"Expected respect is respect unearned" - SoulRiser

Why do kids hate school?

by Robert Sparrow

All of us have met someone in the course of our educational careers that made us feel bad about ourselves. For many people it was a teacher. For others it was a librarian, a hall monitor, a substitute teacher, or a lunch aid. The type of individual I am referring to is stern, condescending, and intolerant of younger people's opinions. They seem to dislike kids, making you wonder why they chose to go into the field of education in the first place.

These negative people change lives. Sure, plenty of kids get by-kids whose self-esteem has been bolstered at home. The ones who suffer most don't get enough recognition at home. But where parents fall short, teachers ought to step in. Teachers, especially at the elementary level, are supposed to be inspired individuals. They're supposed to be working not just for the benefits and vacations, but for the satisfaction of influencing and guiding young lives. It is their charge to be aware of the psychology behind children's bad behavior and emphasize their positive traits rather than their shortcomings. Punishment is an act of laziness; educational professionals have a duty to redirect their students' energy.

But teachers are not the reason kids hate school. They are merely the symptoms of a badly misconceived system, one that has been broken for so many years that it's difficult to believe it could ever actually be fixed. The phenomenon of kids hating school spans age and class barriers, though it is rarely addressed as an issue. What has triggered such a powerful feeling about an institution that is a part of every person's childhood? Consider this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"If the colleges were better, if they really had it, you would need to get the police at the gates to keep order in the inrushing multitude. See in college how we thwart the natural love of learning by leaving the natural method of teaching what each wishes to learn, and insisting that you shall learn what you have no taste or capacity for. The college, which should be a place of delightful labor, is made odious and unhealthy, and the young men are tempted to frivolous amusements to rally their jaded spirits. I would have the studies elective. Scholarship is to be created not by compulsion, but by awakening a pure interest in knowledge."

After much consideration, I have come up with three reasons: the curriculum, the grading system, and the restrictiveness.
Reason #1: The Curriculum

The curriculum in schools nowadays is outdated and unfriendly to students. In my first thirteen years of schooling, I read only two good books, and both of them in elementary school: The Giver by Lois Lowry, and Matilda by Roald Dahl. These are books that excite the imagination, filling the mind with fascinating ideas. In high school, I didn't encounter one book worth the time I spent reading it. What the old fogies who dictate the curriculum from their musty pulpits don't understand is that a young person's brain is fertile and yearning for new possibilities. It doesn't "get" sophisticated irony or religious symbolism or political messages. It is only frustrated by works like The Scarlet Letter and Beloved and The Awakening.

More importantly, literature is supposed to entertain. How can kids learn to love reading when they are forced to read Hamlet and MacBeth, works so dense and confusing that 90% of the adults in this country could never even understand them? Students should be allowed to read any books they enjoy. After all, it is the reading itself that matters. Once a love of reading is fostered, it becomes a lifelong interest. And reading makes people smarter. In high schools across the country, students are being taught to hate reading because of the unsavory books they are force-fed.

History, Math, and Science have less easily-solvable problems, but there is still plenty to be done. For instance, why isn't history ever related to modern-day life? Kids need context. Making them memorize the date the Magna Carta was signed is simply a waste of time. The only time that information would come in handy is during a game of Trivial Pursuit.

Even an event as important as the Revolutionary war needs to be abandoned in the way it is conventionally taught. Kids can't relate to the passionate patriotism that incited the Revolution. All they get out of it is a bunch of men in wigs riding around on horses. In order to teach them more effectively, they should be shown what history accomplished for them. Parallels to other countries that are not yet liberated should be drawn. For instance, they could be taught about pre-liberation Iraq. Guest speakers could be arranged. Only by example can a student begin to realize the profundity of most historical events.

The same principle of showing rather than telling is even more applicable to math and science. These subjects, especially in high school, border on the completely useless for most students. They are nothing more than elaborate, year-long sets of riddles. As an example, let's take a staple of high school geometry: truth tables. Why, oh why, should a student have to memorize the term modus ponens when all it states is that if one thing causes another, and that one thing happens, the other will happen? In other words, "If it is sunny tomorrow, we will go to the beach. It is sunny. Therefore, we will go to the beach." That's modus ponens. Why not just explain what a conditional statement is?

But that is only the beginning of the confusion. In order to demonstrate modus ponens, math teachers have their students construct elaborate truth tables that famous mathematicians have created as a way of justifying these statements. Why? So the students can understand the material better. Wake up! If you want students to understand that one thing causes another, you don't tell them TTFF = T and TFFF = F. Just tell them "one thing causes another"! Better yet, give them real-life examples.

The truth table example epitomizes the problem of an overcomplicated curriculum. I say, those with theoretical minds should be given reign to study all the trigonometry and calculus and physics they want. After all, nurturing our future mathematicians and scientists is crucial. But those who are not inclined towards math and science should not be made to spend their time studying a subject that does not interest them. Boring students out of their minds does not make them enjoy learning. Quite the opposite.

And why are so many practical necessities skipped over in school-things like reading a map, using common computer applications, and balancing a checkbook. Why isn't there more emphasis on self-knowledge? If students were made to study themselves the way they are made to study photosynthesis, the adult population would be a lot more emotionally stable.
Reason #2: The Grading System

Speaking of emotional stability, what tainted individual made it mandatory for public schools to systematically compare students? The policy of grading kids, compiling averages, and assigning ranks is simplistic, demoralizing, and just plain mean. Ranking students is the same as pigeonholing, labeling, or stereotyping: "A" students are smart, "B" students are average, "C" students are slow, and "D" or "F" students are stupid. This is actually the way people think. If you don't believe me, ask a room full of people to place a sticker containing their SAT score on their shirt. If you could get them to do it, you would see how sharply everyone's perceptions change when they believe they are seeing a measure of another person's intelligence. Introduce someone with a "1600" on their sticker and you'll see an immediate increase in the level of respect (and resentment) shown to that person. Give someone an "800" and he'll be looked at with superiority and pity, even if he was previously seen as intelligent. Labels change opinions unnecessarily. Need some other examples? Try the same experiment, except with body fat instead of grades.

Grades not only influence other people's perceptions; they affect a person's self-perception. We tend to define ourselves by the opinions of others. An excellent gymnast, for instance, would not rate herself so because deep down she thinks she's really great, but because she has competed against others and beaten them (this, in my opinion, is a grave problem in itself, but it is rooted so deeply in our society that there is little we can do about it, at least on a large scale). When little Johnny sees that the other kids in the class scored higher on the exam than he did, he believes his intelligence, at least in that subject, is inferior to theirs. Over time, if little Johnny's performance remains relatively stable, his low opinion of his intelligence becomes cemented. "I'm not that good at math" he'll say. Or "I can't stand English." And he'll believe it. Why should kids have to doubt themselves? It is better to encourage their abilities, rather than labeling them so that they become turned off to subjects they would otherwise be inclined to explore. Schools need to recognize the complexity of the individual, rather than defining students in terms of grades and test scores. Detailed evaluations should take the place of quarterly report cards. This would not only eliminate the unnecessary demoralizing of students, but it would require teachers to evaluate their students as individuals. The sooner we stop rating and labeling kids, the easier it will be for them to recognize their worth, and make more significant contributions to society.
Reason #3: The Restrictiveness

A final and lesser-acknowledged problem for students is the unreasonable restrictiveness imposed on them by the school system. In short, they are denied their civil rights. They are unilaterally subjected to the wills of teachers, many of whom routinely allow their personal preferences to supersede the needs of the class. They may not speak freely, choose how they spend their time, or object to authority, for fear of being punished or picked on. In the real world, of course, the student or the student's guardian has the freedom to reject situations that feel oppressive.

The current system was made to contain troublemakers, not promote a positive learning environment. But why do we have to assume the worst of students? If the Board Of Education had students' enjoyment of learning in mind when they made the rules, the only guidelines in existence would be conduct-related. Exams and projects would be optional, and students would be able to choose their own classes. The learning experience would be the students' for the taking. Contrary to what critics will say, kids would still learn if they weren't forced to take tests. Learning can be fun-if it is individualized. As Emerson put it, "scholarship is created…by awakening a pure interest in knowledge."
The Bottom Line

The worst products of the school system end up alienated from the natural curiosity and hopeful idealism they came in with; the best end up pursuing their own passions anyhow.

I say, why not give all kids the opportunity to enjoy learning while they are still in school?

Dr. Robert Sparrow is a nationally-recognized expert in childhood development. He is the founder of Sparrow Papers, a commercial research and writing firm.


Dr. Sparrow may be contacted at sparrow@sparrowpapers.com.

Written by: Robert Sparrow
27 April 2005

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