It’s Time to Blow Up The Public School System

Why we need radical transformation in our quest to educate the next generation

Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

Here’s a provocative question for you: Is school necessary?

Chances are the answer to that question was a nearly automatic “yes”. However, it’s clearly too big of a question and requires the examination of too many assumptions to answer that quickly, so chances are you did what humans always do when faced with a question too big for the moment.

You substituted a similar (but easier) question and then answered that one instead: Is it a good idea to educate our young people? Yes.

Having settled on that sound conclusion, you probably want to point out the fact that the education of young people is the primary point of school.

Is it really, though?

That may be the stated objective, but if an unbiased observer who was unfamiliar with the school system was asked to come in and tell us what they thought the point of school was, what would they say?

They might pick up that we are trying to teach kids something, but here’s a handful of other things that it’s equally likely that they would conclude:

The point of school is to turn unruly children into compliant and obedient adults.

The point of school is to memorize lots of trivia.

The point of school is to stamp out diversity and replace it with conformity.

The point of school is to make kids physically inactive.

The point of school is to crush creativity.

The point of school is to instill the fear of failure in our children.

The point of school is to process and rank large amounts of students.

The point of school is to make learning not fun anymore.

The point of school is to crush childrens’ dreams and convince them that the best they can hope for is to settle for a “safe job”.

The point of school is to get good grades.

The point of school is to get accepted into another school (and the point of that school is to put you hopelessly in debt).

The point of school is to teach kids to sit still and be quiet.

It’s been a long time since the concept of the public school was invented and a long time since school became compulsory. The world has changed a lot since then.

It’s at least worth asking if school should have changed, too.

Fast Food vs. Fine Dining

As Ken Robinson pointed out in his book The Element, school has come to follow the “fast food” model of standardization. It’s a top-down, industrial approach that results in a guaranteed level of quality.

The problem of course is that the level of quality is hardly impressive.

This is in contrast to the “Michelin Model”. When it comes to Michelin starred restaurants, the criteria for excellence are established, the individual restaurants set out to meet them in whatever way they see fit, and the results are evaluated by experts.

Here’s another question for you: do we rely on the fast food model of education because it’s the best way to teach students or because it’s the easiest way to teach students?

Let’s take a second to consider the most useless tool ever invented: the multiple-choice test. I’ve taken so many of these in my life I’m not even sure I could give you a ballpark estimate.

What exactly is the point of a multiple choice exam?

A defender of the exam might say that it’s to see how much a student has learned, but it clearly doesn’t do this. It measures whether or not the student memorized the particular pieces of trivia that were on the exam (and doesn’t account for the fact that they will forget it all in two weeks).

Worse, in order to conduct a multiple choice exam, teachers are forced to monitor to make sure that the students aren’t consulting their notes or textbooks and that they aren’t communicating with one another.


When public school was invented, access to information was scarce. So it makes sense why you would want students to memorize certain key pieces of information and insist they not consult their notes on a test.

We don’t live in that world anymore.

Life is going to be open book/open note, so why isn’t school? If a student can look up an answer to a test question online, why aren’t they allowed to? (A better question might be “why are we testing students on things that can be looked up in the first place?”)

In school, helping each other get the right answer is called cheating, in the real world it’s called teamwork.

So why do we administer multiple choice tests? Why do we insist that students not consult each other or use the best resources at their disposal?

Because it’s easier this way.

If you have to test a student‘s knowledge, multiple choice tests are easy to create, easy to administer, and easy to grade.

A multiple choice test doesn’t tell us what kind of contribution you might make in a given field, but we’re not interested in testing that because we’re not sure how.

Kids Are Learning Machines — Until We Educate Them Out of It

My son learned how to read before he turned four. I’m not saying this to brag, it’s just a simple fact. You could bring him a Dr. Seuss or a Mo Willems book that he had never seen before and he would read it to you without a problem (although at this point you’ll have a great deal of difficulty finding a Mo Willems book that he hasn’t read).

My daughter is three. By the metric ton of questions she asks every day, I’ve gathered that she has an insatiable thirst for learning about the world around her (one of her questions to me yesterday: “Daddy, why do I have toes?”).

But my kids are nothing compared to the kids in the remote Ethiopian villages of Wonchi and Wolonchete. These kids never had access to printed materials until one day, workers from the One Laptop Per Child project dropped off tablet computers in a box with no instructions.

Here’s how Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of OLPC, described what happened:

“I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android.”

These were first-grade aged children with no teachers and no instructions.

Have you ever met a kid who is passionate about something? Who loves baseball or dinosaurs or space travel? They have no problems absorbing encyclopedic amounts of information.

So why do schools seem to think that educating our children is some big chore?

Maybe it has something to do with taking them away from their play time, putting them in a classroom, telling them to sit still, and then lecturing them on a subject that someone somewhere thought it would be important for them to know.

School Attendance Disease

We’ve gotten to the point where school is responsible for the creation of new disorders.

I’m talking about a disease that I call school attendance disease, but which everyone else knows as ADHD.

Attention deficit and hyperactivity “disorder” is a supposed pathology that can only be defined against environments that are themselves pathological.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Take a look at this symptom of hyperactivity that comes straight from the National Institute of Mental Health:

Getting up and moving around in situations when staying seated is expected, such as in the classroom or in the office

Here’s the fact that should stick out like a sore thumb: many of the most problematic symptoms of ADHD can only be defined in the context of school (or the equally unnatural environment of the office).

I agree with this general premise: if you have two people, one telling the other to sit still for eight hours and the other saying they’d rather move around, one of these two individuals is deeply pathological. Unfortunately in our world, they are also the majority.

In the most viewed Ted Talk of all time, Ken Robinson shares the powerful story of Gillian Lynne, the dancer who choreographed “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera”. When she was a child she had such trouble sitting still in school that she had to go see a specialist. If she had gone today you can bet that she would have been diagnosed with ADHD.

Instead of prescribing Gillian medication, the doctor recommended that her mother take her out of school and put her into a dance school.

Because of that decision, she ended up being part of the royal ballet, choreographing musicals that have been seen by millions of people, and she has ended up a multimillionaire.

We can’t afford to leave people behind because they don’t fit the mold of a model student.

Neurological diversity doesn’t need to be medicated away, it needs to be put in an environment where it can flourish.

What Can We Do Differently?

Despite all its flaws, it might be hard to just do away with school entirely. The idea of public school remains the best solution for single parent households, households where both parents work, and households where the parents for whatever reason are not up to the task of educating their children.

If we want to save public schools however, minor tweaks won’t work. We need to start thinking about radical transformation. I don’t have all the answers, but here are some ideas to get the conversation started.

Recess as the rule, not the exception

There is this utterly absurd notion that exists today that with so much to teach our students, we don’t have time to give them recess anymore.

This is a rather ironic opinion for an adult population slowly melting into their armchairs.

Adults could use a healthy dose of play themselves, but for kids their job is to play. It’s what they do, and it’s how they begin to interact with the world, their imaginations, and each other.

And of course, learning and play are far from being mutually exclusive.

Consider this amazing passage from the essay “The Play Deficit” by Peter Gray:

In another branch of my research I’ve studied how children learn at a radically alternative school, the Sudbury Valley School, not far from my home in Massachusetts. It’s called a school, but is as different from what we normally think of as ‘school’ as you can imagine. The students — who range in age from four to about 19 — are free all day to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t break any of the school rules. The rules have nothing to do with learning; they have to do with keeping peace and order.

To most people, this sounds crazy. How can they learn anything? Yet, the school has been in existence for 45 years now and has many hundreds of graduates, who are doing just fine in the real world, not because their school taught them anything, but because it allowed them to learn whatever they wanted…what children in our culture want to learn when they are free turns out to be skills that are valued in our culture and that lead to good jobs and satisfying lives. When they play, these students learn to read, calculate, and use computers with the same playful passion with which hunter-gatherer kids learn to hunt and gather. They don’t necessarily think of themselves as learning. They think of themselves as just playing, or ‘doing things’, but in the process they are learning.

There’s really no excuse for children under eight spending less than 80% or so of their school time in unstructured free play. There’s even a strong argument to be made that it should be no less than 100%.

“Seat work” is a bad habit that adults have thoughtlessly adopted in their own careers and should be put off as long as possible for kids.

As long as there is school, there should also be recess.

Get rid of tests and grades

Tests are given because they are convenient for the school system, not because they are useful for educating children.

Tests allow us to rank and process kids, evaluate schools and teachers, and look like we’re doing something.

But is conformity to an answer key really the best way to evaluate someone?

Test that require you to memorize facts (which you will soon forget) are especially useless. They’re not even reliable ways to evaluate how many facts a student has picked up. A student could have memorized 80% of the material, but if your test draws heavily from the other 20%, you’ll end up with a very skewed idea of their performance.

If we are going to have any tests, we should rely on tests that involve writing or speaking. A student’s contribution to a field won’t come from selecting the right bubble with a no. 2 pencil; it will come from their ability to share their ideas in the form that humans have always shared their ideas: speaking and writing.

Of course, if we start moving away from testing and grades, the colleges might get upset since they won’t know who to admit.

Who cares?

The price of a college education is rising faster than the price of anything else in the world, colleges are making millions of dollars off of athletics, and they employ some of the best and brightest people out there. They’ll figure out a new way to evaluate applicants.

Stop teaching subjects

I remember taking a class in high school called Earth Space Science.

As you might expect, there was no science involved whatsoever. Instead, we learned a lot of facts about the Earth and outer space. After taking the class, I knew the difference between an igneous and a sedimentary rock…until I forgot.

What’s a better way to teach science: to teach children facts that other people have discovered in physics and chemistry, and biology, or to have kids start experimenting, failing, and trying again?

Science is a method and that method is applicable in a great variety of fields. You don’t need to teach the individual fields to teach science, you don’t even need to let on that you’re teaching science!

You just need to be willing to try something that might not work and learn and improve your efforts as you go.

Start teaching students how to think and learn

Did you ever learn about the relationship between sleep and learning?

I never did until this year when I read a book called Why We Sleep by the sleep scientist Matthew Walker. It turns out that you not only need a good night’s sleep before you learn something new so that you are fresh and able to pay attention, you also need a good night’s sleep after you’ve learned something new so that your mind is able to lock in the new information.

It turns out you can also help the process by telling yourself that certain key pieces of information are important and worth remembering.

Did you know that when working through a difficult problem it’s actually counter-productive to try too hard to focus and power through? The best way to break through a difficult problem is to alternate between periods of full attention and periods of mental relaxation.

I learned that tidbit from the excellent book (written for teens) Learning How to Learn by Barbara Oakley and Terry Sejnowski. Here are some other interesting things I picked up from the book:

  • One of the best ways to learn something is to try to actively recall it without assistance shortly after you learn it
  • Physical exercise is important in the learning process
  • Interleaving is a technique where you practice different aspects of the skill you are trying to master. So instead of practicing one kind of problem, it’s better to switch back and for between two different kinds of problems.

That all would have sure been nice to know a lot earlier, wouldn’t it?

We can learn information anywhere, so the things that are most useful to teach are the things that will make us more effective on our quest for knowledge. Logic, reason, learning how to learn.

Celebrate failure

One of the most perverse aspects of the school system is the notion that failure is a punishment to be feared, rather than an opportunity to move forward.

How many people think they are bad at math because they failed a test?

What if they understood that learning takes multiple attempts and that their failure put them one step closer to mastering the subject?

Not only that, but as Seth Godin points out in his must-read essay “Stop Stealing Dreams,” innovation is predicated on failure. If we want to make a new scientific discovery or start a new kind of business, we’re going to get it wrong before we get it right. In Seth’s words:

If failure is not an option, then neither is success.

The only source of innovation is the artist willing to be usefully wrong.

Start high school later in the day

Here’s something weird: we all know that teenagers prefer to sleep until far later than adults or young children, but we make them come in to school at 7:30 am. Why?

Are we trying to make a point that they are sleeping because they are lazy and that school is here to punish their sloth and instill some discipline?

If so, we are deeply misguided.

In his book Why We Sleep, sleep scientist Matthew Walker explains that teenagers sleep in because their circadian rhythm undergoes a radical forward shift in their teen years. Their bodies don’t release melatonin until much later in the evening. This means they naturally go to sleep later. Since they still need the same amount of sleep (if not more), the later bedtime means they need to wake up later.

Forcing kids to wake up early isn’t going to fix their natural circadian rhythm, it’s just going to deprive them of sleep. It should be obvious that the last thing anyone wants to deal with is a group of chronically sleep deprived, hormonal teenagers.

Sleep is essential for learning and by short-changing teens on sleep, we are undermining the very thing we are bringing them into school for.

Not only that, but sleep deprivation exacerbates every known psychological malady which, it’s worth noting, often start appearing in the teen years.

Lastly, according to Walker, sleep deprivation is one of the biggest risk factors for suicide, and suicide is second only to automobile accidents for teen deaths.

Enough with the 7:30am nonsense.

Let students pursue their curiosity

If a kid wants to learn about baseball, let them learn about baseball. If they want to learn about video games, let them learn about video games. If they want to learn how to edit snappy video that do well on social media, let them learn that.

The objection here is that students might not learn what they need to know, but the obvious question here is what do they really need to know?

It used to be the thinking that time spent playing video games took away from preparing for your future career. Now not only are there hundreds of ways to make money around a love of video games, it’s possible to become a millionaire in your 20’s just by playing video games.

In the age of the internet it’s possible to make money doing almost anything.

If someone has a passion, we should come along side them and help them learn more about it and how it connects to the rest of the world.

Teach kids how to lead and to solve interesting problems

A hat tip goes to Seth Godin who came up with this point.

School trains you to follow instructions, but if your job involves nothing more than following instructions, your boss will find someone cheaper to do it.

Technology has automated many jobs that used to exist. Many of the ones that are left have been outsourced overseas. If you want to be valuable in the marketplace, you either need to know how to lead people or how to solve problems that aren’t easily solved.

In school you get lots of practice waiting to be picked, following directions, and working solo, but not a lot of experience leading people.

In school you are taught how to find a known answer to a well-defined question, but in the real world the reason we need you is because nobody knows the right answer.

For the really important issues, we’re not even sure we know what the right question is.

Fewer lectures, more doing

Here’s a little behind-the-scenes info on the human psyche: people like to do things that leave real results in the world which they can be proud of.

There should be nothing shocking about that sentence, but school seems to have forgotten it as it has attempted to insulate kids within the confines of its drab walls.

How about we let kids do things that create a lasting presence in the world outside of school?

How about instead of writing a paper and handing it into the teacher, students post it to a forum, or social media (or even right here to Medium!) and get real-world feedback?

How about students come to school and have a project where they start their own business?

Think of the possibilities here.

First of all, they could actually start making real money, right there at school.

I’m not sure about you, but school never taught me how to make money.

The teachers could help them learn how to keep track of their income and expenses, they could teach them basic accounting principles, arithmetic, percentages, spreadsheets , they could teach them how to write sales copy— you know — skills they’ll actually use.

To call back a couple points from earlier this would definitely be the kind of project that lets kids follow their curiosity and it would definitely expose kids to the opportunity to fail (and try again).

Moreover, this isn’t the kind of assignment that needs a grade, because it grades itself, and even if you don’t make the grade, you learn something useful.

Teachers as guides, not enforcers of obedience

In this revolution, the role of a teacher changes dramatically.

Now I want to be clear here, I don’t blame underpaid and overworked teachers for the draconian situation we find ourselves in. There are many wonderful teachers that are keeping the school system in it’s present form from being a total disaster, but in my view they are doing this despite the system that’s in place, not because of it.

After the revolution, teachers will no longer teach subjects, but students. And the best teachers will be those who pass along a desire to become a lifelong learner — a transfer of emotion significantly more important than any transfer of knowledge.

The teacher will be there to guide the student, to learn alongside them, and to help them blossom.

Where We Go From Here

In this essay, I’ve tried to practice what I’m preaching. I didn’t feel ready to write and publish these thoughts, but I couldn’t escape the conviction that I needed to spread these ideas, so I’m putting them out there knowing that my service might be to be usefully wrong. There’s a chance that many of the points that have been made miss the mark, but my hope is the spirit of the change that we can make comes through the words I have put down and inspires people who are in positions where they can make change to challenge the status quo.

Preparing kids for an unknowable future is a difficult job, but I think if we stop preparing kids for college and start preparing them to make a brave and generous contribution to society, we can call it a job well done.

Done settling for average. Now I have my sights set on awesome 😎 Get “The Ultimate Daily Checklist,” my free ebook on productivity:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store