10 Things We Do In Schools That We Tend Not To Do In The “Real World”

Driving past schools recently I have noticed a lot of signs encouraging parents to register their 3 and 4 year olds for school this coming fall. One of the signs included “For kids born in 2015”. It reminded me of one of the many things we do when educating students that we would never do to adults. Over my 20 years of teaching, I have wondered why is it that our school day is filled with many traditions and practices that I feel do not have students, teachers and often parents best interests in mind. Yet we have been doing them for so long, I think most of us never stop to question them.

So, here are my top 10 Things We Do In Schools That We Tend Not To Do In The “Real World”.

10. Grouping children by the year they were born.

Why do we have to do that? We would never do that in the workplace. No boss would come into the office and start organizing people’s desks or departments by the year the employees were born. When was the last time you spent the entire day with people the exact same age as you? We don’t even organize people by the year they graduated from school. In the workplace people have different levels of education and experience and sometimes those factors are taken into account when assigning jobs, but overall there are not fixed groupings based on age. In schools, we insist on grouping kids by age yet their learning abilities and needs are just as diverse as people in the workplace. What if we grouped children by their abilities, needs and learning styles? And what if, as those things changed, they could be moved to different “departments” to match their talents, skills and needs? Which leads me to my next item...

10 Things We Do In Schools That We Tend Not To Do

9. Sticking it out until June.

In the workplace if an employee is not performing well in their job, Human Resources or a boss, would likely step in and brainstorm ways to improve the situation. Perhaps this employee would work better in a different department, perhaps this person would do better working in a group rather than on his own, perhaps this job does not allow the employee to use her gifts and talents. Once the problem is identified, changes are made or a plan is put in place to begin a change that most often does not have to wait until the end of a fiscal year or “June”. These changes in the workplace do not only benefit the employee, but the colleagues who are directly impacted by the struggling employee. But if a student is struggling in a classroom, perhaps academically, socially or with a painful student-teacher relationship, the child is forced to “stick it out until the end of the year”. When classes are finalized by the end of September, it appears, that is it! Someone carve the class lists in stone because there is no way a child could emotionally and psychologically handle being moved to a different class part way through the year (especially when the options are limited based on what year he was born!) Really? I find children much more adaptable than adults. I think it is the adults in the equation who struggle far more with making a much needed change. I am sure we can all agree that workplaces where “rules” are guidelines, not excuses for inflexibility, are much happier and more productive places to work.

10 Things We Do In Schools That We Tend Not To Do

8. Teachers grouped by what we teach.

Just as we group children by dates, some school boards group teachers in order to learn and grow professionally by the age of students they teach. Teachers who teach a certain age group, ie. primary grades, grades 1-3, are expected to work together to discover ways to improve how they teach certain subjects which is almost always math or language. But what if a teacher does not teach these subjects, like a french or music teacher? Or what about teachers who teach multiple grades? Where do they belong? Often very little professional learning is available to them due to the subject based content of the support offered. What if the classroom teachers teaching math or language would rather pursue another topic like improving communication skills, teaching social skills or mental health strategies in the class? Addressing teacher’s needs is crucial in creating an optimal learning environment for students. Limiting professional development to teaching a subject to the age of the students they teach is not optimizing professional growth.

7. Public performance charts.  

Now this one may be used in the occasional workplace but I would not recommend it. There is a common belief in our schools that making children’s accomplishments public, will not only make the children feel good about their task completed, but it will motivate other students to do their best to “get their name on the chart”. For example a Zipper Club chart lets everyone know who can and can’t zip up their own coat. Teachers may have proof that it encourages the slower ones to work harder to zip up their own coats, but at what cost? Is public humiliation the best way to make us work harder, especially when the skill being “encouraged” is developmental, a skill we don’t all attain at the same age no matter how hard we try? Can you imagine a boss putting up a chart in the lunchroom on who has attained the ability to do a one handed whistle, who can sit in the lotus position or who can do the splits? Some of us may feel like we would never get on the chart. Does that mean the ones who did are better? Ok so maybe those skills are not required to make the workplace run more smoothly so let’s find another example. What if the boss posted a list of people who have arrived to work on time for more than 10 consecutive days, now how would employees respond to that? Over the short term, the boss may find almost everyone arrives on time, but over the long term, it may not only cause resentment in employees but may also create tension among colleagues. Perhaps collective problem solving would be a far more respectful, and over the long run, effective strategy.

6. Work that must be done at home (which the student can not do independently).

Many parents still believe homework is good for kids. However making kids do work they cannot do on their own that requires a family member to help them can add a lot of additional stress in the home. This could be seen as a great opportunity for some child-parent time, but unfortunately, as a mom and teacher I have found this is often not the case. I wonder what it would be like, if on a regular basis, your boss sent you home with additional work to do that you could not do on your own. Work that you needed to ask your spouse or call a friend to help you figure out. What if it was considered a consequence for not figuring it out during your work day, because besides, it is expected you know how to do this since you were born in 19**? All your other colleagues who were born that year have to know how to do it too. So stop complaining and just get it done. Would this be an effective way to help you perform better at work?

10 Things We Do In Schools That We Tend Not To Do

5. Redundant work to do at home - just because.

Sometimes homework is given out by some teachers as busy work. Almost all students in the class get the same homework and are expected to finish it regardless if it is just more of what they did in school and are fully capable or not. Just do more of it. It doesn’t count, it’s just good practice. How many people come home from work to do work that doesn’t count? How many would love the opportunity to do more of what they already know how to do at work? All for nothing. Does this build stamina and better work ethic for adults?

4. Uncompleted work means you don’t get your break.

Now, this one could very well happen in some workplaces, especially when people are paid by a salary and not an hourly rate. So yes, when deadlines are approaching some people do work through their breaks. When this is done in a non-punitive, teamwork approach, for the most part, it likely works and there is little anger around it. If however, it were to happen frequently and employees simply not being allowed to have their break as a punishment to individuals not getting their work done, this would seem very odd. What would be far more effective is if the manager or boss sought to find out why this individual was not getting their work done and then worked with the employee to either find the support she needs or move her into a role that suits her level of understanding and skill. Not getting her breaks is not likely going to improve her performance or desire to do so.

3. Report cards.

The one job that almost all teachers I know dislike is writing report cards. It is not just because they are extremely time consuming, but because it requires we decide what grade to give students on their performance. Some subjects are easier than others and many charts, meetings and discussions are conducted every year in order to make the job of evaluation more objective and consistent among teachers. Then comes the struggle of grading the Arts. How do you decide whose painting gets an A and whose gets a C? Whose performance is a B and whose singing voice is an A? Endless discussions have occurred over this painful topic. However, no matter what the subject, can we imagine most employees coming home 3 times a year with some graded report on their performance at work? Not only their grades but also the average of the grades their colleagues received? Now you can compare your A to everyone else. If a lot of other people got an A then now your A is not as prized compared to the person who gets an A when almost no one else did. Yes, many workplaces have some sort of performance review which is intended to give the worker feedback on how she is doing and how she can improve. During the review, other things may be discovered like a need to change roles or how to use his talents in a more effective way for the benefit of both the worker and the place of business. How would coming home with a graded report card affect your self image, self esteem and your relationship with your work colleagues? In addition, graded report cards are simply not required or used in the work place to know how someone is performing so why are they required in schools?

A principal recently said to me, “Teachers need to be coaches, not judges”. (The same principal led a study group on the book Hacking Assessment, 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grade School by Starr Sackstein, which I highly recommend).


10 Things We Do In Schools That We Tend Not To Do

I would say the same is true for an effective boss or business owner.  Most of us would enjoy our work and do much better with a coach, than numerous judges who, as hard as they try, can never be truly objective. Many school boards have attempted the “Boss as a Judge” approach when implementing Teacher Performance Reviews. Even though there are no grades assigned, even the simple Pass or Needs Support options for teachers, I rarely hear positive things come out of this initiative. Teachers often find these reviews, which are conducted once every 5 years in Ontario, stressful yet we inflict this same stress on kids almost daily. I am sure it would be far more effective if the Teacher Performance Reviews were done from a “Boss as a Coach” approach. In other words, rather than the teacher being evaluated, the teacher is coached on an area of need.

2. Everyone must be treated the same, it’s only fair!

Every time I hear this old paradigm I cringe. How can we possibly treat everyone the same way when we are not all the same, and when we do not have the same abilities, desires and needs? Yet there are endless “no tolerance” rules, I will call them. Rules that administrators and staff will use and report they must implement because “these are the rules that must apply to everyone”. It can appear like the rules are more important than the child or people impacted by the rules. You must suffer because other people suffered in this same situation and that would not be fair even though your reason for “breaking the rule” or the factors behind the incident were much different than someone else’s, you still must deal with the same consequence. Looking at each situation individually is time consuming and very subjective for people making the decisions so it is much easier to fall back on a “rule” than to seek out what was going on within a child that created that behaviour. Given the endless demands on teachers and administrators, in our defence, there is often not the luxury of time to deal with children in the ways that would be best for the child. When we decide to educate children in large groups with only one adult in the room (most of the time), many incidents are not only created from this structure but often those incidents cannot be addressed and handled effectively in a case by case scenario, so rules keep it “fair” for everyone.

1. Children are in a separate social group.

We often treat children like “children”. So what is wrong with that? As a teacher I have heard myself fall into the sing song condescending voice that many adults used with me when I was a child. Something that sounds like “Well now that is what you get for….I am sorry you chose to behave that way… What were you thinking???” I cringe every time I catch myself going into this autopilot mode. Sometimes I need to stop and take a deep breath so I don’t say one more annoying, patronizing thing that I hated teachers saying to me, or anyone else for that matter, when I was a kid. Why do we do that? Why do we speak to kids in a way that would NEVER be an acceptable way to speak to another adult, particularly at the workplace? Perhaps it is time we stopped seeing children like a substandard group of human beings or a lower class of humans that we are allowed to speak to in dehumanizing ways because we are the adults. What if we decided that if we would not speak that way or use that tone with another adult, then we will no longer speak that way to a child? What would school be like then? What would our students be like then? How would that affect how students, in turn, speak to adults? I am going to speculate that we would hear far fewer adults complaining about children speaking disrespectfully.

Many of the the practices of school do happen to some degree in the workplace. The “factory model” workplaces likely have many similarities since the purpose of our first schools were to create factory workers. The foundation of our education system is based on a factory model in order to train children to grow up and do repetitive, mundane work without questioning authority. For example, minimal room for creative thinking, everyone doing the same thing at the same time and the entire day scheduled out to the minute where “employees” clock in and out. So we do see some of the above practises spill over into various workplaces. But are they the practises that are effective at creating an independent, creative and problem solving workforce?

An image from a talk by Sir Ken Robinson on breaking down old paradigms around education.

An image from a talk by Sir Ken Robinson on breaking down old paradigms around education.

Many great changes have been made over the years in education, yet many changes still need to be made. I love seeking better ways to educate our children. I once shared my passion with a principal who said to me “Jill, the education wheel is a very big and slow wheel to turn”. He may be right but I am not going to allow that to stop me from asking questions like “Why do we do this?”  Asking questions helps us wake up to letting go of outdated ways and it helps us find ways to better meet the needs of students and teachers which overall, will make our education system better.

Who is ready to question the relevance and effectiveness to many of our practices in school and help our kids be more prepared for the “real world”?

Jill McPhersonComment