Why kids hate school?

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

Experts confirm: kids don't like school

It was back in 1964 when rebellious educator John Holt, in his book "How Children Fail", noticed that the school system is a major contributor to academic failure. Since then, relatively little has changed. Homeschooling is now more popular in the US. Parental rights in reference to schooling have improved in many legislations. However, there are also major setbacks. Most of them are a side effect of the accelerated drive for "better" education across the world. The industrial manufacture of educated masses has grown in scale.

Psychologist Daniel Willingham wrote a book "Why Don't Students Like School". In the book, he criticized teaching methods, which do not account for cognitive needs and abilities of children. Another notable psychologist Peter Gray was quite upset with the fact that the book did not get to the core of the problem. According to Dr Gray, kids hate school for it limits child freedoms. Gray does not hesitate to say "school is prison".

My own investigation

Obviously, both Willingham and Gray are right. However, I decided to do a bit of research of my own. I decided to list all most prominent school pains. Interviewing kids seemed like the best way to go. Before writing this article, in summer 2016, I talked to some two hundred kids of all ages (and many more since). This painted for me a pretty solid picture. Kids dislike or hate school almost universally. The older they are, the stronger the feeling.

My impression does not agree entirely with what researchers report. Depending on methodology and the country, the findings claim that "only" 20-80% kids dislike school.

In the process of collecting opinions, I also spoke to parents as well as adults. Amazingly, the entirely different picture emerges there. Most parents claim "my kid loves kindergarten" or "my kids love school". Wherefrom this dissonance? This is complex and goes beyond the scope of this article. The dissonance comes from a combination of poor communication, sense of guilt, distorted memories of schooling, as well as maturity, where only after years we appreciate the value of the time spent at school heavily whitewashed with the brightness of youth. Most of all, child's brain has no good system to send messages to the future self, the adult brain: "I am different. I work differently. Can't you understand?". This is why adults will never understand kids. They can only empathize via the findings of neuroscience.

As for distorted memories, this is my field of expertise. Therefore I made an honest evaluation of my own feelings about my own experience at schools. The verdict is simple: school memories are a constellation of love and hate and all shades in between. Anyone who says "I loved school" or "I hated school" must be making a gross generalization that is largely justified by the distortive and generalizing power of human long-term memory. This is why live interviews with kids about their feeling "at the moment" are so precious. Interview honesty is vital. This is why I picked kids mostly from a circle of friends. Those who I approached as a stranger were hesitant or literally afraid to admit they dislike school! As if it was a thing we should not say loud. Kids are pressured and conditioned to say loudly that "school is good". Disliking school is supposed to be a reason to be ashamed or condemned. Only when kids find me as their ally, they admit the truth: "school is prison".

Top 11: What kids hate most about school

I put primary kid gripes into the following categories prioritized from the worst to the least significant. Every kid has his or her own list. My bullets should be considered an "average". This is what kids hate most about school:

  1. Getting up in the morning
  2. Boredom
  3. Stress (grades, exams, overload)
  4. Excess hours (tiredness, whole day lost, etc.)
  5. Homework
  6. Bullies
  7. Self-esteem issues
  8. People they don't like (forced social groups, mean teachers, jocks, popular girls, teacher's pets, etc.)
  9. Rules and regulations (no phones, no bathroom, dress code, mute button, raise a hand ban, cannot open the window, etc.)
  10. Lack of freedom to choose (e.g. courses, subject, sport teams, etc.)
  11. Pointless learning (teachers often fail to explain why a subject is important)

In the duel of the psychologists, Gray vs. Willingham, the list confirms they are both right. However, Gray's view is universal. While Willingham limits his considerations to the cognitive core, assuming tacitly school is unavoidable, Gray strikes the nail on the head. Kids hate schools for the sense of imprisonment. Little wonder then that Gray is upset with Willingham's book which speak of hating schools without touching the issue of freedom.

Cognition science could remedy the hate of schooling to a degree and with serious difficulties.

Early waking can be tackled with chronotherapy. Homework, boredom, and stress can be solved by using the right cognitive approach (esp. self-directed learning). Long hours and regulations are a matter of good administration. As for bad people in the system, this is a pretty universal phenomenon. All social groups suffer from frictions. However, there are inherent design flaws in the current educational system model. Only homeschooling, democratic schooling, or unschooling make it possible to fully resolve all issues above, incl. the problem of socialization.

See also: I wish I had dropped out

Why kids like school?

For balance, let's consider why kids like school. Nearly all teens hate school, but some would say they like school conditionally.

For example "I hate school, but I love to meet my friends there". Or, "I hate school, but I love physical education". Or "I love German, but I hate English".

Freddy

I found just one case of a kid with a genuine liking for school. Freddy is 11 years old. He comes from a very well regulated family. There is no TV at home. Freddy and his siblings all started reading early. There was no distraction from YouTube or videogames. There were regular bedtime stories with his mom and dad.

Freddy goes to sleep at 20:00. It is his mom who keeps a rigorous lights out regimen. Freddy wakes up naturally, usually around 6 am. This is pretty unique and this might be his first step towards success. His sisters call him a crammer, but they never see him doing homework. He claims to spend 30 min. per day on homework and brings most of knowledge from school. Sometimes he does his homework already at school during breaks. In his fourth year of English, he does not speak English much, but still stands out among kids of his age in his good comprehension. Freddy is one of the best students at school. He is also a great footballer and an incredible unflagging long-distance runner. In short, his formula for liking school seems to look like this: (1) sleep well, (2) come to school refreshed, (3) soak in knowledge, and (4) keep winning. Everyone likes to win. Unfortunately, in his class of 23 (incl. 13 girls), the leader is only one.

In the chapter on traps awaiting good students, I explain that liking for school or good grades are not always good. In the case of Freddy, I see some not-so-positive signs too:

  • when I asked him about his passions, he had to be prompted by his dad to "remember"
  • his English does not reflect his good grades
  • when I asked him what he plans to learn during summer vacation, he said No plans. However, I will learn a lot during my summer camp
  • he confirmed that liking school does not necessarily mean liking to learn
  • he hates losing. His competitive nature helps him at school
  • he hates comparisons with other kids (other than winning competitions). During one of my "interrogations", he lost patience with me. I was too inquisitive

Arian

Arian is 16 years old. I have known her since she was in diapers. When she was 11, she was a smiling, happy, precocious, and cocky girl. I spoke to Arian about homeschooling. She insisted she would not like to be homeschooled because school is "so marvellous". She literally tried to argue with an old memory expert: "You are wrong! I learn a lot from school". However, things took a dramatic turn when Arian graduated from her 6-year primary school and moved to a middle school. There she encountered the problem of bullying. Amazingly, part of that bullying came from good students who wanted to play better "game of school" (the concept first criticized by Holt). Bullying sparked truancy, problems with grades, and the escalation of bullying spiral. Bad grades, in turn, caused frictions at home. At the age of 14, on Oct 17, 2013, Arian ran from home! For full four days, her parents and five siblings lived in horror. Police suspected kidnapping. The equivalent of orange alert was raised and countrywide search was undertaken. In the meantime, I tried to be helpful and talk to her friends about possible problems at school. I came back to her parents with "good news": someone mentioned that she was fed up with school and the atmosphere at home and that she would be a likely runaway. She also cut her hair short on the day of disappearance. In parallel, that hypothesis was confirmed by police by tracking her phone activity, and locating her friend Nina who confirmed Arian was alive and well. She was also seen boarding a train. Within 24 hours, on Oct 21, 2013, Arian was detained in a remote city of Torun and returned home with apologies. Her father attributed 80% of the blame to the school (incl. inattentive or passive teachers). Arian put that number lower. Her mom enrolled her in a different school. Two years later, she was doing well at home, and ok at school. She participated in beta-testing of one of the SuperMemos showcasing her smarts and potential. However, she also joined her teen crowd in the hate of schooling. She had nothing good to say about her new school experience. I urged her to try for college, however, in 2016, she was sent to a reform school in Warsaw. Her future is unclear. She praises her reform school for the rigor and discipline that helps her organize her life, however, when I mentioned democratic schools, she instantly changed her mind: I would love this kind of freedom!.

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
My own feelings about school

My feelings about school evolved from enthusiasm (first grade), to lack of interest, to dislike (high school), to high appreciation (last year of college), to harsh criticism (today).

I suffer from a sort of "documentation OCD". From early childhood, I obsessively documented all experiences of my young life. In high school, I started writing diaries with precise notes, dates, facts and figures. I also embarked onto a comprehensive project: "retrospective diary" where I tried to document all my memories dating back to the first impressions of daycare. This exercise helped me understand how unreliable human memory is when it comes to picturing one's own childhood. All in all, my top of the head answer about my childhood feelings about schools would be "I hated school". However, this would be just a convenient recall in the context of this article. In a different context, I might say "I liked schools" or "I loved learning". When I dig into details, I can bring back hundreds of moments ranging from fear to elation or euphoria. For this project, I pulled out lots of dusty details from my past using my precise record of notes. However, when it comes to figuring out why kids hate school, I decided to rely on face-to-face interviews most of all.

I keep few live emotions associated with schooling. Somehow, all the period of schooling seems largely neutral. However, the dislike of schooling comes back to life when I recall how I cheated my mom by touching a light bulb with a thermometer to convince her I got a fever. I recall that I loved being sick! I could stay at home in bed, read books, paint pictures, drink cocoa, etc. That was nirvana. I was not bothered by rhinitis. I loved rhinitis. I had a few cheating methods with the thermometer. I probably started from rubbing, but this took time and was painful. I advanced to touching the light bulb, but that was blown one day when I failed to shake off the mercury column and my fever went off the scale. I also recalled some severe bouts of sleepiness in class in high school. It was not long before I declared in all seriousness: "I will not wake up early for school because a sleepy person is not a good member of society". That might have been an onset of teen DSPS that set me on the life-long boycott of getting up early. I would rather miss the class and suffer consequences.

Summary: Why kids hate school

  • loss of freedom and excess work are a frequent reason for school hate
  • lack of motivation and low learn drive make school an unpleasant experience for most kids
  • early school start is one of the main reasons teens dislike school
  • homeschooling, unschooling and democratic schooling resolve nearly all causes of school hate
  • most often mentioned reasons for liking school are: friends, physical education, good grades, and very rarely, actual progress in learning
  • catching a cold was a joyous moment in my young life: I did not have to go to school!