School Teaches Students How To Be Bad Workers

“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, 1983

nation at risk

“During my time in school, I have developed many skills that teachers did not intentionally want me to learn, but in a way forced me to because of the way they teach and implement the school rules. These are basically ways to cheat the system discretely. Things such as writing a whole essay not knowing what I am really talking about and not paying attention in class but acting like I am.”

High School Junior, 2016


Here’s a few things I did in school.

  • Plowed through weeks and months of class by daydreaming, doodling, playing games, reading unrelated stuff, messaging, and otherwise generally dinking around.
  • Talked my way out of deadlines, extending them, sometimes indefinitely.
  • Copied homework, answers, and projects, receiving credit for work I didn’t do.
  • Ignored everything until the night before the exam and pulled all nighters to finish essays.
  • Made judicious use of sources to pad and lengthen my sloppy writing and reasoning.
  • Lied to teachers about my mental state, or home state, or some kind of state, in order to avoid consequences and work.
  • Learned to nod when applicable, look ahead for the answer to the question that was coming my way, write down responses after they had been given out by others, and generally DO as little actual work as absolutely necessary to still pass the class.  

By the end of high school I was really, really good at a lot of this.  I could read a teacher’s sympathy or mood or general demeanor like a politician.  I had a solid, workable bank of excuses and avoidance techniques.  I could lie so convincingly I believed my own lies.  I eagerly joined group projects because I knew another student, one more interested in higher grades than I, would do most of the work for which I would receive credit.  I mostly mastered the art of determining the minimum work needed to escape scrutiny and still get a passing grade.  (On occasion I misjudged.)  I even developed a solid folder of techniques for making it appear that I’d done far more work than I actually performed.  I developed as well a genuine, heartfelt disdain for work itself, for anything that smacked of repetitive deliberate effort, self-improvement, or vague purpose. Continue reading “School Teaches Students How To Be Bad Workers”

School Actively Creates Unhappiness

A wealth of current research into happiness has yielded a consistent and surprisingly small set of factors.  Three, in fact, beyond the needs of food and shelter: Relationships, Freedom, and Meaningful Work.  Strong, positive relationships create a sense of belonging, a feeling of value and importance in the world. We are social creatures, dependent upon the company of others for survival. At the same time, we are autonomous, and need independence. We don’t wish to be forced into all decisions and crave, both for ourselves and those closest, the freedom to choose.  And finally, research shows that people are most happy when they are good at the things they spend most of their time doing.  Mastery and Meaning go hand in hand.  People who are good at what they do tend to find meaning in it, and people who find meaning in what they do tend to develop the skills that create mastery.

But these are ADULT conditions.  We apply them to the workforce, the family unit, the social contract.  We do not apply these concepts to school and children.  If anything, much of what we do in school is the opposite of belonging, autonomy, and mastery.  It’s almost as if school is not merely unconcerned with the happiness of students, school is designed to eliminate their happiness altogether.

Consider Relationships.  The classroom structure is actually primarily designed to break students’ most meaningful social connections.  We sit them in desks facing one direction.  We often (and necessarily) assign seating away from the distraction of friends.  We take away their phones, of course, and attempt to limit in all sorts of often futile ways the social access of their computers.  Many schools and teachers even go to great lengths to discourage the only human relationship left, that with the teacher.

Autonomy, of course, is completely absent in school.  Kids can’t even go to the bathroom without asking permission.  They can’t choose what to wear, when to eat, what to study or when to study it.  Where to go, when to go there.  Who to be with or what to do with them.  How to walk or how to talk.  What to care about and what to ignore. The lack of freedom students have is so thorough, actually, that I suspect we simply avoid thinking about it altogether. Whatever shades one might attempt to paint the picture of school and autonomy, there’s little arguing that nearly every detail concerns the reduction of it.

The three components of happiness are somewhat exclusive of each other, even oppositional.  Relationships decrease autonomy, for example.  Strong, meaningful social commitments, as any married person or parent can tell you, come with expectations of behavior, limits on one’s personal desires and actions. Both Belonging and Autonomy can limit the acquisition of skill, especially if those skills are necessary but not chosen.  Again, as any married person can tell you, having a spouse or child in the room can seriously disrupt work.  There’s a balance that needs to be maintained, and sometimes a choice to be made.  School, obviously, is about Mastery and work.

But while meaningful work is the primary focus of school, it’s actually here where we stumble most profoundly.  Yes, education is almost exclusively dedicated to the acquisition – and mastery – of skills.  It is for this reason that we work so hard to break kids from their social circle and force them into behavior they wouldn’t otherwise choose. But since we aren’t really concerned with a student’s happiness (if we were, we wouldn’t be so aggressive in eliminating 2 of the 3 essentials), we ignore both Meaning and Mastery when instructing.

Meaning is significantly powered by choice, by Autonomy, so there is an immediate reduction of the individual aspect of meaningful work when students cannot choose what to study, when to study it, or how to study it.  But the lack of Meaning in the work of school extends much further than choice.  Often, it’s simply not considered at all.  The acquisition of skills is complicated, uncertain, and expensive if one is forced to answer the fundamental question: why?  The vague answers students so often get – almost all of them variations of ‘You’ll need this later’ – rarely address the actual question that most adults ask and answer satisfactorily about their jobs: Why?  What is the value or purpose?  Because most of the time, for that student in that place at that time, there is no answer.  They are studying the subject more or less ‘Because.’  Because that’s what the curriculum mandates.  Because that’s what’s on the test.  Because that’s what the Standard is.  Because that’s what the system says they must learn.  Because that’s what the structure of their schedule demands.  Because this is the hour in which they study that thing.  There is no ‘Meaning’ or ‘Purpose’ to the subject; there is only system and structure and process.  There is not even the reward of money, merely grades.

Sometimes there’s a kind of peripheral motivation to schoolwork that leans towards meaning – working on ‘this’ builds a parallel skill which will help later in the mastery of meaningful work on some undefined ‘that’. ‘This’ math problem helps build math fluency, which will be useful when one is an engineer or building a business.  Writing ‘this’ essay builds writing skill, which will prove necessary when one actually has worthy ideas.  But such motivations have absolutely nothing to do with meaning, and everything to do with a skill divorced from any kind of purpose; students are told simply to trust and mindlessly do.  Yet meaningful work is anything but mindless.

We might like to think, perhaps, that if ‘Meaning’ isn’t clear to their work, at least students are focused on Mastery.  But again, no.  School is not structured for Mastery.  School is structured for Adequate.

The basic motivational aspect of grades guarantees that schools are not interested in mastery.  Consider:  what is the first thing one thinks if they hear everyone in a class got A’s?  Amazing teacher and totally invested kids?  Of course not.  The class was too easy.  Most schools, in fact, attempt to maintain average grades that hover around the ‘Adequate’.  Mastery is for the few, not the many.  And while there is a great deal of teeth gnashing and lamentation about grade inflation, nobody ever makes similar points about grades being inaccurately low.  If ALL – or even most – students are achieving some form of mastery over the material, the cry goes out to make it harder.

Standardized testing has little to do with Mastery or Meaning, of course, unless it means one masters a meaningful exam, but this is just one element of the problem of assessment.  The traditional classroom measurement device – the test – is specifically designed to separate the few who have mastered the material from the many who have merely acquired the basics.  And rarely does any kind of exam really address the fundamental aspect of Meaning.  Many tests only matter in the moment, to the material of the moment.

None of the three components of happiness stand alone to the creation of a satisfying life.  By themselves, Community, Independence, and Meaningful Work do not create happiness.  If anything, too much of one and not enough of the others is often the root of an unhappy life. Conversely, none of these happiness factors is mutually exclusive and they often feed each other.  Community creates a sense of purpose and belonging, gives value and meaning to one’s work.  Mastery feeds one’s Autonomy.  Choice makes Meaning meaningful.  But in deliberately removing these components from student’s lives, we do not make learning any easier or powerful.

Kids who come to class and act social, who push against the lack of autonomy in various childish ways, or who don’t care for the work are usually punished.  We treat their actions punitively, as if they have been bad.  Yet the truth is, all they are trying to do is be happy. That’s not exactly a crime; in fact, isn’t happiness kind of the whole point of education in the first place?

Why Are Teachers So Often Liberal When School Is Anything But?

Consider the military.  Ignoring for a moment the Officer Class (who enjoy perks and benefits to  a ridiculous degree of comfort, safety, and economy), the majority of soldiers survive in a profoundly egalitarian system.  Labor is distributed evenly, as is salary.  Food and housing are provided by the system.  Achievement and reward is merit-based on individual talent, skill, and ability.  Individuality is thoroughly discouraged.  Identity and personality take second (actually, third, fourth, fifth, or more) place to cohesion and function of the whole.  You remember how everyone in China wore the same clothes back in the day?  That wasn’t because they didn’t have clothes or colorful fabric.  I could go on building this case, but there are bigger points to make.

One being this:  If you were looking for a conveniently collected source of Republican-leaning individuals, you’d go find a military barracks and start there.  If you wanted freedom-loving, pro-individual, capitalist thinking, greed encouraging, free market, John Wayne, anti-government purists, you’d find the most stalwart, hard-core, uncompromising idealists in the most communist place in the country.

Now consider School.  Schools are the most Darwinistic, survival-of-the-fittest, merit-based, unequal, capitalist jungles in our society.  On the macro-level they are dependent upon the value and worth of their location for any kind of success at all.  Do you live in an economic desert, someplace sparsely fed with that essential, water-like nourisher of schools: Money?  School life is going to be hard and mean.  Enjoy the metaphorical benefits of water and good soil?  A diverse, thriving school economy, with ample opportunity for growth and success.

In school, everything depends upon your own individual, non-cooperative effort.  Equality in schools is a barely maintained illusion.  For one, you are constantly measured against your peers.  Success or failure always arrives as a comparison against your classmates.  Yes, nominally success in school is supposed to be independent of any variable but one’s own individual talents, but we all know this is nowhere near the truth.  Every class is a competition.  The foundational economy of grades guarantees it.  And as in pure Capitalism (and pure Darwinism) success is a product of inherited traits, not individual success.  Wealth, in schools, is the greatest predictor of future achievement.

School is, despite some modern efforts (and a lot of editorial grousing), intensely, fundamentally competitive.  Conditions change dramatically from environment to environment (from school to school, to grade to grade, to class to class), so success is not merely a product of skill, but adaptability.  As in nature, change occurs over time and distance.  Survival depends on the ability to adapt either as the environment changes in time (as in year to year) or as one moves from one environment to another in place (as in class to class).  School is a daily re-enactment – sped up to impossible levels – of that natural struggle.  Students move from environment to environment, and their success is dependent upon their ability to shift gears, change processes, maximize and minimize specific traits to the landscape.  One class may demand gregarious extroversion while another asks for introverted silence.  One may use logic, the other creativity.

Inherited strength is fundamental in schools, as it is in Capitalism.  Inherited capital has more power than developed.  Success is far more likely if you enter school at a competitive advantage, whether that means you already know how to read, have an aptitude for math, or are the stock of parents who can afford tutors and encourage breakfast.  If your parents are successful, you are likely to be so.

(One might be forgiven assuming that schools are more Fascist than Capitalist.  After all, each classroom is ruled by a dictator with absolute authority.  But a teacher receives so little physical reward from a student’s labor that they can hardly be said to be ‘exploitative’.)

I could go on building this case as well, but there is another point to make, namely:  If you wanted to find the most liberal, socialist-leaning, anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, pro-big government, pro-union, competition-fearing, anti-bullying, marginalized-population-loving, suspicious-of-power  group of people in the nation, you’d find the nearest public school and gather together the teachers.  

Failure Does Not Instruct, Success Does

We’re on a bit of a ‘let’s embrace failure’ trend these days.  Lots of articles across the internets about the benefits of failure, the learning potential, the need for coddled students to experience the wonderfully instructive power of being told they are wrong.  As so often the case, the central thesis comes at us in fairly easy to catch, sensible sounding nuggets of wisdom, which we’ll address in a moment.  More interesting, as usual, is the subtext, and also the actual, usually unstated, intent.  In this case: School is too easy.  People are given too much without needing to work for it.  Pain is not merely instructive, it’s essential to wisdom and moral order.  

So, a few Bromides out of the way first.

  1. Yes, it’s true, Failure is a way we learn.  Success has rewards, but ‘learning’ isn’t entirely one of them.  Most learning occurs before success, in the trial and error process, where one is neither winning nor losing, just working.
  2. Yes, it’s true, Failure is not unnatural.  Much of our life is spent fundamentally failing in one way or another.  Only those born with exceptional gifts are denied the experience of struggle that is intimately married to failure.  
  3. Yes, it’s true, Failure creates strength.  Though it’s not exactly a muscular strength.  The strength of failure is in callous, tendon, cartilage.  The strength one gets from failure is the thickened skin of scar.  

But let’s not kid ourselves.  Failure is not so very often the product of natural disaster, or chance, or unanticipated event.  It’s not so often a blind spot, or an absence of essential.  And when it is, one doesn’t really ‘learn’ anything but to move on, around, through.  The failure that we experience confronting the external world is mostly a kind of failure that we go to great lengths to ensure we never have to experience again, or at all.  If the building falls because of an earthquake, we don’t chalk the disaster up to a learning experience.  The building was not designed as some kind of learning experience; it was designed to avoid the failure of falling down.  Perhaps more importantly, the more we know, the more we anticipate failure, the more we do to make sure it doesn’t occur.  The ‘knowledge’ we gain from the failure of disaster is less about skill or fact or detail as it is about resilience, about moving on after the tragedy.

If failure was so very instructive, so very powerful, most of the world would be a hell of a lot more successful.

But the other failure, the failure of school, most often, lies in Character.  We fail because we lose courage.  We fail because we can’t force ourselves through the present moment’s discomfort, or uncertainty, or struggle, or pain – and not because the pain itself is good.  The pain of work is painful.  It’s boredom. It’s tedious repetition.  It’s sacrifice – of time, attention, pleasure.  It’s embrace of struggle.  But none of it is really related to failure.  We embrace all of it because of success.  We embrace struggle to achieve success, and the fact that we fail really has little instructive value.

We know, most of the time, exactly why we have failed.  We failed because we were lazy. We failed because we are stupid.  We failed because we didn’t work hard enough.  Or we failed because we didn’t really care.  We failed because the task was pointless, or stupid, or meaningless.  Often times, our failure is neither a flaw in our character or an instructive step towards future success.  Often times our failure is a product of injustice – of other people’s moral or character failings – and there’s little lesson there except anger or submission.  We fail because the other side cheats.  We failed, quite simply, because the task was impossible, or unfair, or out of our control.

There’s no ‘lesson’ in that.  There’s no strengthening of our skill, just a hardening of our heart.

Kids don’t really learn through failure.  Kids learn through success.  Failure, a good deal of the time, isn’t instructive at all.  Students don’t make mistakes on a math problem and then ‘learn’ the correct answer from the error.  They don’t write a shitty essay and then fix their mistakes.  Any teacher can tell you that kids glance at the grade, ignore the comments, and move on.  If failure were so very instructive, the most effective education would be guided failure, which it most assuredly is not.  Education is guided success.  We reward the students who succeed.  We only punish the students who fail.  We don’t reward them at all for it.  And rarely, rarely is that failure much responsible for how they improve.

I know, from years of experience, not to mention my own intimate friendship with failing, that nearly all students fail because they simply don’t really do the work.  For some, the absence of effort is extreme, and the failure equally severe.  Most teachers will tell you that it takes a lot of work to fail a class.  It takes consistent and persistent absence, because the system is designed to get them working, to keep them succeeding, in however small a capacity.  The threat of failure, and the actual presence of it, is fundamentally, almost universally, an attempt to get students to do the work through fear or suffering.  The threat of failure is not about learning, it’s about motivation.  But does it motivate?  And more importantly, does failure create learning?

Failure does not instruct.  Failure may drive, it may motivate, but even this subtext is wrong.  Because teaching is about instruction.  Students learn through investment, through care, through diligence and concentration.  The goal is to learn and grow.  And failure, however you frame it, is rarely growth.  The threat of failure will motivate a student to invest more time in studying, or writing and revision, or practice, but it really doesn’t motivate a student to actually learn.  Students learn through the success that stands opposite failure.  Our job as teachers is not to instruct students through failure, but to encourage students through success.

The subtext of all these little editorials we keep reading about the spoiling absence of failure aren’t really about learning at all.  They are about character, and if we want our education system to be ‘teaching’ character, we probably ought to start saying so.