How The School System Has Killed Your Ability To Think

“I believe that school makes complete fools of our young men, because they see and hear nothing of ordinary life there.” – Petronius

At the Clinton Global Initiative University I attended this weekend, Roger Schank opened his speech by bellowing, “There are only two things wrong with the education system: What we teach and How we teach it.” He is a former professor at Yale, Stanford, and Northwestern, who has spent considerable time studying artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology. His basic message: The education system is broken and needs to be rethought from scratch.

The current education system was designed in 1892 by Charles Eliot, President of Harvard. He advocated uniformity and standardized testing for admission to college. During his time in the Committee of Ten, Charles pushed for one curriculum that would be taught at high schools nationwide.

The effect of this standardization: An army of students that lacked the capacity to think. The industrial revolution thirsted for mindless workers and schools were happy to supply them. Students would all know the same information and this would allow them to be easily replaceable.

This trend that started in the late 19th century has sucked the excitement for learning out of most students. At first, most six year olds can’t wait to go to school on that first day in August. This enthusiasm wears off as the reality of sitting in a desk for up to six hours a day quickly takes over. Students were not meant to be taught in this manner and scientists have long known that children learn best through experimentation and reflection. As an example to illustrate this concept, think about learning your first language. Did your parents sit you down and lecture to you? No! You were probably speaking before you ever set foot into a classroom.

So why do we do it this way? The lecture system offers the cheapest and most efficient way to teach students. It allows most teachers to focus on their research and conduct their class with minimal effort. It has unfortunately led to a curriculum that has little practical use and teachers that fail to connect with students.

At one point Roger called out to the crowd, “How many of you know the quadratic formula?” Then he asked, “Now how many of you have ever used it?”

We looked back at him sheepishly, having realized that we had spent our time memorizing a formula we would never use.

I encourage you to read more on his thoughts for revolutionizing the school system. In the coming weeks, I will be posting some of his proposed solutions.

What do you think is wrong with the education system today? When was the last time you thought in class?

Nikolai De Leo is a Transaction Advisory Services Professional living in Miami, FL. When not working, he enjoys reading (his three favorite books are As a Man Thinketh, Atlas Shrugged, and the Picture of Dorian Grey), running (he has completed two half marathons and a triathlon in his favorite Vibram five fingers), and watching college football (he attended the University of Florida for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees).
  1. Darshan Reply

    I actually was just having this conversation with my roommate, and am glad you guys brought it up. We came up with a couple of conclusions. Firstly we both agreed that the school system does suck the fun out of learning. This has long been known and isn't a groundbreaking revelation. The other conclusion we made is that the goal of high school and to a small extent the first couple years of undergrad isn't necessarily to teach you anything, but rather to teach you how to learn. If you think about it, when you are negotiating a deal, performing a surgery, or putting together a legal case, you will probably reflect on work/intern experience more than on what you learned in the actual classroom(at least what you learned prior to taking classes in your specific field). For this reason, I think that education should be more focused on getting students to develop skills based on outside the classroom experiences rather than simply memorizing facts from a book or lecture.

    • Nicole Azzi Reply

      I completely agree that the education system should help students develop practical life skills, but I would venture to say there is an even greater problem that needs to be addressed: Allowing students to discover their passion. Even if we did teach students some life skills like how to negotiate, a majority of them would still graduate high school and college not knowing where they want to apply that skill.

      To me it's one of the saddest things to see so many people leaving the education system without a clear direction or a specific purpose. (I might add that I was one of these people who hated the dreaded question "What do you want to do after graduation?") I'm not saying that everyone needs to have their whole life mapped out, but many cannot even verbalize their interests. They take a job that they only GUESS they MIGHT like.

      Instead, imagine an education system where we allow middle and high school students to explore their interests. Discovering what you are passionate about at such an early age will give you a huge advantage. You would be able to take the life-skills that you are learning in the classroom, reflect on how to connect them to your passion, and then adapt and apply them to that field. By the time you are in college you can spend time refining these skills and reaching out to people who share your interests rather than strategizing ways to "buy time" or extend schooling so that you can figure out what you want to do on your first job.

      Basically, I agree that we need to ask the question "what kinds of life skills should students learn?" but before that, we need to ask the more basic question "How can we help students discover and develop their passions from the very beginning?"

      • Nikolai De Leo Reply

        I think this strikes the nail on the head. Ask a person on the street what his interests are and chances are he cannot answer you. Most people tend to think of their interests as "subjects" or "majors". This is complete nonsense and has little practical use.

        Action is the only measure of intelligence. Students need to take on more projects within their community and focus less on memorizing words out of books.

  2. Joey Insua Reply

    To start off I'm not quite sure we'll ever know what the "right" kind of education is. To build upon Darshan's argument, I completely agree that the first few years of college, and to an extent all of your undergraduate studies focus primarily and developing your skill to "learn." I have spoken to several human resource associates in different areas of business and they seem to agree on the notion that most of what your career entails is learned on the job, and that your G.P.A. is more of a measure of not only your ability, but willingness to learn as well. I think that it's needless to say that at Third Minds one of our greatest goals is to bridge the gap between education and the professional world. I have a deep faith in the belief that developing soft skills (like negotiating, interpersonal communication, etc.) is just as if not more important than the actual course material learned in college (though critical thinking is VERY IMPORTANT). I do believe that education needs to be catered more towards preparing students to succeed in their field of choice through experience both inside and outside the classroom.

    That leads to my second thought. Nicole makes an excellent point by stating that so many students have no idea what it is they want to accomplish after college. I think it boils down to the fact that the college curriculum is too rigid. For example, as an accounting student at my college (which is an amazing program), I'm not allowed to seek a double major, or any minors within the College of Business. This greatly limits my yearning for creativity and exploration. Luckily, I took the initiative of searching for those things outside of the classroom, but it would have been so much easier if I had been able to explore my first two years in college. I think that a Liberal Arts education modeled after Brown University is a great example of progress. Brown truly offers its students a liberal education, allowing them to take courses in all areas of study no matter the concentration (with some limitations of course). I believe that if colleges allowed their students more flexibility in choosing courses, it would breed a happier, more productive, and better prepared graduate.

    I guess that we can only hope that the education system gets reformed. Until then, as the great Mark Twain put it, "Don't let school get in the way of your education."

  3. Matthew Groff Reply

    * To be a teacher does not mean simply to affirm that such a thing is so, or to deliver a lecture, etc. No, to be a teacher in the right sense is to be a learner. Instruction begins when you, the teacher, learn from the learner, put yourself in his place so that you may understand what he understands and the way he understands it.
    o The Point of View for My Work as an Author (1848)- Soren Kierkegaard

    • Nikolai De Leo Reply

      Great quote. The sad thing is that most teachers are scared to be corrected. To foster an environment such as this would require extensive preparation and would probably take up more time than they would like to use on teaching.

  4. Nikolai De Leo Reply

    Joey – I think you're starting to hit on some good points with the rigid education system. As I will outline in my next post, Roger goes beyond even what you are recommending. Brown may have more freedom in courses but what if the courses are the problem? The lecture format is an outdated and ineffective format. You can offer a lot of different courses but what value do they really provide if you learn very little from them?

  5. Brittney Davidson Reply

    Recently, in Palm Beach County, the school superintendent hired an administrator to create a plan to further standardize K-12 education. Teachers were ordered to teach the same exact page of the same exact workbook during the same exact time period of the day, every day (I'm not even kidding). The plan allowed for no deviation, no extraneous activities, and most importantly, no room for creativity.

    It's actually interesting how standardization has been the "answer" to education for so long, that so many politicians, educators, and administrators have come to regard it as THE primary solution. After WWII, James Bryant Conant was the president of Harvard. At the time, Ivy League schools accepted students almost exclusively based on hereditary American aristocracy. Conant turned to Henry Chauncey- who was actually the one responsible for the creation of the SAT- to use standardization, notably testing, as a method to grant opportunity based on aptitude instead of family heritage, an innovative idea at the time.

    Was it the best solution? Probably not. Like any plan, this one should have evolved, innovated, and become better over time. Instead, it seems like the education system latched onto it and took it far beyond its initial purpose, sacrificing a lot in the process.

    Teachers spoke out about the curriculum plan and were, for the most part, ignored…until parents took note. The Palm Beach County curriculum plan was eventually abandoned–not due to some realization by upper administration that it was ludicrous, but rather, because students and parents protested against it.

    Change only seems to happen when people get upset enough to make it happen. As a lot more attention has been given to education recently, it will be interesting to see what changes are made, and if they will truly move us in the right direction. Anyway, fascinating topic…I'm glad you posted on it.

    • Nikolai De Leo Reply

      Thanks for this great note! I had no idea that standardization was taking place to that extent so close to home. I do agree with you that we need to see our school system evolve to include better metrics for evaluating teachers. It cannot be as simple as just a multiple choice test.

      Roger was also happy the recent Florida Education bill was vetoed (although he was pretty sure it was for political reasons). What are your thoughts on that?

  6. Fernando Moreno Reply

    Hey Nikolai. I found this video which discusses the same topic on how the education system has hindered our ability to think and be creative.

    It's from TED, check it out:

    • Nikolai De Leo Reply

      This video is awesome! It's definitely one of my favorites. Do you watch a lot of TED talks?

  7. Fernando Moreno Reply

    My friend just told me about this site. But they got alot interesting videos on there. Watch Steve Jobs graduation ceremony speech, its awesome!

Leave a Reply


captcha *