High School Confidential

We attended the annual “meet the parents” session at our local high school last night. Given my criticism of the existing school system (as regular readers will know), I decided to concentrate on listening for understanding and kept my mouth shut.

I found the teachers to be interested in education and motivated to teach. They all seemed to be competent in their areas of expertise. However, on leaving the school, I tried to figure out why my gut feeling was negative. After a night of reflection, I think that my concern is the evident dichotomy between espoused theory and practice, coupled with an unsubstantiated belief in education maxims that have been scientifically proven wrong.

Let’s start with what I heard. Here are the key messages, taken from my 4 pages of notes, reinforced by the principal and teachers:

  • The school’s purpose is to challenge children, therefore there will be homework every night.
  • We are delighted to say that we test regularly (even though high performing students are exempted from the final exams, and these are the students who will be going to university and will continue to write exams).
  • The focus is to teach to the test.
  • Students are here to learn, and will be scored on behaviour in class.
  • Each teacher sees over 100 students per day, so don’t expect personal attention.
  • Punctuality is critical.
  • Each teacher covered the assesment breakdown in great detail.
  • Incorrect behaviour, described in detail, will be punished.
  • We have 640 students in the school and need to maintain control at all times.
  • There is very little money for new textbooks ($10,000/year – enough for one subject for one grade level), therefore we do book counts regularly.
  • There is very little money for photocopying or paper

The strangest message of the evening was that hats cannot be worn in school as a sign of respect for this “learning environment” and as well as a sign of respect for those who died in previous wars. As a retired Army officer, I don’t understand this one at all.

Here are some of my concerns:

  1. There are no data that show that homework improves learning and I invite anyone to show me studies that indicate this.
  2. There is a school-wide belief that test performance correlates directly with learning.
  3. There is a belief that learning only takes place in a classroom and is directed by a teacher. All other forms of learning are secondary.
  4. If learning is so important, why is the major effort put into control and assessment?
  5. There was no mention of any of the last decade’s research in brain-based learning, though the unscientific and disproven Bloom’s Taxonomy was mentioned.
  6. There was an unquestioning acceptance of the reliance on a single technology – the textbook – when other technologies are available and cheaper.
  7. There is an unquestioning belief that the existing regional school model, requiring strict control measures due to its size and structure, is the only viable option for education.

As we parents moved from class to class at the sound of the bell, I felt I might salivate on hearing the next one. It’s been a long time since I was in a bell-controlled environment and I found it very uncomfortable. I’ve previously mentioned John Taylor Gatto’s acceptance speech as teacher of the year, and the fact that teachers reinforce indifference to learning through the “lesson of the bells”.


I would like to quote again from Gatto because I am scared most by the subliminal messages that are being driven into our children’s minds on a daily basis:

The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices; only I can determine what you must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions which I enforce. If I’m told that evolution is fact instead of a theory I transmit that as ordered, punishing deviants who resist what I have been to tell them to think.

This power to control what children will think lets me separate successful students from failures very easily. Successful children do the thinking I appoint them with a minimum of resistance and decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide what few we have time for, or it is decided by my faceless employer. The choices are his, why should I argue? Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.

After four years of high school, will our children become intellectually dependent? Should we be scared?

We have just elected a new Provincial government that ran on a 3-E platform (energy, education, economic development). Will any of this change?

15 Responses to “High School Confidential”

  1. Rob Paterson

    Once you “see” it – it all is so contradictory
    But then they cannot – which makes it all so challenging

    Back to Hugh’s cartoon – can’t change this inside. I wonder if there are enough -5-6 families that would be willing to got it anew?

  2. Harold

    Rob; I believe that my concerns are real and founded on solid assumptions. However, it gets complicated by the social structures.

    First, all of our societal support systems are geared toward reinforcing the school as the prime educators. When you leave the school system, you and your child become persona non grata in the eyes of the state.

    Second, many of the students enjoy high school. They have their friends and there are over 50 extra curricular activities available. For them, high school is a great leap forward from the confines of middle school.

    I may be concerned about intellectual dependency but most students are not. So far we’re taking a wait and watch approach.

  3. Bill Kempthorne

    I recently related a similar situation and used the analogy of those little tile games that you slide around to make a picture. First of all – in the words of the great Mr Spock (Nimoy not Benjamin) – it demonstrates evidence of two-dimensional thinking , but that isn’t the big point. The constraints of the system require that one change be offset by another otherwise the teacher’s workload goes up or the cost go up, or it won’t fit into the Sept-June calendar, or something else.

    It is my growing belief that you simply can’t get there from here. The current system can not change in an evolutionary way because it is governed by this equilibrium constraint.

  4. Brent Schlenker

    Harold, I’ve struggled with the same frustrations at my kid’s school. I’m happy to see that others understand the reality of the system and taking a wait and watch approach. BTW – The homework is OUT OF CONTROL. I would love to show the teachers research on homework being useless.

  5. Cameron

    I’ve heard of the research saying homework in useless in grade school, but haven’t at the high school level.

    One of the things that made teaching so stressful for me was wanting to do it right but seeing myself do it wrong and thinking… – if you want to know what a man belives in don’t ask him, watch him. Anybody watching me would know I actally believed in all that crap you are complaining about.

    Good Luck!

  6. Karyn Romeis

    “The focus is to teach to the test”. What? Speechless!

    My sons’ school also forbids the wearing of hats. I always thought that was to prevent them from hiding their faces from CCTV cameras. I’ve never heard any other explanation and, like you, scoff at the notion that in engenders respect for learning.

    On the subject of homework: surprisingly, I actually support the notion. Not necessarily because the kids will learn anything specifically associated with the curriculum of the subject, but because it draws the parents in to what the children are learning at school and develops the home-school partnership.

    Secondly, because the work has to be done outside of school hours, it requires that the child takes ownership of it – organising the time, space and materials required to complete the assignment. This fosters independent working. Of course, when the parent does the work for the child, none of this is achieved and all they learn is how to skive 😉

    What I do take issue with however, is that the British school day is so long (and that too much of it is spent sitting at a desk). From this vantage point, I do worry about adding to that burden with homework.

    I’ve never understood why British children start school so young and, from the off, have school days that are almost as long as an adult’s working day. I am fairly confident that there is no quantifiable benefit. I would rather see them spend more years at home, start at an older age, finish the school day earlier and spend more time doing sport and cultural activities.

  7. Harold

    Thanks for your comments, Karyn. I, too, used to think that homework was a good idea, but in reading the Homework Myth and other criticisms, I realise that there is no evidence to support homework. It does not result in better understanding, it does not reinforce concepts covered in school and it forces families to use their time to do what the state has decreed. I consider homework, for the most part, an invasion of our family time.

    Also, time after school could be used to do community work or volunteering, instead of repetitious homework, for as John Gatto said in a TV interview, “to do your homework is a fake responsibility”.

    Given all that we know about learning today, it’s amazing that our schooling has not really changed for the past 100 years.

  8. Will Richardson

    Just to remind you how good things were in elementary school…last night, my daughter’s 4th grade teacher gave these three rules for success:
    1. Follow the rules.
    2. Do the work.
    3. Do your best.
    Oy. The rules are stupid. The work is stupid. Why should my kid do her best at stupid things?
    Thanks for sharing what I can look forward to ;0)

  9. Kevin Carson


    What you witnessed from the teachers–obviously well-meaning and dedicated people, who nevertheless mindlessly repeated institutional dogma without any evidence of having even suspected it might be just that–is called “learned incapacity.” They were “educated” out of most of their critical thinking skills.


    Homework also crowds out time that could be spent on self-directed learning about stuff the kid is interested in. Paul Goodman observed that one of the lessons inculated in school is that anything you pursue for your own purposes is a “hobby,” i.e., comparatively trivial, while anything assigned by a teacher or a boss is important. The other lesson, as Ivan Illich described it, is that learning is a commodity that can only be dispensed by properly qualified “professionals.”

    Just before school started, I saw a sign at Hastings announcing that they had Watership Down (one of the books on the required summer reading list). I was never given a summer reading list, thank God (back in those days, the publik skools here didn’t yet have the presumption to claim control over 100% of your time), and I first read Watership Down as a young adult. I’m grateful that I wasn’t taught to hate that wonderful book, as I surely would have been had I been commanded to readed it.

  10. Karyn Romeis

    Kevin – I think it is dangerous to presuppose that kids are by definition not interested in learning associated with school and/or adult supervision, but I get your point. I still maintain that a lot of damage could be undone if the school day were made shorter and the starting age older. I object with every fibre of my being to seeing babies in uniform. My kids were still taking an afternoon nap at the age that British children are fastened to a desk! And to what end? Where’s the benefit?

    I agree with the danger as identified by Paul Goodman, but perhaps parents could shoulder more of the responsibility of facilitating the pursuance of hobbies and self directed play/learning? I have noticed a distinct abdication of parental responsibility in the UK that has probably been fostered by what is often called the nanny state.

    I’m totally with you that the current system presumes too much upon a child’s out of school days. My kids have yet to bring home a reading list, though. To be honest, my elder son would probably have read most of what would be on it, and my younger son wouldn’t be remotely interested. He would probably hire the DVDs, and then open a family discussion on where the DVD had deviated from the original text, knowing that he could rely on at least one member of the family having read the book. If the DVD were unavailable, he might get the audio book and listen to it while playing on his PS2. Both my kids are total LoTR fans – one read every word at the age of about 9, the other made it to chapter 2 of The Hobbit before giving up. He came to know the material through the extended DVDs, family debates about whether or not Elijah Wood looked anything like Frodo Baggins (I think not, but am prepared to get over it and enjoy the movie anyway) and pontifications from his brother who can be a Tolkien-bore. Is one’s passion more valid than the other?

    I do wish my younger son loved to read texts – it is a pastime that opens doors to many wonders – but he doesn’t and there it is. He hates the solitariness of reading. We have explored and found alternatives for him to enjoy, but I regard that as a parental responsibility, not a school one.

    Oh, and by the way – I’m a Watership Down fan too. Have you ever read Tailchaser’s Song (Tad Williams)? http://www.amazon.com/Tailchasers-Song-Anniversary-Tad-Williams/dp/customer-reviews/0886773741

  11. dave cormier

    mmm… i agree with you on most counts but find myself flinching at your description of ‘scientific proof’ regarding learning. I wonder if your skepticism applies equally towards the people you do and don’t agree with. Got some more links on ‘scientific research’ for us?

  12. Harold

    Here is a summation of what is wrong with the model of jumping from one unrelated class to the next:

    “Cognitive psychology has shown that the mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric, such as a narrative, mental map, or intuitive theory. Disconnected facts in the mind are like unlinked pages on the Web: They might as well not exist. Science has to be taught in a way that knowledge is organized, one hopes permanently, in the minds of students.”



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