Futility of schooling

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Introduction

This is a short story of a single student and a single test. The story is intended to illustrate the damage done by schooling. In terms of distress and futility, it is pretty representative of school life for Polish teens in 2017.

To fully understand the following text, you should try with me a little exercise in memory. Please try to remember the following fact:

At the request of cesario Pizzorato, Charlatid the Great conquered all of Egypt from the Charlemagne Delgado beginning in 637 BC.

Try to remember the above until you finish reading this chapter. I will explain later.

Throughout this book I tried to explain that self-learning is essential for education. Here I show how self-learning can easily fail if employed wrongly.

When I meet her, Tanya is a smiling brisk-eyed 17-year-old full of youthful energy and joy of life. The happy picture of her youth is marred by one monstrous spoiler: compulsory schooling that seems to take over her entire life. I would totally not mind imposing a bit of learning on a young mind. On the face of it, education seems like a good idea. If it wasn't, school systems would have been dismantled or reformed long ago. However, a detailed analysis of Tanya's life shows me that schooling is not only futile, it is harmful to her health, self-esteem, and even bad for learning itself.

Tanya is an intelligent and a diligent student. However, this fact is not reflected in how she thinks of herself. When I watch her handling her computer, or her smartphone, I can see the same agile fluency typical of a modern teenager. She moves fast between icons and applications, thumb-types on her smartphone, whisks over the touchpad, or strings texts fast on a laptop. She grasped SuperMemo in a minute. Her mom jokingly brands Tanya as an ADHD case. When the three of us talk, we are three cases of "ADHD". The discussion is chaotic, multi-threaded, rambling, and knotted. This immediately reveals the creative nature of Tanya. She is a talented artistic soul with great hopes for entering a school of jazz. She sings in a town's top choir and has her own teen band where she is a solo vocalist. Her aspirations in music remind me my own teen years, except she seems to do better in terms of execution and fitting the industry. Perhaps a dose of conformism injected by compulsory schooling helps her do well in a choir setting. Naturally, the same conformist qualities may later slow down her own solo career.

The whole damage done by schooling in Tanya's case begins with her lifestyle. For two decades now, I have been promoting free running sleep for good creative life and for good learning. Free running sleep is natural sleep without alarm clocks or medication. Tanya invented her own way of free running sleep with a twist needed to accommodate schooling. She wakes up with an alarm clock at 6:30 for school. When she returns, usually around 15:00, she is perfectly framed in time for an optimum post-school nap. That's the part in her sleep pattern, in which she compensates for sleep deprivation caused by early waking. The thing is that her nap usually lasts till 20:00. In essence, Tanya gets more quality sleep after school than she gets in the night. I have seen many cases of people running this kind of sleep schedule for years without much adverse effect. It seems to indicate that a good nap provides a good compensation for messed up night sleep. Needless to say, any form of organized life seems impossible on such a schedule. No wonder then that Tanya's sleep schedule quarrels with her musical endeavors that she needs to compress into weekends. As a result, on weekends, she sleeps much longer, usually till around 10:00-11:00. This reveals the degree of sleep deprivation she suffers when going to school. Good sleep on weekends makes it possible to skip napping and "get a life". However, constant switching between weekday and weekend sleep modes is not good for the sleep control system or health. No surprise then that Tanya says she is always sleepy and could "sleep for ever". This is a young creative mind craving for sleep necessary to optimize memories and rewire the maturing brain. In a monumental societal conspiracy, Tanya is denied one of the basic teen human rights: unrestricted sleep, which is the basis of brain development. The denial is orchestrated by compulsory schooling and lack of instructions on how to handle teen sleep in the adult world. In theory, Tanya might have synchronized her sleep with school, go to sleep at 21:30-22:30, wake up fresh at 6:30, and lead a happy life. This, however, would require rigorous discipline and a constant unworkable battle with temptations of teen life, and school requirements that impose the need to study for tests late in the night. Tanya's approach is simpler. In the first part of the day, after short nighttime sleep, she conforms with a stressful school schedule, and then she decompresses after returning home. After a long nap, she can approach learning with a bit of fresh mind. If Tanya was homeschooled, the whole problem of sleep would dissipate instantly.

If all that torturous lifestyle served better learning, someone might say it is a necessity of modern adulthood where knowledge is key to survival and success. After all, Tanya is fresh and creative in the evening. That time could be used for good learning. It isn't. Schooling for Tanya is an exercise in utter futility. I met Tanya on the day she had a major test in history. That one test, ruined no less than two days of her life, and delivered no tangible knowledge of history that would last beyond a few days. That one test is a good summary of the evils of schooling that I describe throughout this article.

Tanya passed the test with the lowest possible grade and ratched one more click towards her high school degree. I asked her to show me the book on which the test was based. I was instantly hit by the fact that the book was colorful and attractive. That stood in stark contrast to black&white books I learned from in the 1970s. My books were always yellowish of age and abused from being passed from student to student at the end of each school year. These days new textbooks are being written serially, and one of the main reasons for re-writes are political changes in the country.

Tanya's test was about the end of the Roman Empire. On the face of it, it sounded like an important subject, with knowledge delivered from a nice book, and the whole test preparations was based on self-learning, which I recommend throughout.

When I peeked into the book, I could see that Tanya really made an effort. She used a highlighter pen to mark all important passages. Like a good incremental reader, she has done all her extracts to seed her long-term memory. There was only one caveat: too much material, too little time, and a total lack of prior knowledge scaffolding to build new knowledge upon. Tanya had 3 hours to rush through 60 pages of history.

Tanya had only one evening for learning. It is not that she was a procrastinator who left all the test work for the last day. Other tests, homework and obligations left her with no choice. One evening. Take it or leave it. The volume of the material was so huge that it would be hard for a well-prepared brain to just read the texts with comprehension.

The lack of knowledge scaffolding instantly results in brain's natural rejection of the input. In Tanya's case, the learn drive has not been satisfied. Tanya hated every minute of that work for the test. She admitted interleaving learning with some visits to Facebook. It was not just the need to feed her learn drive with some token rewards. She actually needed some explanations from the web. Obviously, books do not hyperlink to references. This is why Tanya's mobile phone was useful in getting some clarifications. I believe those were the moments when she benefited most from the whole learning exercise. This was the time she was asking questions, and was getting answers on her own. If reading comprehension and general knowledge is all that she was actually working on, why not let the kid explore the world the way they want? Let them learn things they are interested in. In the end, the benefits would be comparable. In addition, kids might actually learn something useful in the area of their interest.

A creative brain cannot function for long without satisfying the learn drive. For Tanya, that reward came from Facebook, not from history. This is natural and this is justifiable. This is how the brain works and she had no means or tools to change that on that particular evening, or in her school life in general. Tanya went to sleep at 1:30 am, could not fall asleep for a longer while (perhaps even an hour), and woke at 6:30 brain dead. She called her morning schedule on that day "sleep walking". In a cruel twist of school scheduling, her history test was the only reason she had to get to school on that day. She was back shortly after 9 am, and naturally, was unable to stay conscious or sane for long. She nodded off till 14:00. This odd sleep block violated her circadian rhythm demands and contributed to further ripples in her sleep cycle synchrony. Such ripples can last for days and totally steal energy from a brain that is supposed to pile up more learning. This asynchrony and sleep deprivation time is also when chances of winter infections increase. Infections entail a prospect of more days of sub-par productivity. This is a monumental waste of young life, health and energy.

The reasons for Tanya's hating her history learning experience are obvious and natural. Her knowledge of history is almost a perfect mirror of that of Rafael tested here and of myself in 1980. She even beat Rafael soundly on Polish monarchs test. Among high school teens, except for those with particular interest in history, knowledge of history is vestigial despite hundreds of hours of lectures, homework, assignments and tests. Unlike most students (incl. myself back in 1980), Tanya is no slacker. She is actually diligent in those small time allocations for homework. Moreover, as I show later, even a well-prepared brain does not take those books of history well in conditions similar to Tanya's.

I picked one of the highlighted sentences in her book. The highlight is an indicator of two things: (1) she read the sentence while learning, and (2) she considered it important. The sentence was: "Zeno asked Theodoric the Great to capture Italy from Scirian Odoacer in 488". This seems like an important event in the history of the Roman Empire. The sentence is probably understandable to you. You would not suffer that deep into my article if you did not carry a great deal of general knowledge. Knowledge is essential in reading and text comprehension. It helps reading my article and it helps reading a book of history.

Having just passed her history test, Tanya had some recall of the sentence. It was sort of "right church, wrong pew", but she definitely remembered Odoacer and Theodoric. I asked her who Odoacer was, she did not remember. I looked for explanations in the text and there was a mention of Odoacer as a leader of "some" Germanic tribe. However, that mention came 2 pages earlier. Tanya excused herself with a typical schoolgirl excuse: "I do not recall. That was from the last test". She had no idea who Zeno was or what Scirian meant. In her mind, the sentence could equally be "some guy, asked some guy Theodoric to capture Italy from some guy Odoacer in 488". Now I came to test Tanya's knowledge of the context. And here comes the bombshell: she could not provide any! She knew this was a test on the Fall of the Roman Empire and Dark Ages. However, she could not place the fall on the timeline. She was a bit embarrassed when I asked: Did Rome fall in more like 1000 AD or 0 AD? To help Tanya, I made it more preposterous: Did Rome fall in more like 1000 AD or 0 AD or perhaps 2000 AD? This made her take a shot for 0 AD. She did not even know the differences between the Monarchy, Republic or Empire stages, so the word "emperor" was hazy as well.

Now it all became clear that the sentence in the book would mean and carry exactly the same message if it read:

At the request of cesario Pizzorato, Charlatid the Great conquered all of Egypt from the Charlemagne Delgado beginning in 637 BC.

The substitution would not make much of a semantic difference in terms of neural storage in her memory!

I borrowed the book to see if the text could be blamed for the problem. I analyzed the table of contents, structure of chapters, mnemonic power of illustrations, clarity, language, etc. The book passed all tests. I would even say it was interesting. It had only one flaw, it carried too much information considering the capacity of a teen schedule and the capacity of teen memory. Kids hardly have time to read their books and most of that reading is an exercise in futility. The speed of learning enforced by schooling exceeds their natural channel capacity. From electrical engineering we know that this leads to an exponential increase in error rate up to the point when learning is replaced with chaos.

The faster the train, the lesser the chance to enjoy the landscape views. At some speed, beautiful rainforest and a post-industrial wasteland look all the same.

Tanya's self-learning exercise failed because it was not self-directed and it was not self-paced.

Why did not Tanya fight back?

You may instantly come to question Tanya's smarts and her capacity to learn. If so, you would be wide off the mark. I heard Tanya sing. I was a singer one day too. I know a talent when I see it. I saw her sing at the age of 8. She was truly precocious. She was a vivacious star! You cannot be a great singer without a great brain. I know Tanya is super-smart. If you read this chapter carefully, you may notice, she is on her way to re-inventing my own claims to fame: free running lifestyle and incremental reading! It is the educational system that drives her into a corner of low self-esteem and stagnation.

She questions her own intelligence. She faces pressures from all directions to perform better. She in a vice of teen life that will constantly bombard her with messages undermining her self-esteem. Even her smart and loving mom has an unwitting contribution. She wants Tanya to do well. When she confronts teachers at school, she battles for her kid ferociously. At home, when school reports comes in mediocre, mom is doing her best to spur Tanya to action. It does not take long for the smartest man out there to spill unintentional phrase of abuse like: "When I was your age...", or "I expected you to...". This is another click down the self-esteem ratched. In that sense, her mom is in a vice as well. School affects mom-child relationship.

Why does not Tanya pause and ask "What's the point of such learning?". The reason is learned helplessness. Her reasoning is this: "If millions of people go through the same routine, I have to go through it too. Learning is like work. Nobody likes it. If it goes wrong, I should blame myself! After all, millions succeeded before me!". This sets her up for inevitable failure, self-blame and a kick to self-esteem. This is a phenomenon that may lead to serious mental issues later in life. This is a phenomenon that has the potential for turning cheerful Tanya into a depressed mom or a depressed employee just a decade later. Looking back then at those videos of a cheerful precocious 8-year-old dancer will be unbearable.

Tanya runs her life in an autopilot mode: get up early, battle tiredness and school obligations, catch some sleep after school, get 3 hours to cram 60 pages from a textbook, learn till 1 am, toss and turn till 3 am, and "crown" the day with 3 hours of sleep, while her brains needs 8-9 hours for good performance. There is no room for contemplation, reflection, or opposition. There is no inner power to combat the status quo. She is being compressed into a conformist member of society. Only her music gives her an outlet and a chance to retain her individuality. Nobody around seems to able to help. My own helplessness is pretty frustrating too. I only hope that everyone reading those words will make an oath of never impose a similar torture on his own kids or people around.

Million percent miscalculation

Let's make a quick calculation on the speed of flow of knowledge through a teen brain. You may recall the rough estimation which says that many or most kids end up high school with an equivalent of 200-400 SuperMemo items in history stored permanently in long-term memory. They may carry some 400-800 more items from recent exams, but that knowledge evaporates fast during the first year of college.

Recall that Tanya needed to read 60 pages for the test. I estimated that an average page in her book carried 15 highligthed sentences (i.e. sentences Tanya thought she should remember). Each sentence is worth some 3-5 SuperMemo items (assuming meticulous processing). This is roughly 10-20 times more knowledge that she will carry in history after the whole 4 years of high school. Her total memory of history might increase dramatically if she employed SuperMemo, but that won't happen. The pressures of the rush through books leave no room for rational learning. She limits her SuperMemo to English vocabulary because she believes English is vital for her music career.

Given the 3 hour window for reading, if Tanya was to sustain this speed of learning every evening throughout the school year, we would arrive at the speed of processing that is 10,000-20,000 times higher than her ability to retain information in the long term. Let me spell it out in case you thought it was a typo: Tanya is asked to read at the speed that is over one million percent faster than the speed with which her brain can actually retain information.

This begs the question: hasn't there been anyone in any ministry of education anywhere who would make this calculation and pause? If she is to retain just one item per week, she would do better by simply reading a single page of text about that particular item. She could then do it slowly and with comprehension. Adding volume does not add speed. Instead it reduces comprehension and adds to the hate of schooling.

Advice for Tanya

I mentioned that Daniel T. Willingham's diagnosis on why kids don't like school is a bit narrow. Peter Gray has a wider and more comprehensive diagnosis: it is the loss of freedom. It seems that Willingham's thinking is boxed by the inevitability of school. He seem to never consider that most kids would do better without a teacher on their own! However, Willingham's thinking on the limits of cognition are absolutely on the dot. In Tanya's case, Willingham diagnosis is very useful. For Tanya, the bar was raised too high. It was not raised just a bit too high, as often commented by Willingham. It was raised preposterously high. If school could just slow down by 1-2 orders of magnitude, kids would hate serfdom less viscerally.

Teacher's idea to let kids learn on their own is great on the face of it. However it fails because of (1) volume, (2) time allocations, and (3) sleep disruption. One factor could change it all instantly: homeschooling. If Tanya could sleep naturally, read the book in the morning, and give it more time, she would do great. She could easily improve by an order of magnitude in a test administered with two months delay (to discount for the cramming effect on short-term memory).

My original advice to Tanya was totally conservative, defensive, and near-defeatist: "Tanya! You got just 1.5 year of torture to go through. Do your minimum and make sure you get to your dream jazz school. As of then, hopefully, you will be able to take control of your life and LIVE!"

In theory, Tanya might try for homeschooling in her last year of high school. However, she is not ready. She never developed good learning habits, and that year of freedom might involve the stress of uncertainty. Her mom is open but skeptical. They got time till May 2017 to decide. This decision would be a major mental and schedule readjustment for the two.

Test your knowledge of history

Please answer the following questions from the history of Egypt:

In which year did Charlatid the Great conquer Egypt? At whose request? Who did he beat in the process? To which ethnic group did Delgado belong to?

Did you answer correctly? Do you know what I am talking about? If not, skip back to the beginning of his chapter and the explanation.

You have just experienced Tanya's pain. You struggled with retaining knowledge for minutes. She got far more to remember and she had to remember it for far longer. She lost two days of her youthful life, messed up her sleep, and lost a bit of her health due to stress and sleep disruption. She was supposed to master answers to some 2000-3000 similar questions in just 3 hours late in the night after a day of heavy schooling.

Does it not scream to your sense of justice? What are we doing to our kids?

I need to add that I am far more upset than Tanya. She must already be experiencing signs of learned helplessness. She accepts the reality. School is a must. School can be unpleasant. She is surviving. Her mom reports depression. Tanya's protest is internalized and waning.