Is Traditional School Wounding Your Children?

I love to write about alternative education. I adore homeschooling, unschooling, worldschooling and other alternative educational options. Read more about how I home educate and worldschool my own children.

Our Experience in Traditional School

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My daughter was 6 when she came home and declared that she was stupid. And this continued, on and off, for another two years.  Even though she was a fantastic reader and writer, a curious kid, a kind and compassionate human, and enjoyed learning new things.

My children were a product of traditional preschool, and then two years of elementary school. We carefully chose progressive schools that were small, loving, respectful of children’s need to be active and outdoors, and focused on social-emotional skills.

So what went wrong?

Although we worked hard to mitigate the downsides of traditional schooling, the downsides still crept in.  A set-in-stone curriculum, while interesting and unique, was still paced by the teacher and school.  Testing and homework, although minimal, were starting to rear their ugly heads.  Competition naturally crops up in all school settings, not just public schools or elite private institutions. Treats and rewards for mastering information (when mastering really just means memorizing and regurgitating) become commonplace.  And when a student realizes there is something they’re not understanding quick enough, or at the time when the teacher decides to teach it, they tell themselves they are stupid.

Even in our carefully chosen, progressive schools, my children were suffering from a lack of independence, creativity, and joy in learning.  If you ask them at this point in their lives (as late elementary students), they will say they LOVED their school.  Ask them again in 10 years, and hopefully they will see that the intermissions of structured and adult controlled play just don’t outweigh the deep and long lasting fissures of wounds.

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The Article That Sparked This Dialogue

I recently came across an incredible article by one of my favorite authors and child development researchers, Peter Gray.  In his psychology today article, he outlined the research findings of Dr. Kirsten Olsen.  Dr. Olsen, as a doctoral candidate at Harvard, set out to conduct research into the enlightening and positive effect of schooling.  What she found was frightening, compelling, and downright painful.

This is the time for parents, teachers, schools, and educational institutions to LISTEN.  To take a deep look into their own individual pasts, and be honest about their own wounds.  Wounds that didn’t have to be.

Needless to say, Dr. Olsen is now an educational researcher and an advocate for Democratic Education.  Her book, Wounded By School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up To Old School Culture is mind blowing, a must read for anyone interested in a better way for our children.

In Peter Gray’s article, he outlines the 7 Wounds that school inflicts upon humans, our children, that are explained in Dr. Olsen’s research and book.  As Peter Gray wrote “The first four categories of wounds all seem to result primarily from the restrictions that are placed on students’ behavior and learning in school–the preset curriculum, the narrow set of permissible learning procedures, the tests in which there is one right answer for every question, and the often-arbitrary rules that students have no role in creating.”  The last three categories are inflicted due to the ranking of students throughout their schooling, and show varying levels of wounding based on whether a student ranked low, high, or in the middle.

Let’s take a deep dive into each category and talk about how home education, unschooling, and maybe even Democratic Schools (if and when available) may be a better option for our children.

The 7 Wounds of Schooling

1. Wounds of Creativity

The reality of traditional schooling is that children’s interests, passions, unique goals, out of the box problem solving skills, and variety of approaches to finding answers is simply ignored. These things are just NOT important to being successful in school.  As much lip service as some schools give to these skills, they are truly never a priority.

If a child wants to have an interest or passion, they have to schedule it around their classes, school sanctioned extra curricular activities, studying, paper writing, homework, friendships and family obligations.  Maybe they can just wakeup earlier, say 4am? or Go to bed later, say midnight? 2am?

Ask yourself:  When does your child have open, unstructured, lengthy time to just get creative? Have thoughtful conversations with humans of all ages? Consider their interests? Follow their ideas without being interrupted by a scheduled event?

I was a good student. I took the hardest classes, did well with minimal effort, and went to University and Graduate School, received a Masters degree, and run a successful professional company. But am I creative? I never thought so. I just did what I had to do to be “successful.”

Over the last years, as I began to homeschool my children and re-prioritize my own life, I realized that I DO have interests. I CAN be creative. I MIGHT just have some interesting ideas and things I want to do outside of my profession and family.

And, while many job descriptions and employers say they are seeking creative problem solvers, school undeniably kills much of a child’s creativity for all of a child’s formative years. Something just doesn’t add up here.

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2. Wounds of Compliance

Before you read ahead, you need to ask yourself what kind of parent and adult you are. It has taken me years of deschooling, of checking my own habits and reactions, and of slowly changing myself from an authoritative parent to one who intentionally partners with my child.

Sometimes when people read about Unschooling, they get the distorted notion that children are allowed to do absolutely anything they want. That children’s whims run the household. That couldn’t be father from the truth.  Adopting an unschooling lifestyle (because yes, it is much more than just related to how you educate your children) means creating a partnership with your children.  All working together for the good of each family member, as well as for the good of the family unit.  I still expect things of my children; to be kind, respectful to all, use good manners and show thanks when appropriate, and basically to do the right thing even when it’s hard.  In our culture, we call it being a “mensch.”

Getting back to Dr. Olsen’s findings, and said most eloquently by Peter Gray, “In school, students must continuously follow rules and procedures that they have no role in creating and must complete assignments that make no sense in terms of their own learning needs.” Children learn to obey, without thinking why, and are never allowed the opportunity to question those rules, incite change, and use their voices to create that change.

And then we ask people to be involved in our country’s democratic process? In voting, making and changing legislation? No wonder we have such low voter turn out, and low trust in government.

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3. Wounds of Rebellion

We all know that stereotype.  A student who rebels, is always angry, disruptive and rowdy, hates school, gets in trouble…and then a wonderful, caring movie-star teacher shows some interest and realizes how capable and smart that student really is.

In reality, we have a large percentage of young people, especially those who are placed in the “lower” classes, with deep anger, resentment and hate for learning and educational institutions. And what is the outcome? Children and adults who are cut off from meeting their potential, who are constantly angry or unhappy, who look at those who have become “successful” with even more hate, anger, and resentment. We could get into the topic of the increasing gun violence now…

Let’s not keep letting our children become stereotypes.

Any humans, not just children, will become rebellious and angry when: they have little to no say in how they spend their time, how/what/when they learn, and the rules that govern their every waking moment. When they aren’t afforded the time, space, and encouragement to explore, become curious, be creative, discover and discard passions and interests.

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4. Wounds of Numbness

Why do we call our daily rhythm “the grind”? Why do we say we are “running the rat race” like rats on a wheel?

Dr. Olsen’s study revealed that most respondents feel “zoned out” and “intellectually numb.”  Doing the same thing, day in and day out, in the same building, with the same people for 18-25 years of your young life…that would make me feel numb too. And uninspired, and bored.

On top of those feelings, when a student does have a passion or interest, or excels in just one area, it’s usually not good enough. For example, a child may be excellent in Science, get A’s, and enjoy their science classes. But they could be failing or just an average B/C student in English, Math, Literature, or P.E.  What would their transcript look like? What would University admissions think?

What a shame that this student was made to feel “not good enough,” when truly their strengths were there all the time.  They just weren’t “enough.”

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5. Wounds of Underestimation

Have you ever made an assumption about another person? Be honest. Maybe you assumed they weren’t smart or driven or capable or educated because of their communication skills/voice/race/gender/social class/appearance?

Assumptions by teachers, and even by students themselves, often lead to self fulfilling prophecies.  One bad grade, and a child thinks they are “bad at math.”

One of my favorite books is 8 Great Smarts, by Kathy Koch.  While I don’t resonate with the religious vein of the book, it is an enlightening reminder that, while we tend to value “academic” smarts in our society today, there are many other, and overlapping, ways in which a human can be “smart.” These include, word smart, logic smart, picture smart, music smart, people smart, body smart, nature smart, and self smart.

Don’t let the system, or your own perceptions and rigidity, dictate what kind of “smarts” your child truly has. Do your best to recognize and nurture your children’s smarts. Especially when they aren’t necessarily academic.

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6. Wounds of Perfectionism

This is an interesting topic for me.  While I excelled in school, I was not and am not a perfectionist. I am completely fine with doing things well, albeit not perfectly. A 93 on my paper was always just as good to me as a 100. Both A’s.

However, I was not and still am not immune to wanting others to see me as “perfect,” or as someone who has it together, who is capable, who can handle anything independently and never make mistakes. It’s a lot to live up to. In graduate school, the number one issue my internship supervisors always reported, was that I didn’t ask enough questions. While I know, logically, its good to ask questions, I didn’t want to appear unknowledgeable and incapable. I wanted that “A.” I was there to learn, sure, but mostly I was there to SHOW them what I knew, so I could pass on to the next year/thing/level/step.

I saw my 6 year old turn into a self defeating perfectionist. Some may argue it was part of her psyche from birth. Maybe. But I don’t think so. Her need to do things “right” and giving up dramatically if she didn’t, is and was completely wrapped up in the anxiety of schooling, competition and compliance.

When grades and achievements are equated to success, the only true result is anxiety, stress, perfectionism, and many times depression, self defeat and even cheating.  Why go down this road?

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7. Wounds of the Average

I hate to say it. But after 18-25 years of your child being measured on their academic success and failures, after years of competition, compliance, numbness, loss of creativity, passion and joy, the large majority of children will still be average. Most will not open a successful business, most will not get an incredibly high paying job, and most will still feel less than.

And while those middle of the road students are floating through the school system, they’ll often be overlooked.  Dr. Olsen found that these students felt insignificant, undervalued, and unimportant. And then they begin to believe it.

On the other hand, when children are not measured against each other. When grades are unimportant. Where learning is undertaken for the simple joy and love of the subject. When children are supported and encouraged to follow their strengths, interests, passions, and unique ideas…maybe we can build a world where the word “average” just disappears.

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What Can You Do Now?

If you found yourself resonating with any of the information above, I encourage you to sit with that feeling. Look inside your own past, and then look at your children.

If you think there may be a better way to educate your children, now is the time to figure out how. You can homeschool, unschool, worldschool or look for an alternative educational school in your area. You may have to re-prioritize your life.  You may have to take a pay cut, work less, and be there more for your child. You may need to find a way.

I did. Others have. It’s not impossible. I can be hard, but it is so worth it. Read more about how we made some big changes in our family.

Reach out to me on social media (below) or by email. I am always thrilled to chat.