Ruth Snyder said…

Thanks for the post, Sheila. I always thought I would be a homeschool parent. However, my husband is a strong supporter of the public school system and did not want our children to be homeschooled. I have been active in our local school since our eldest daughter started Kindergarten. Almost three years ago, I also became a public school board trustee. I love being involved in helping shape the education system my children are involved in.
I believe the province of Alberta is unique (am I biased or what?) in that the department of education is asking tough questions about education. What started out as a review of the special education system (Setting the Direction)turned into a review of the education system as a whole (Speak Out and Inspiring Action). Presently, the Alberta School Act is being rewritten. The government is asking for feedback from stakeholders around the province. (Google Inspiring Action to see what questions are being asked and even some of the feedback that is being given.) I am excited about the direction education is headed in our province - personalized learning, wrap-around services in schools (e.g. therapy, health services, counseling), rethinking assessment, etc.

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Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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