Why do students like or hate school?

"Why don't students like school?" Well, Duhhhh ...

Someone recently referred me to a book they thought I would like to have. It is a book from 2009, which is aimed at teachers in grades K to 12 and bears the title Why don't students like school? It's by a cognitive scientist named Daniel T. Willingham and has received rave reviews from countless people involved in the school system. If you google the title and author, you will find pages and pages with great reviews and no one is pointing out that the book doesn't answer the question asked by the title at all.

William's thesis is that students don't like school because their teachers don't fully understand certain cognitive principles and therefore don't teach as well as they could. You're not presenting material in the way students like it best. Chances are, if teachers followed William's advice and used the latest information cognitive science has to offer about how the mind works, students would love school.

Talk about avoiding the elephant in the room!

Ask any school child why they don't like school and they will tell you. "School is prison." They may not use these words because they are too polite or they may have already been brainwashed to believe that school is for their own good and therefore cannot be a prison. But decipher their words and the translation in general is "School is prison."

Willingham certainly knows that the school is a prison. He can't help but know; everybody knows. But here he is writing an entire book called Why don't students like school?and not once does he suggest that they may not like school because they like freedom, and in school they are not free.

I shouldn't be too harsh on Willingham. He's not the only one avoiding that particular elephant in the room. Anyone who has ever gone to school knows that school is a prison, but almost no one says it. It is not polite to say so. We all tiptoe around this truth that school is a prison because telling the truth makes us all seem so mean. How could all these nice people send their children to jail for a good part of the first 18 years of their lives? How could our democratic government, based on principles of freedom and self-determination, pass laws that require children and young people to spend most of their days in prison? It is unthinkable, and so we try not to think it. Or if we think so, at least we don't say so. When we talk about what is wrong with schools, we pretend not to see the elephant and instead we talk about some of the scales that have accumulated on the elephant's periphery.

But I think it's time we said it out loud. The school is a prison.

If you think the school is not a prison please explain the difference.

The only difference I can think of is that to go to jail you have to commit a crime, but they only took you to school because of your age. In other ways, school and prison are alike. In both places you will be robbed of your freedom and dignity. You will be told exactly what to do and you will be punished for failing to comply. In fact, you have to spend more time in school doing exactly what you are told than you do in adult prisons. In that sense, school is worse than prison.

At some level of their consciousness, anyone who has ever gone to school knows that it is a prison. How could they not have known? But people rationalize it by saying (usually not in those words) that children need this particular type of prison and may even like it when the prison is well run. If kids don't like school, then rationalization, it's not because the school is in jail, but because the guards aren't kind enough or amusing enough or smart enough to properly occupy the children's minds.

But if you know something about children and allow yourself to think honestly, you should be able to see through this rationalization. Like everyone else, children long for freedom. They hate having restricted their freedom. They use their freedom to a large extent precisely to further educate themselves. You are biologically prepared for it. This is what many of my previous posts were about (see my July 16, 2008 post for an overview). Children explore and play freely in ways that aim to learn about the physical and social world in which they are developing. At school, they are told to stop following their interests and instead do exactly what the teacher tells them to do. That's why they don't like school.

As a society, perhaps we could rationalize forcing children to go to school if we could prove they needed this particular type of prison in order to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to become good citizens, to be happy in adulthood and to become good jobs. Many people, perhaps most people, believe that this has been proven because the educational institute talks about it as if it did. But in truth it has not been proven at all.

In fact, families who have chosen to "de-school" their children or send them to Sudbury Valley School (which is essentially an "unschool" school) have proven otherwise for decades (see, for example, my Aug. 13, 2008) , Post). Children who are provided with the tools to learn, including access to a variety of other people from whom they can learn, learn what they need to know - and much more - through their own self directed play and exploration. There is no evidence whatsoever that children sent to prison do better than those given the tools and allowed to use them freely. Then how can we further rationalize sending children to prison?

I think the school purposely avoids honestly looking at the experiences of junior high school students and Sudbury Valley because they are afraid of what they will find. If school is not necessary as a prison, then what becomes of this whole huge corporation that employs so many people and is so completely embedded in the culture (see my posts on Why Schools Are What They Are)?

Willingham's book has a long history of attempting to bring the "cutting edge" of psychology to matters of education. All of these efforts have avoided the elephant and instead focused on cleaning up the shed. But as long as the elephant is there, the shed just keeps piling up.

In a future post, I'll talk about some of psychology's failed attempts to improve education. Every new generation of parents and every new group of fresh and eager teachers hears or reads about a "new theory" or "new knowledge" in psychology that will finally make schools more fun and improve learning. But none of it worked. And none of that will do it until people face the truth: children hate school because they are not free in school. Joyful learning requires freedom.