Why schools fail

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

Summary of failure

Schools fail because they disrespect and suppress basic learning, creativity, and problem solving skills. For institutions responsible for fostering learning, schools are egregiously ignorant of essential principles of how the brain works

The degree of disrespect for child's health and well-being qualifies most schools as institutions of legal child abuse (as long as they remain mandatory).

Path from knowledge to discovery

To understand the failure of schooling in a nutshell, it is helpful to track a golden nugget of knowledge from its source to its impact on a big discovery. This is the ABC of science that few seem to understand: not teachers, not principals, not education departments. There is an army of people who help pushing the grinding machine of youth. Those few voices who understand the process remain silenced or even ridiculed.

Here is a short path of a great nugget of knowledge that can change the world:

  • healthy brain: the nugget must meet a healthy brain equipped with sufficient prior knowledge. The current design of the education systems damages both health of the brains and the quality of knowledge. Even basic health rules are not obeyed. Kids can be trained to respect authority to the exclusion of their physiological needs. Insufficient attention is paid to their thirst, hunger, toilet needs, overheating, fatigue, sleepiness, etc.
  • learn drive: natural curiosity is a guidance system that optimizes the efficient acquisition of knowledge. Schools enforce a curriculum, while only the guidance of learn drive makes it possible to effectively match knowledge on input with prior knowledge stored in the brain (see: Mountain climb metaphor of schooling)
  • pleasure of learning: once a great brain with great knowledge guided by the learn drive meets the nugget of knowledge, a reward signal is registered. The education system suppresses the quest to seek nuggets by coercing unmatching knowledge into the learning process. The education system is an unhappy system. The meeting with the nugget is a romance at first sight. Schooling often becomes a path through mental torture, while free learning is one of the most rewarding human activities. Kids are conditioned to lose their love of learning and lose their creative powers. This is explained in Pleasure of learning
  • spaced review: for the nugget to survive in the brain, it needs to be reactivated in specific patterns in time. It must be reviewed before it is forgotten. Those patterns resemble statistical interactions with the natural environment (see: On the superiority of a rat over a schooled human). The design of memory implies that the lack of reactivation in a certain time will result in forgetting. Excess reactivation, e.g. in cramming, will weaken memories through spacing effect. The education system pushes too much and too fast to give reactivation a chance. Spaced repetition is a domain of self-directed student, very often only after they have left school or in a narrow area of interest. It is very rare to see students employ spaced repetition concurrently to their program of study with success. It is still relatively rare to see spaced repetition employed universally for all areas of general knowledge. This comes from the insufficient appreciation of knowledge, which is conditioned via years of schooling
  • incremental learning: the nugget gains in associative power if it is set in the right context for rich coherent knowledge built using a targetting system that requires self-directed approach. The brain has a natural targetting system, the learn drive, that is constantly being overridden at school. The targetting system is driven by passions and suppressed by coercion. See: Schools suppress the learn drive. High-quality knowledge is built via emergence. See: Crystallization of knowledge
  • creativity cycle: the nugget gains in power if it increases in coherence by generalization, selective forgetting, creative association, etc. Those processes require peace, creative wandering, thinking, sleep, and plenty of time. All those components of mind growth are suppressed in the chaos of the education system. Even sleep, the most essential component in question, is held in disrespect. In addition to those inherent design problems of the Prussian system, there are dozens of other factors that interfere with learning, e.g. bullying, drugs, authoritarian teachers, etc. For a richer list see: Problem of schooling
  • problem solving: finally, the nugget of knowledge can be employed in the process of problem solving. The education system focuses on consumption, provides little room for creativity, and little room for genuine problem solving where novel problems are tackled with little external guidance, and without robotic regurgitation of well-known algorithms. Finding dichotomies and making serial micro-decisions are part of a brain's repertoire of habits that underlie efficient problem solving. The education system suppresses the natural quest for autonomous decision making

Schools abandon exploration

Efficient adaptation to the environment relies on an exploration algorithm developed in the course of evolution. The algorithm reached its acme in the human brain. It took half a billion years to develop. Modern education systems ignore that capital. Education systems stand in the opposition to the marvelous gains of evolution.

Efficient learning is based on the same exploration algorithm. To trace the golden nugget of knowledge, we started from the point of the encounter. However, the encounter itself is largely hindered by schooling. Efficient exploration occurs in natural environment, in simulations, in incremental reading, or in other forms of free learning. Modern schools provide limited freedom and this undermines the exploration algorithm.

Schools hinder discovery

Most of mankind's problems are solved only after leaving the confines of schooling. Sometimes, when a great idea hits, a genius mind will drop out from school, and accomplish great things. I wish Bill Gates never forgot what made him great.

Instead of following the above path to a breakthrough, we torture kids with early alarms, relentless drilling, coercive learning, homework, limits on freedom, and a never-ending nagging of great expectations.

Proverb: power of education

The old proverb says, "if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; if you teach him to fish, you feed him for lifetime". This proverb should be extended with the claim that a man with a passion for fishing has the capacity to feed the planet.

True education instills passion for learning. Rich knowledge is a byproduct of passion

Further reading