Bad Stuff We Learn In School

Don't let your schooling get in the way of your education. - MarkTwain

One must read this page having in mind that it discusses a traditional school. Many leading educators have fought against exactly these problems, like Montessori and Vigotski, and proposed different perspectives. The school you discuss was forged in the industrial revolution and supposed to create well-conforming workers, in a TheoryXx kind of management philosophy. -- GeraldoXexeo

The purpose of the school system is supposedly to provide the necessary education so that each person can live an independent life; the criticisms in this page seems to say that such education does not teach you enough about things you will encounter in your life.

In school ...

As far as learning from everyone goes, there can be an ImpedanceMismatch between minds. Sometimes the information gained isn't worth the time taken to extract it. One interesting skill I learned in school was how to deal with conflicting missing and wrong information. My dad and I were reading some blueprints that were very badly done, they referenced parts that were no longer part of the system, gave numbers that didn't make sense and left out important dimensions, because of my experience dealing with poorly written science labs I knew how to figure our the information I needed while my dad was still stuck on how horribly done the blueprints were.

Another bad lesson we learn in school is that when we say "I don't know" on a test (i.e. leave an answer blank) it's usually counted the same as if we got it wrong. While this perhaps encourages kids to experiment and take a risk by guessing, it also discourages them from saying "I don't know." However, I have found that when I start saying "I don't know," I start learning! Acknowledging the limits of my knowledge empowers me to expand my limits. -- WyattGreene

It takes a lot of guts (or just plain stupidity) for a student to document anything under "open issues", "limitations" or "bugs", yet these headings are important.

(I've seen a few instructors count wrong answers against the students, giving them a disincentive to guess. Typically... +1 for correct, zero for no answer, -1/4 for incorrect answers. -- JeffGrigg) When forced to use multiple-choice sections, I do +1 correct, 0 no answer, -1 incorrect.

At least in the old days, the college entrance exams where scored so that if you had five choices, and guessed, you had negative expectation - eliminate one choice, expectation was zero, eliminate 2 (so you were guessing among three choices) and you had positive expectation. The questions were usually set up so that at least one of the choices was patently wrong. For example: The U. S. Civil War started in 1) 1066 2) 1776 3) 1861 4) 1914 5) 1998. Well if you can even remember 1492, throw out 1066, and if you know the Civil War didn't start in your own lifetime, there goes 1998. Now you have a positive expectation even though knowledge of American History is minimal. -- RobertField

JohnTaylorGatto, who was New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991, wrote some interesting insights about bad things he taught in school: For the details, see and .

-- YonatSharon

Sounds a lot like School Is Hell by MattGroening.

Also see RobertKiyosaki's book, "If you want to be rich and happy, don't go to school." (

It is not clear that those two categories are correlated. If they are, it may be in the negative sense only... :)

Thanks for the link. After reading the info available on the site, I went to PowellsBooks and picked up 2 of RobertKiyosaki's books.

I agree 100% with Robert's writings. My business school educational has value as an artificial credential to others in the RatRace, but I rarely fall back on what was taught. I always disliked curriculums that simply showed me how to go work for other people. Software Developers/Craftsman/Engineers hold the key to developing IntellectualProperty and should learn to reap the royalties of their work. -- MichaelLeach

All I can say to this is that this is nothing like what I went through at school in Australia: Where classes are differentiated on ability, it's usually the student's choice which one they go for. Teachers can and do counsel students on which class they should be in, but the student's choice is paramount. Work not finished in the course of the lesson is invariably either handed out as homework, or continued in the next lesson. The ability to time-box your work is important. Yeah, right. While teachers are in an authority position, it's far from unquestioned authority. The particular example of withholding toilet access from students would never be permitted. This may also have something to do with the AustralianAttitudeToAuthority Conformity is usually a peer-group issue. In the example given of not being in control of the curriculum, students are presented with a wide range of elective and required courses. As they progress, the number of required courses becomes fewer and fewer, so that by grade 11 (the second-last year of study) there are no longer any required courses. Within a course, there is typically a core curriculum objective, and optional ones. Teachers are encouraged to consult with students on the optional objectives, and frequently within a class, different optional objectives may apply between students. Report cards have nothing to do with self-respect. They are an objective measure of performance against objective goals. Nor is it a casual exercise; schools undertake large-scale moderation exercises to demonstrate consistency in grading between teachers, and between schools. Teachers that are unable to defend their assessment of a student's work (both positively and negatively) will find their own performance metrics suffer, and the student will have their work reassessed.

If a student equates their report cards with their own sense of self-worth, then they have other emotional issues.

Or their parents :-)

Of course there's an escape. You cannot be forced to study. The idea that students are under 24/7 surveillance is ridiculous; in class, students are merely required not to be disruptive. Out of class hours (such as lunchtime), supervision is restricted to ensuring there's no violence. Out of school, homework is rarely burdensome, can be ignored if you don't care about the grade, and certainly doesn't stop you trying to learn from other sources.

On the other hand, some things you simply have to practice to be good at. The teacher can help you learn to read (my first grade teacher gave me a lot of good tips that I'm passing on to my children), but you learn to read by reading, and that includes a lot of reading you don't do in school. Mind you, "practice" is a four-letter word these days. As for not being disruptive, I'm afraid there are people who would equate any kind of discipline with subjugation. These are the folks who would strike a match on a no-smoking sign. -- DavidBrantley

The premise that only 50 contact hours are required to impart basic numeracy and literacy is an interesting one, which I choose to disbelieve but not dispute other than to say that I certainly haven't seen any examples of someone being taught to read and write to an acceptable adult literacy level in a week. Regardless of that, 50 hours is not enough to impart other basic skills. The 19th-century America that Gatto loves so much saw only a very small percentage of students actually acquire a full education; the vast majority of youths ended up either doing unskilled labour or entering apprenticeships typically imposed by parents.

-- RobertWatkins

I have read Gatto, and I think he is a little bit prone to exaggeration. The 50-hour claim does not ring true to me either. On the other hand, we should distinguish between basic literacy and adult literacy. If you define basic literacy as being able to decode plainly written prose without major hesitations, I think 50 hours is pretty reasonable.

I think that 50 hours would probably be adequate to acquire enough basic reading skills for someone to teach themselves the rest. Learning vocabulary and the subtleties of any mother tongue is an ongoing process, of course, but the seed is planted. -- SckotVokes

Apart from quibbling over a few numbers, though, I agree with Gatto's deeper point, which is that institutional education is unsatisfying. Growing up in American schools, I had a lot of the same choices as Robert - freedom to pick my classes, freedom to finish my homework, freedom to conform to my peers instead of teachers, freedom not to study, etc. - but I never had interesting educational experiences. I don't recall many days of high school where I went into school and said, I want to learn X today, and I could just go find an adult who knew X and have him explain X to me. Even though I loved to learn things, and did quite well in school, my curiosity had been conditioned out.

There was only one exception - journalism class. My journalism teacher encouraged the same sort of chaos that Gatto seems to encourage. It was fun, and we learned as much about journalism from the people who worked at the printer shops as we did from our teacher (to the teacher's credit).

-- SteveHowell

The 19th-century America that Gatto loves so much saw only a very small percentage of students actually acquire a full education; the vast majority of youths ended up either during unskilled labour or entering apprenticeships typically imposed by parents.

Are you defining "full education" as X years of institutional schooling? If so, you are missing Gatto's point entirely. Remember that 19th century Americans created 20th century America. Even if you disagree with the benefits of industrialization - e.g. you might argue that industrialization creates the same dehumanizing effects as institutional learning - it's hard to dispute the progress that Americans (and others) made during the late 19th century. Some of the folks driving that progress must have learned something in their education, even if that education never included seven-period-per-day, regimented institutional schooling.

-- SteveHowell

Hmmm... I would define a "full education", at least for the 19th century, as being the "very model of a modern Major General". :) A person with a full education would be fully literate, fully numerate (including trigonometry, geometry, and calculus), know geography, have a solid grounding in logical reasoning and history (both classical and modern), and have a reasonable grasp of the law. This would be the solid grounding required for further specialization.

Historically, this has always been the privilege of the educational elite, whilst at the same time being the goal of the educational system. 19th Century America certainly didn't have a large percentage of people who would fit that category (I will leave open the question of whether 21st Century America does...). As stated earlier, the vast majority of individuals dropped out of formal and informal general education early, so as to pursue either a trade or take up unskilled labour. Nor was 19th Century America unique in this; the whole industrialized world was like this at this time. Fortunately, it seems like it takes only a small percentage of educated "movers and shakers" to advance a nation.

Please note that I'm not disparaging those people who did drop out of the educational system. Those same tradespeople and labourers were invaluable in building a modern nation, and in many ways, the decline in the number of skilled tradespeople is going to hurt our various societies. But I am questioning the value of lauding an educational system that failed to achieve the goals mentioned above (or even the more limited goals of functional literacy and numeracy) for the majority of students, and which by all accounts was far more repressive than the very liberal educational systems available today.

Gatto does not advocate child labor; he just wants less regimentation in modern schooling. He does not suggest that we use nineteenth century schooling methods for a modern world; he merely points out that education happened before institutional schooling. Americans who finished school in the nineteenth century were literate and numerate long before educational bureaucracies modernized the methods of learning.

The experiences described do not describe my schooling, my daughters' schooling, nor the schooling of my nieces and nephews. The literacy level described is belied by the vast number of signatories using 'X' instead of their names until the last of the 1800's. The idea of everyone returning to growing their own food and preparing it all the time is ludicrous. I live in the country, and I don't want to do that. It simply consumes too much of the day. Gatto sounds more like someone who was not allowed to do what he wanted and has romanticized the past into what he would have liked it to have been, not what it was. Read some of the Little House series to see mid 1800 education. Not the free-wheeling associative stuff romanticized, but rote learning (I'm actually in favor of more of that). -- X

Perhaps we could write about formal education because we are formally educated. Education should not be seen as a solution to real life problems. It teaches us to look into different problems in different ways. With education we learned critical reasoning. With education we learned to analyse the problem domain. With education we learnt to learn from mistakes. The list is endless. The problem is that we leave our education once we leave schools. That's one thing we don't learn from school - to continue educating ourselves. -- VhIndukumar

Vast chunks of the first five to seven years of your schooling were devoted to teaching you how to read write and count. Which were all vital to being able to participate in your university education, or for it to mean anything to you. But this seems to be wandering off the topic of BadStuffWeLearnInSchool. -- GordonLove

Why does this page sound like so much like whining? The points listed above seems to apply equally well to BadStuffWeLearnAtWork?, BadStuffWeLearnAtHome?, BadStuffWeLearnInChurch, or generally BadStuffWeLearnInLife. It seems obvious to me that in any environment, what you learned is probably not universally applicable (what is?). With the varied destiny of all the people who went through the school system, it is inevitable that each person will learn a lot of stuff in school that is inapplicable to his later life. Is this page trying to say that it is better to spend the school years elsewhere than in a school?

To abolish schooling, you will need a complete replacement, not merely alternatives. Are you asserting that the current alternatives are enough to completely replace existing school systems? I very much doubt that. Take modern (western) medicine as an analogy, there a lot of alternative medical care available, and some works extremely well for some patients, but I don't think anyone is ready to replace the mainstream medicine with any of the alternatives. Going from an alternative to a complete replacement is a very very big leap, one that neither FreeSchools nor HomeSchooling seems to be ready for.

Your change in wording changes absolutely nothing. Why is it that FreeSchools and HomeSchooling can't replace the school system? From you I hear a big fat silence. Except for "they don't seem to be ready". Well please enlighten us mere mortals when they will "seem" ready to you. "Plausible" "seems", you're just addicted to the WeaselWords, aren't you? And on such weasel words you base broad universal claims like "there's nothing better than the education system" and "people who complain about the education system are whiners". Oh yeah, tarring provably superior alternatives to the piss-poor education system we have now by associating them with pseudo-scientific medical care was a nice touch. A nice job of pseudo-reasoning all through. Please come back when you have some arguments.

The simple fact is that the current schooling system is the status quo. Right, I haven't made any arguments why the FreeSchools and HomeSchooling cannot replace mainstream schools, but then, neither have you shown me that they can. Those few alternatives mentioned have not been tested on a large scale. Until some countries have put thousands of kids through these alternatives and found better results (whatever "better" means), the burden of proof is upon these alternatives. Note that I am not claiming that one is "better", but simply that to replace the current mainstream, you better to have concrete evidence that the new way will work, and will work better. Asking "why won't it do?" and then pointing to the silence will not convince people to change.

Until some countries have put thousands of kids through these alternatives and found better results (whatever "better" means), the burden of proof is upon these alternatives.

First it's an argument from status quo, and second it's entirely circular. How do you propose that FreeSchools replace the normal school system if the only argument you'll accept towards doing just that is that someone's already done it?

Because that's how the people are convinced. New drugs requires tests on humans, landing a job requires prior experience, bidding projects requires references, ..., etc. The simplest way to prove to people something will work is to show them where it has worked. Of course, there will be brave new souls who will try new things hoping it will work. But when you are talking about applying something to almost every child in a country, people will want references.

There are plenty of arguments and plenty of evidence in favour of FreeSchools or HomeSchooling, including thousands of students who have gone through them. FreeSchools have been around for more than a century for ####'s sake! Why should I bother repeating them here when they're already on a half-dozen other Wiki pages (not even counting outside web sites)? You're just trying to excuse refusing to see what's in front of you by churlishly demanding to be spoon-fed against your will! What right do you have to my time?

You are right, I have no right to your time. If you deemed that there is enough evidence to convince people FreeSchools or HomeSchooling can replace the current mainstream schooling, fine. Let's end the discussion here and stop wasting our time. It just happens that I have gone through the current schooling system and think it is fine (not perfect, but not as worthless as this page seem to suggest).

See also SometimesYourGuessWasWrong, HindrancesToLearning, ColorOutsideTheLines, DeschoolingSociety, HomeSchooling, UnSchooling?, WhyAreTheyTellingMeThis?

the ability to work successfully alone is rewarded much more than the ability to work successfully in a team. In business, it's vice versa. (It's hard to believe that American schools EVER taught such an individualistic thing as this, but they certainly don't now! -- DanielKnapp)

You mean American schools don't teach children to work alone? We must live in different Americas. In the schools I attended, working together on say, a test, or homework, was called "cheating" and severely punished. This attitude is not "individualistic", it's unrealistic and incompatible with success in adult life. IMO this view for contention with the tendency toward rote-learning as the single greatest sin that the US school system inflicts upon its subjects. -- MikeSmith

[It may be incompatible but it is still practiced both in schools and in the workplace. A former coworker of mine is now encountering a performance evaluation that is graded "on the curve". Within their groups, the boss/evaluator must classify the workers into fixed-ratio subcategories of performance. For example, 10% elite, 20% good, 40% acceptable, 20% needs improvement, and 10% failing. The failing group are fired immediately, and only the top two groups are given increases in pay, with most going to the top group. The mind-bender occurs when this policy is forced upon a group of 5 solid programmers, and 1 must be let go. Team building is discouraged and backstabbing encouraged when one realizes that selective withholding of information could lead to advancement within one's own group... (A bit of an aside - feel free to refactor elsewhere)]

...some interesting insights about bad things he taught in school: Seems to apply equally to work (at least in software development work) Stay in the cubicle/team/office where you belong Most projects fail anyway, the requirements of what you are doing now may change tomorrow, requiring complete re-working. How many times have you wished you can use whatever OS/language/tools you prefer instead of the one forced on you? And that is your salary. Would you be where you are working if you have another better choice?

Another AlbertEinstein quote: "Knowledge is that which remains when you have forgotten everything you learned in school."
A Marie Curie one to go with it:

"It must be much better for children to drown in the water than to be caged in a class room of the current educational system."

Here are some of the major suggestions or observations from a controversial blog:

Strongly disagree, in the sense that mathematics is hardly taught at all. What is taught is a bit of basic arithmetic (very useful) and a hodge-podge of pattern matching. Students that had learned something about mathematics would be much better prepared to think about the world they live in and information they are given than the current crop are.

This seems to be the primary occupation of high-school years though. True, it is taught by peer groups, but still. It isn't like high school serves much academic purpose.


EditText of this page (last edited April 10, 2012) or FindPage with title or text search