The Sins of Our Current Education System

I’ve discovered a fascinating new blog through Psychology Today called, Freedom To Learn, and it looks like learning from the perspective of a developmental psychologist, Dr. David Gray. Recently, the post was on what he perceives as “The Seven Sins of Our Forced Education.” Two of the seven sins really spoke to me, sin five: Linking of Learning with Fear, Loathing, and Drudgery, and sin six, Inhibition of Critical Thinking.

This is a story I always tell my students when teaching literature or even writing. When I was in Grade 10, I was in my school’s enriched English class. The entire class had been together in the enriched stream since entering high school; we were the best and the brightest, and we knew it. We got high grades and we won praise. But this class was the worst. Our teacher had us read a book that we had been warned about: you will learn to hate Grandfather Connor. One day, we were told to write an in-class essay describing how the Brick House was symbolic of Grandfather Connor. Being 15, full of ourselves, and our brilliance, we thought this assignment was CRAP. We didn’t see how a house could be symbolic of anything, nor did we care.

One by one, we would bring our essays up to the teacher where she would proceed to tear our ideas apart. Garbage, she would say, stop wasting my time. We were, in fact, wasting her time, as we were just guessing (or at least I knew I was and most of my circle of friends were, too). But by some miracle, someone would come up with a way that the house and the grandfather were similar. And we would all frantically copy the idea, no, the whole sentence that had gained the teacher’s grudging approval. But the end of the class, we all had written an identical one-page essay. And we were no closer to understanding symbolism or how the house was a symbol for the grandfather.

I tell this story because it illustrates the two sins very well. First, we were humiliated in front of the class when we would come up and present whatever nonsense we had come up with. We left the class devastated. This was not learning; this was torture. It’s a miracle that I ended up studying literature in university and grad school seeing as how English class was my least favorite class all through high school. I loved reading, but English class was “work,” and not the good kind. The good might be hard, but did the teachers have to go so far out of their way to make the experience as freaking miserable as possible?

Dr. Gray describes how education as it is currently practiced limits critical thinking:

But despite all the lip service that educators devote to that goal, most students–including most “honors students”–learn to avoid thinking critically about their schoolwork. They learn that their job in school is to get high marks on tests and that critical thinking only wastes time and interferes. To get a good grade, you need to figure out what the teacher wants you to say and then say it.”

Sound familiar? We didn’t learn anything about critical thinking; we learned how to write a paper that was acceptable to our professor. I’m not saying that the house WASN’T symbolic of the grandfather (it is), but we certainly didn’t learn how to see symbolism or understand it. This was the challenge we faced and were particularly adept at as “gifted” students: figuring out teachers out and giving them what they wanted. Thinking critically, it was not.

The reason I use this story when I teach is to try and overcome these two sins that often happen in education. I use it as a gate to talking about their fear, anxieties, and pet peeves when it comes to learning about literature and writing. I remember how I would have wanted to be taught about symbolism and use that method (and others) to get students to see the connections between what an author writes and what (else) they can be saying. Reading can be a really fun puzzle to “solve,” or it can be a chore to endure. I always remember how to make it a joy. I don’t want anyone to feel the way we did that day in English class in Grade 10.