Useless industrial artifacts

I came across two articles about public education yesterday, one is four years old, the other quite recent.

Here’s a snippet from a long article Why Nerds are Unpopular (2003):

Public school teachers are in much the same position as prison wardens. Wardens’ main concern is to keep the prisoners on the premises. They also need to keep them fed, and as far as possible prevent them from killing one another. Beyond that, they want to have as little to do with the prisoners as possible, so they leave them to create whatever social organization they want. From what I’ve read, the society that the prisoners create is warped, savage, and pervasive, and it is no fun to be at the bottom of it.

The main problem is the system, which creates prison-like conditions, and in the case of this article shows why “nerds” may be so successful in life but are unsuccessful at the school game, and this is what happens:

In almost any group of people you’ll find hierarchy. When groups of adults form in the real world, it’s generally for some common purpose, and the leaders end up being those who are best at it. The problem with most schools is, they have no purpose. But hierarchy there must be. And so the kids make one out of nothing.

We have a phrase to describe what happens when rankings have to be created without any meaningful criteria. We say that the situation degenerates into a popularity contest. And that’s exactly what happens in most American schools. Instead of depending on some real test, one’s rank depends mostly on one’s ability to increase one’s rank. It’s like the court of Louis XIV. There is no external opponent, so the kids become one another’s opponents.

From Mark Federman is this 2007 case of a high-performing student caught in the feudal power of the classroom:

To me, this is another sad case of a burnt-out, small-minded teacher conveying the well-rehearsed lesson that school is the place in which a love of learning and the value of curiosity, discovery and insightful, abstract thought are to be trampled beyond recognition. These are substituted instead by a discipline that enforces compliance, conformity, and intellectual docility, rewarding the mediocre to create a compliant, easily distracted citizenry for the benefit of the elites.

So why is a workplace performance specialist so interested in public school? One reason, of course, is that I have two children in the system, for now. The more important reason is that almost all workers have come through the public school system. If graduates, especially the high performing ones, are already bitter and jaded, how do you think they’ll react to a training program that mirrors what they had in school?

Courses not related to something that they will need to use tomorrow morning on the job show that management has no real interest in employee performance. They’re just going through the motions.

Performance evaluations not based on observable and measurable criteria will be viewed the same way as school report cards; a popularity or a compliance contest.

Perhaps the best way to change the school system is to set the example by divesting our workplaces of all of the useless artifacts of the industrial age. For instance, how would a Results-Oriented Work Environment (ROWE) translate into our education system?

4 thoughts on “Useless industrial artifacts”

  1. I found the piece on ROWE very interesting, in fact I think that it would work well in our school systems if we allowed the students more freedom to choose and demonstrate understanding. Maybe we need to see that both work and educational environments need to move and adapt, getting away from the industrial production line mentality that has shaped our society for so many years. This type of thinking must scare the hell out of many of the traditional company CEOs!

  2. You know, I was never a nerd at school. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that I was a member of the in-crowd. I was good at sport, played lead roles in all the major productions, the whole ball of wax. As far as my friends were concerned, I had “the school game” sussed.

    Nevertheless, as far as the teachers were concerned, I wasn’t very good at “the school game”. Why? Because I insisted on participating in every extra-mural activity going and not focusing on my school work to the exclusion of all else.

    It seems to me that there are actually two school games – there is the game the kids see, and the game the teachers see.

    I remember yet another visit to the head’s office to account for poor results on a history exam and being asked why I was doing so poorly when my best mate had done so well “and she doesn’t have half your potential!” My best mate (bless her heart) was a proper nerd, who spent her life studying and doing blow-all else. I earned myself a long stint in detention by replying that “She will leave school with nothing but book learning. That’s not an education. I will be the one who leaves school with a rounded education, because I will bleed this stingy system dry of everything it can give me.”

    Good grief – I was a learning mutineer even at 15!

  3. Harold,
    This made me think about measuring students satisfaction with their schooling, whether they feel the student culture is supportive of academic achievement or an obstacle to it, whether they feel safe or bullied, do they feel like they are viewed as individuals by teachers or as one of a hundred students tramping in to a class, do they feel valued and empowered or not…

    Developing a healthy student culture may be a key to transforming our schools. It may be more important than any curriculum or pedagogy changes we can make.

    It would be best to combine all three.



Leave a comment


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.