Schools need to let kids be kids longer if society wants to capitalize on each individual's natural talents. Life Links online editor Sophie explains.
Have you seen her - my inner four-year-old? I’m trying to find her again. She’s creative, happy to stand out from the crowd, knows what she loves - and what she hates.
I'm 26 now and by the time I finished my Master's degree a few years ago, I was practically the opposite of my former self. Where once I was passionate, I'd become merely half-interested. I offered platitudes in place of protest, shied away from standing out, and instead of relishing wandering out into the Unknown that is life, I felt disoriented and longed for a path - even one laid by someone else.
Leaving university, I felt I’d suddenly been spewed out of a system I’d grown up in. Like a prisoner leaving jail for the first time.
That may sound melodramatic, but it's the experience of countless school leavers - be it in Britain, where I was educated, or elsewhere: leaving education with a list of qualifications to one's name, able to get work if they're lucky but almost a stranger to themselves, their own interests and aspirations.
It's symptomatic of everything that is wrong with formal education.
For a long time, I couldn't figure out what had happened. Then I watched this:
"All kids have tremendous talents, and we squander them," Sir Ken Robinson says with conviction. "We are educating people out of their creative capacities."
In the much-watched talk, Sir Ken relays the story of Gillian Lynne: As a young girl, Gillian was almost thrown out of class for not being able to sit still. Her teachers at the traditional school she attended thought something was wrong with her.
Luckily, a specialist thought otherwise and diagnosed young Gillian not with attention deficit disorder but with...a gift for dancing. Her mum sent her to a dance school.
Now, Gillian Lynne is a famous choreographer; she's even been made a Dame of the British Empire. "What would have happened to her if she'd stayed at that traditional school?" Sir Ken makes us ask.
Aha! I thought. I wonder if it's what happened to me. I’m no talented dancer, but I do identify with Gillian's story.
I've been through some of the best schooling Britain has to offer - and am hugely grateful for all of it; if the world were 100 people, only 7 would have a college degree. Yet I realize that years of strict discipline, school uniforms (we could only wear three colours of hair tie) and formal instruction - keeping still in dusty classrooms and furiously taking notes on whatever my teachers said - shaped and molded and cajoled me into something that frankly didn't feel entirely, 100 percent "me."
As a child, I was usually either at the piano singing or getting up to some sort of arty mischief: Once my mum left me alone with some paints and, instead of using the paper she left out for me, I stripped down to my underwear and painted my entire body red.
A young Picasso!
Yes, if I did that now, probably no one would take me seriously as a journalist. So full marks to my education for socializing me on that front. But what happened to that fire? Why and how did it get so lost?
Methods and values more important that fact-based knowledge
Oxford, where I studied German, and City University, where I read journalism, did encourage an element of free thinking and curiosity, but the sheer amount of content we had to get through left little time to digest it.
"Too often undergraduates feel they are on a bus tour through a beautiful countryside in which the primary aim is to keep the bus on schedule," says Jerome Kagan, emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard, who criticizes the British government for linking the educational value of an undergraduate degree to the needs of the British economy.
But my problem didn't start with tunnel vision at university. I think the "damage,"if I can call it that, was done earlier.
At 17, I could have chosen to go to art school and pursue a more creative path - but by then, I'd already been schooled too much; that inner fire of my childhood self was already gone.
At a high-pressure school like mine, where the focus was on performance, yearly public exams meant several months of cramming in facts and analyzing past tests to hone our exam technique.
That left precious little time to promote genuine curiosity or independent thinking. In short, it was a lot of spoon-feeding.
This sort of testing is still widespread across the UK and the US - enraging parents, as well as students and teachers.
27-year-old Alice, a trainee teacher in London, is passionate about her work but says the system puts teachers in a straightjacket: "I have students who are extremely gifted in maths, but bad at exams, so I have to teach them how to pass the tests while trying not to destroy their natural interest in the subject."
I'd wager my own inner four-year-old had lost her vigour well before secondary school.
I reckon it happened sometime in the years after kindergarten, when we pupils became more and more desk-bound.
Days were spent gazing out the window, longing to go outside but instead being told we had to stay seated around our neatly arranged desks and stare into our textbooks.
Our teachers would see our legs twitching with energy but plowed on doggedly in their lessons, trying to get through the content prescribed by the national curriculum.
It was a struggle for the teachers to keep us inside. But that was what they had to do, again because of assessments - but also because that was the method of teaching the school signed up to.
Designed for obedience and passivity
Throughout all these school experiences, from primary school on, I had a minimal amount of true decision-making to do. Practically every day up until university was laid out for us, the lessons structured, the content as pre-determined as our school uniforms.
The navy-blue skirts and navy jumpers I had to wear reflected a more insidious aspect of this type of education: It is founded on - and rewards - compliance and conformity. That's surely not what we should hope for in ostensibly free and democratic societies - but the American linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky says it's intentional: "A lot of the educational system is designed for … obedience and passivity," Chomsky argues in Class Warfare.
"From childhood, a lot of it is designed to prevent people from being independent and creative. If you're independent-minded in school, you're probably going to get into trouble very early on. That's not the trait that's being preferred or cultivated."
The education system I went through did mold the majority of my classmates and me into one similar mass. And it steered education away from what it should really be about: encouraging children's natural curiosity - and supporting them in being themselves.
Restraints also make life tricky for teachers - like in Germany, where one in three teachers is at risk of burn-out.
Marlou, the teacher Life Links reporter David met as part of the #AForEffort webisode, went into the profession to inspire disadvantaged children to make something of their lives. The enthusiastic 27-year-old knows what could help the children - she was once like them - but her techniques don't fit with those approved by the system.
This rigidity could in part explain why educational mobility in Germany is lower than in almost any other OECD nation. Simply put, pupils’ family backgrounds still determine their educational achievements.
This is not how education should be, but how it still is in many developed countries.
Then, of course, there's Finland.
Lessons from Finland
Finland’s schools have been painted as the ideal in public education, consistently coming in at the top of PISA’s international school rankings.
Children there are allowed to remain children for longer, by starting school relatively late at age seven - and literally spending more time on the playground - as much as 15 minutes every hour. That was a huge shock to primary school teacher Tim Walker, who moved to Helsinki from the United States. At first he tried to do away with some of the play time to focus more on learning - but soon he realized the kids were much more focused when they got to run around more.
Finnish schoolchildren also don't have to worry about exam grades.
"The focus in education is on learning rather than testing," the country’s National Board of Education states.
High schoolers there only have to take one mandatory exam - at the end of their schooling. Until then, teachers give them descriptive feedback on their assignments instead of grades.
Teachers in Finland are given the freedom to experiment. Their profession is also very respected; you need a Master's degree to do the job.
What's also remarkable is that Finland’s education system hasn’t always been so progressive. Today’s success is the result of reforms begun in the 1960s and based on the principle of a free, quality education for all, Krista Kiuru, Finland’s minister of education, told The Atlantic: "We support everyone and we’re not going to waste anyone’s skills."
"We don’t know what our kids will turn out like - we can’t know if one first-grader will become a famous composer, or another a famous scientist. Regardless of a person’s gender, background, or social welfare status, everyone should have an equal chance to make the most of their skills. It’s important because we are raising the potential of the entire human capital in Finland."
For the system to change outside Finland, politicians and policymakers need to understand that children are biologically built to teach themselves.
Against 'Imprisonment schooling'
A whole host of educational psychologists agree on this. - like Peter Gray, who recently published a book on what he calls "imprisonment schooling": "(Children's) instincts to explore; to observe; to eavesdrop on the conversations of their elders; to ask countless questions; and to play with the artefacts, ideas, and skills of the culture all serve the purpose of education," he writes.
His book Free to Learn describes the negative effects of "coercive" formal education. He argues for more emphasis on children's natural curiosity, playfulness and sociability as ways they naturally teach themselves.
To see proof of Gray's theory, all you have to do is observe how much learning is inherently involved in children's play. Or take this example from India: In 1999, Sugata Mitra, the then science director of a Delhi IT firm, embedded a computer into a wall in one of the city’s slums, turned it on, put up some cameras and waited to see what would happen.
The Hole in the Wall and the School in the Cloud
Pretty quickly, children who were not just illiterate but had never even seen a computer before, came to have a look at the intriguing device. They played with it - pushing buttons, clicking the mouse. Through this process, they slowly figured out its various functions, and shared with each other what they'd discovered.
He went on to found the online platform School in the Cloud following those principles of learning - that children’s playfulness can thrive if they're provided with tools, along with some guidance and structure. In the "self-organized learning environment," students work to find solutions to "Big questions" - like "Why are people poor?" and "What is time?" Learning is transformed into an enjoyable quest rather than a chore.
Play video games, if that's what you want
Then there's Sudbury Valley School in the US state of Massachusetts, where pupils from age four all the way up to 18+ are free to spend each day as they see fit. That means if they want to spend an entire year playing video games, they may. Marlou, the German student teacher in our #AForEffort documentary, says she would use their methods more if her school let her.
Yes, there have been some question marks about Sudbury Valley's methods: Dona Matthews, an expert on child development and author of Beyond Intelligence, says giving children choice about their own learning can work well for some but disadvantage others who need more structure to get motivated.
"In my experience, kids with highly developed initiative, drive, and study skills can thrive at such schools. On the other hand, there are students who waste their time in learning very little," she says.
But Gray, whose own daughter went to the school, is convinced by the model after following up on the careers of the school’s alumni.
"They are skilled craftsmen, entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, scientists, social workers, nurses, doctors, and so on," he writes. "Those who chose to pursue higher education had no particular difficulties getting into colleges and universities, including highly selective ones, or performing well there once admitted."
"More important, former students report that they are happy with their lives."
The future: What's holding us back?
My education has served me well. It’s taught me how to read, write (OK, just about) and count. It’s helped me learn another language and find employment. But I’m still struggling to understand how it could have got so many things so wrong.
No schooling should, by ignoring children’s natural instincts, actually educate out of them passions and interests that they entered the classroom excited to explore.
The British system, broadly speaking, seems to have just this effect - and yet isn’t even equipping the majority of school-leavers for work.
"Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won't serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we're educating our children," Ken Robinson said in his 2006 TED Talk.
Since that talk almost a decade ago, little has changed in my home country, but initiatives and institutions across the world show that the accepted paradigm can be changed, by setting new values that recognize children's natural abilities to teach themselves and putting in place the framework to support them, including more freedom, flexibility and decent pay for teachers.
Embracing humans' natural instincts for play, curiosity and sociability have been proven to work, so what's holding governments and education authorities back from encouraging them?
Wait a second - who's that?
I think I just spotted my inner four-year-old.