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Stuck in the Groove: A Critique of Compulsory Schooling

Learning in formal schools violates several simple principles: that no one can learn on an empty spirit; that true learning requires an absence of fear or authority; that learning is the most natural of human instincts. By making schooling compulsory, we have abandoned trust in our individual and collective experience in favour of experts and institutions. Compulsory schooling assumes that assimilation into society via academic achievement is a right and a necessity for all citizens, predicated on the notion that matters of the mind are superior to matters of the body and spirit. Recent research, however, suggests the “academic-diet-for-everyone” assumption is flawed.

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As a critic of formal schooling, I feel guilty about criticizing it. I am a product of the system, yet my accumulated knowledge and experience screams at me to clear the record on its contradictions and failings.

As a child in elementary school, I was singled out early for my undisciplined, mischievous behaviour. I was strapped for a misdemeanor in my first week in Grade 1. From that moment to this, I fear “getting it wrong”. Perhaps this anxiety can be explained by a healthy regard for my working class roots; or it could be that I am reconciling incidents like the strapping that may have set my formal learning onto a less than functional pathway. Whatever the case, I feel like a survivor of the school system rather than a self-actualized graduate.

Balancing my own life experiences with the way of learning entrenched in schools has defined my professional life as an educator – as if my development as a human being has been directed in ways that, in retrospect, did not suit my personality or needs. And so, I am both apprehensive, and compelled to set the record straight.

The Problem with Schools

Learning in formal schools violates several simple principles. The first is that no one can learn on an empty spirit. The second is that true learning requires an absence of fear or authority. A third is that learning is the most natural of human instincts. It doesn’t need to be forced or institutionalized.

These principles of child and adult development can be found in the education and psychology literature, but also in the recesses of our minds when we step outside of our formal learned behaviour patterns and think independently – not easy to do after being confined in formal learning institutions for long periods of time. Indeed, some thinkers have characterized such confinement as a form of imprisonment. By contrast, these basic principles of learning are often respected by other cultures. Indigenous philosophies of learning, for example, value oral and experiential forms of learning. Tradespeople value learning by apprenticeship or doing. Artists often think and act spatially.

So, what is the problem with schools – or, perhaps more accurately, what is the problem with the way we think about schools? The following interrelated random comments, when taken together, shed light on both questions and re-frame the problem.

Why shouldn’t mothers…, who spend all day with their children, teach them to read, to understand money, to think about numbers, to understand the calendar, the clock, time, space? Now that these are necessary requirements for a full humanity, just as walking and talking and understanding kinship relations and the local terrain were once the requirements for a full humanity, why can’t all such essentials be taught at home? Do we know why not?” (Margaret Mead).[1]

“She was due to start Kindergarten a couple weeks after her fourth birthday. When it was time to register I called to enquire as to how they would meet her educational needs. At the time, she was reading Charlotte’s Web and about three-quarters of the way through the things she would have learned in the Grade 1 math curriculum and was writing at a level I would have expected for a B student by the end of Grade 1…. She had, for the most part, taught this all to herself with me acting as a facilitator, answering questions, reading to her, etc. The school’s response was that she could come and learn her ABC’s and numbers to 10 with everyone else and be “socialized”. I started looking into homeschooling at that point. – [Kristen Moras has been a homeschooling mom for five years.]

“I wasn’t a good student so I was afraid of criticism and it stayed with me. I was insecure for half my life” [Maureen McAllister is a former preschool teacher, mother, and now grandmother].

“Traditions of ‘friluftsliv’ are simple, engaging, primal, interactions with nature: a morning paddle, a berry-picking excursion, a family trip, a walk with the dog, a well-planned outing. These are the practical activities of simply living first in nature. We need to be in joyous union with nature before risky adventures and intensive study dominate our experiences… within this we move seamlessly from activity to idea.” (Bob Henderson, a Canadian outdoor educator who attended an outdoor education conference/retreat in Norway, where he was introduced to a Norwegian tradition called friluftsliv).[2]

“Science has brought the separation of knowledge and experience. In its wake came the rise of experts and decline of people’s trust in their own direct experiences.” (Ursula Franklin)[3]

As these statements demonstrate, we have abandoned trust in our individual and collective experience in favour of experts and institutions. We need to ask: What assumptions have led to and sustain this imbalance?

In this context, nothing is more important, in my mind, than the role of schools and, most importantly, the role of teacher education. Formally trained educators have come to measure achievement in a way that is antithetical to intelligence and to meaningful learning. Grundtvig and Lindeman, Danish education philosophers, identified the problem years ago: “[E]ducation conceived as a preparation for life locks that learning within a vicious circle. Youth educated in terms of adult ideas and taught to think of learning as a process which ends when real life begins will make no better use of intelligence than the elders who prescribe the system.”[4] By and large, teachers – who are often victims in the process – fail to understand this problem.

Formally trained educators have come to measure achievement in a way that is antithetical to intelligence and to meaningful learning.

The institutionalization of learning creates two dilemmas. First, institutions “provide procedures through which human conduct is patterned, compelled to go, in grooves deemed desirable by society. And this trick is performed by making these grooves appear to the individual as the only possible ones.”[5] The learner, who should be encouraged to develop his or her natural curiosity and instinct for learning, is asked to defer those tendencies, instead allowing the institutionally determined content and pace to define the learning process.

Second, normative order inside the school exerts an absolute power, and those who wish to teach or learn within that organizational milieu are expected to conform to it. Most parents accept this as part of the socialization process. After all, children need to learn self-discipline and how to behave in the company of others. But sociologists are less accepting. They argue that those norms are “class-based” and favour middle-class children over those with working-class origins. Although the coveted goal of most public education institutions is egalitarianism – equal opportunity for all – educational sociologists like Pomfret and Jarvis argue that schools are not egalitarian places at all. [6] They privilege some forms of learning over others, some people over others. We homogenize and standardize people and cultures at a huge cost.

A Look at our Assumptions

“One of the fundamental aspects of life learning is contrary to one of the most basic assumptions our society makes about education… that learning can and should be produced in people. This assumption is based on the idea that learning is the result of treatment by an institution called school…. which is, of course, one of the many conventional beliefs that life learning families are overturning.”[7] (Priesnitz, editor of Natural Life Magazine)

Priesnitz makes a timely and profound comment. We are in the midst of a technological revolution that we don’t fully understand, and for which we have no policy reference points. We responded to the industrial revolution by making schooling mandatory and turning schools into what some critics call “factories”. A careful look at the industrial age assumptions and the contradictions that followed exposes how those assumptions have failed us, and suggests how we can avoid the same fate again.

Compulsory schooling assumes that assimilation into society via academic achievement is a right and a necessity for all citizens (government induced grooves?), predicated on the notion that matters of the mind are superior to matters of the body and spirit. Recent research, however, suggests the “academic-diet-for-everyone” assumption is flawed.[8] A critique of the following three underlying assumptions helps expose the magnitude of the problem.

1. Book learning in schools is an irreproachable method by which to learn.

Schools perform both positive and negative functions, but missing from our analysis is an honest assessment of both the advantages and the disadvantages that 12 years of institutional confinement and academic programming bring. The positive functions can be found in the school literature in the form of goals and purposes. The negative functions are not well understood or widely discussed. They include the “holding” function that schools perform, the conformity function, and the standardization function. As graduates of our schools, most of us have come to accept the way in which knowledge is packaged and dispensed without seeing how it contributes to these negative functions.

The experiential learning tradition, by contrast, provides some hope for re-thinking the formal school curriculum and for allowing more students to learn in alternative ways. Boud, among others, concludes that learning, when not undertaken in a school environment, is a natural problem-solving process that encourages a balanced approach and results in lasting and meaningful learning.[9]

Most elementary school teachers understand and respond to children’s natural tendencies for learning. At the secondary school level, however, curriculum emphasizes the abstract rather than the concrete. This deferment or postponement-of-practice mentality is the overarching reality of learning in formal institutions. As research in educational psychology has shown, we do mature in our capacity for abstraction. However, this does not mean that our concrete learning tendencies and preferences are any less important or that they should be abandoned. In spite of the school system’s push to separate concrete from abstract learning, experiential learning is an integral part of our natural desire and capacity to learn. Most of us find some things easier to learn through emotional and physical, as well as cognitive, pathways.

2.  An academic curriculum enhances human development and self-esteem.

The assumption that didactic learning and an academic curriculum are essential to human development, fulfillment, and self-esteem is a second prominent and largely unchallenged assumption. It implies that such learning enhances both personal and cognitive development; that there is a correlation between cognitive and personal development; and that academic endeavour is essential to individual and societal growth (more government grooving?). However, Harre and Gillett conclude that having a “sense of physical location”, not academic accomplishment, is what leads to self-esteem.

In some practical school subjects, like technological education and physical education, learning involves utilizing a range of sense-making capacities and assumes physical action, as well as knowledge acquisition, as an essential component of understanding. Unfortunately, student success in achieving this wisdom is tempered by the models of learning perpetuated in teacher education institutions, where the pedagogy associated with practical problem solving goes largely unheralded.

The curriculum framework and teaching methodology teachers are expected to adopt is philosophically too narrow to include workplace and life experience. The challenge is to find a way to express an experiential “way of knowing”. Only then can we know how and to what extent school learning displaces experiential and life-course learning.

3. Knowledge-based curriculum is superior to experienced-based curriculum.

The assumption that knowledge-based learning leads to understanding is the single most prominent but unchallenged assumption we make as educators working in formal education institutions. Knowledge-based learning has been elevated to such a high degree over recent years that it is taken as a universal and exclusive standard for achievement, especially in secondary schools. The irony is that most knowledge conveyed in formal educational institutions is constructed knowledge. It is packaged for delivery and consumption the same way as a new product for the retail market, and its consumption reinforces human capital thinking, thereby diminishing the “human development” purposes of learning. “The more formal education I get, the richer I will be, and the more I can shower myself with material things.”

As a rule, factual, school-based knowledge in western society is legitimized at the expense of experience. However, as critical education theorists maintain, “Knowledge acquired in school – or anywhere, for that matter – is never neutral or objective but is ordered and structured in particular ways; its emphases and exclusions partake of a silent logic. Knowledge is a social construction.”[10]

Again, teacher education perpetuates this assumption. In Canada, teachers who enter the profession are the high achievers from universities. They are not required to have any work experience in their respective fields or disciplines. They have mastered the narrow cognitive world of schooling and are not asked to account for life-course experience. Furthermore their attraction to, and acceptance into, teaching ensures that the status quo is maintained. In the words of Pan-Qing-yu, “The paradox of modern education is that it divorces knowledge from life, practice, and values.”[11] Teachers are seldom fully aware of this paradox.

As I reflect on this analysis I am struck by a new thought. Not only is it hard to sort out the independent or critical problem-solving value of one’s formal learning years, but life experience – and therefore one’s perspective – is also limited­. What the Norwegian friluftsliv teaches us is that we shouldn’t make education the target of analysis. Instead we should look at our culture and how our learning institutions fit in the larger cultural patchwork. Yes, schools serve a valuable custodial and socializing function. But we learn as much from nature and life as we do from formal study. So, let’s stop deluding ourselves and celebrate who we are in the most primal sense – inquisitive and self-directed learners capable of far more than any single institutionalized learning program could possibly offer.  Learning is not getting ready for life; it is life.

EN BREF - L’apprentissage dans des écoles structurées baffoue plusieurs principes simples : que personne ne peut apprendre lorsque son esprit est apathique, qu’un apprentissage véritable nécessite l’absence de crainte ou d’autorité, que l’apprentissage est l’instinct humain le plus naturel. En rendant obligatoire la scolarisation, nous avons abandonné la confiance en notre expérience individuelle et collective au profit d’experts et d’institutions. La scolarisation obligatoire présume que l’assimilation à la société par la réussite scolaire est un droit et une nécessité pour tous les membres de la société, que l’intellect est supérieur au corps et à l’esprit. Des recherches récentes laissent toutefois entendre que la notion du « régime scolaire pour tous » est imparfaite.


[1] Margaret Mead, Teachers College Record 63, no. 2 (1961): 92.

[2] Bob Henderson, Nature First (Toronto: National Heritage Books, 200), 148.

[3] Ursala Franklin, The Real World of Technology (Toronto: Anansi Press, 1990), 116.

[4] Edvard Lindeman, The Meaning of Adult Education (Montreal: Harvest House, 1929), 3.

[5] Michael Berger, cited in P. Jarvis, The Sociology of Adult and Continuing Education (London: Croom Helm, 1985), 194.

[6] Alan Pomfret, Introduction to Sociology: A Canadian Focus (Scarborough: Prentice Hall, 1995).

[7] Wendy Priesnitz, 2011. www.lifelonglearning.ca/articles/learningisnotdonetochildren.htm

[8] R. Harre and G. Gillett, The Discursive Mind (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994).

[9] David Boud, in Making Sense of Experiential Learning, eds. S. Weil and I. McGill (London: Open University Press, 1989).

[10]Peter McLaren, Life in Schools (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1998), 173.

[11] Pan-Qing-yu, “The Educational Spirit of Times and Current Missions of Teacher-training,” Journal of Shandong Teachers’ University 2 (2004).