I’ve taught high school English since the year 2000. During that time, we’ve seen the advent of smartphones, automated cars, even artificially intelligent grocery stores. Our technology has grown exponentially in just eighteen years, and I don’t see that trend slowing down.
Consider the following advancements that happened within the last 100 years: the Internet, space travel, computers, video game consoles, compact discs, printers, cassette tapes, television, microwave ovens, bagless vacuum cleaners, and even sliced bread.
Yes, sliced bread did not exist in an automated, widespread manner until 1928.
Now I’d like to share with you the year most agree our modern system of schooling arrived: 1837. There are those who will argue against that particular year, but most will agree children have been sitting in desks for regimented amounts of time listening to teachers for well over one hundred years — the way we still do it to this very day.
Please allow me to point out that I am in no way, shape, or form trying to destroy our school system. I enjoy my profession and it’s provided a wonderful life for my family and me. I played school well as a student, and I continue to do so as a teacher. Obviously, I like school.
However, when I look at the world around me, and then when I look at the way our modern school system functions … the two don’t match up very well with one another. That’s just my observation.
I don’t need to remind you how school works because it’s pretty much the same as when you were a kid.
And it’s pretty much the same as when your parents were kids.
And it’s pretty much the same as when their parents were kids.
Obviously, schools are not keeping up with the times.
But here’s the thing: I don’t have the answer. I barely have any suggestions. I have no idea how we would even go about changing our school system. It’s so ingrained in our society that I think it’s hard for us to consider an alternate method.
I realize a popular argument against what I’m saying is that students need to learn how to sit and listen. They need to get used to people telling them what to do. They need to know how to follow instructions. Well, yes, okay, those are skills we all need to have at our disposal, but do they really need thirteen years of it, day after day, week after week, year after year? Let me tell you, they have it mastered by sixth grade, and then they start to realize they’ve got six more years of the same, and most of them decide they’re in store for a miserable existence until graduation. Some react to this realization by acting out, checking out, faking us out, or just plain getting out.
Let me tell you, we have GREAT teachers. I guarantee you we are trying our hardest to create engaging lessons. The truth is, though, that I’m not sure we’re all wired to sit and do one thing for fifty straight minutes any more.
And before you say it, let me stop you. When I say “do one thing,” I mean that from a student’s perspective. I try to vary the activities as much as I can within fifty minutes, but to the student, an English class is an English class no matter what the various activities are within that block of time.
I’m told that people who work in business are often allowed to get up when they want, use the bathroom when they want, chat with coworkers when they want, and chip away at the project of the moment little by little as they see fit as long as they meet their deadline. This is a generalization, of course, but from my conversations, it seems to be the gist of how things go.
Why shouldn’t our schools reflect this same environment?
Ah, again, I can guess the counterargument. High school students can’t be allowed to wander around! They can’t be trusted to independently do their work! They can’t be allowed to just talk whenever they feel like it!
Under our current system, that’s true. In the modern era, just like the last one hundred years, the teacher is the authoritative figure, the taskmaster, the issuer of grades, and the the ultimate assessor. As a result, many students must enter a subservient relationship with the teacher. Some teachers inflate this relationship more than others, but it’s there nonetheless by merit of the system.
I’m not sure our model is the best way to engage high school students in this day and age. During the last several years, my students seem to thrive when they are allowed a lot of freedom, the chance to choose certain aspects of a lesson, and the opportunity to actually do something. Trust me, kids still like to work with their hands, they enjoy making things, and they find happiness in creating a product.
Don’t we all?
Keep in mind, I’m in no way suggesting that we do away with school. I don’t want a future where students all sit at home on a screen learning through modules or virtual reality. There are many benefits to school beyond academic achievement. The skills they learn through social interaction are vital to their success as an adult. Kids need to be around other kids.
Again, I don’t have the answer to this issue. It would take an absolute restructuring of our model at every level. But I’m invested in trying. I want to create a system more suited to our modern society.
I know we can be better than sliced bread.
(Did you enjoy this article? Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)