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School is so boring

I'm not completely down on school, but let's face it, it's not the most fun place to be. When school finishes you can usually see hordes of relieved students flooding out of the school gates to go home, when a theme park is closing the security guards are having to round everyone up to get them out! I'm going to highlight why I think this is, and point out the reasons I think contribute to what can be a pretty uninspiring experience for the majority of students. Now, to be fair, I can only comment on my experiences of what I went through, what I've read in newspapers, and what I've spoken to my students about. All of these things happened in the south east of England (where I live) in state schools, so what I write here may not be true for other areas of the country or private schools. I'd appreciate any comments on this post.

The Staff

I think you get a whole mix of different types of teachers, and they are all there for their own reasons and have their own goals and attitudes. I think though they can be broadly split into two categories, basically those that are very passionate about teaching and are doing it because that's what they love to do, and those that are simply doing it because they need a job and teaching happened to be a good solution to their current circumstances. I actually have a lot of respect for teachers because they are in there trying to get the job done, with limited resources and sometimes difficult students and situations. They are doing a very important job, they are educating the next generation and the future of our society depends in a large way on how good a job they do of it. Nevertheless, in my experience some teachers were just better than others, they made the subject more interesting, they had better control of the classroom, and they were generally more engaging. For whatever reason, whether due to personality, personal circumstances, past experiences, motivations (or lack of), poor training, or any other things which I can only guess at, it was still the case that some teachers were just not very good. And I for the most part (being a bit of a nerd), enjoyed school and wanted to learn and there were still teachers that I just did not like and did not look forward to their classes. All of those teachers were in the same system, in the same school, sometimes teaching the same subject, and yet there were clear differences. Whatever way you look at it, to some degree, there are teachers that are making the school experience boring for the students.

The Pay

This brings me to my next point, and it's quite a simple one. As a Maths graduate, I found many options open to me when I graduated. A PhD, teaching, banking, insurance, finance, accounting, business analyst roles, and possibly a whole other range of things I didn't even consider at the time. Each of them were similarly challenging and engaging, yet the one thing that was clear about teaching to me was that the pay was worse and there were less career opportunities. You can imagine working at a bank and within five years you've moved up the career ladder, possibly to a different city or country, or at least to a different department or team, perhaps doing a different type of work. In the corporate world there are a whole range of different jobs and roles and it's a constantly evolving scene with lots going on and a lot more money sloshing around. As a teacher, I could only imagine myself doing the same thing for the next 40 years, and in all honestly not being rewarded for that nearly as much as I would be elsewhere. I think if you really know that you want to be a teacher, and you know it's your purpose and your calling in life, then the pay doesn't matter. But for the many otherwise talented and able individuals, who have a lot to offer schools and their students, teaching just doesn't pay well enough to make it a worthwhile career opportunity. So while the best and brightest get hoovered up into the corporate machine, you're not surprisingly left with lower calibre teachers to fill in the gaps in between the truly passionate teachers, who are not as motivated and are possibly having more difficulty managing their finances. I think one of the reasons brain surgeons and pilots are paid so well is, well you don't want your brain surgeon worrying about his next mortgage payment when he's about to slice into your brain! Do we want the people raising our next generation to be distracted by their personal finances while they teach? I actually sort of stumbled across tutoring, not really planned for, and found I loved it. One to one though is very different to teaching a class and from what I see of the school system you'll see why I will not become a teacher anytime soon:

The System

One interesting comment I read was that the education minister position in the government cabinet is often used a stepping stone to the more senior positions. Like a prime minister will trial out an up and coming minister in the education role, see how he does, and then move him up to home secretary or some higher position. This approach has three major drawbacks:

  1. The main problem is you get non-experts (i.e. people with no educational experience) running the school system
  2. As a second issue, you get no continuity because the education minister does not serve for any great length of time
  3. And thirdly, since the education minister is trying to impress and make an impact, they'll come in and make a huge range of sweeping changes, that two or three years later all get reversed and changed around by the next person coming in
The end result is a lack of stability from the top, and constantly moving goal posts set by people that basically have no experience with education and don't know what the hell they're talking about. Another key point is that in my experience the education system has now been set up as a corporate worker training ground. Kids are trained to sit in offices, work with paper, and be told what to think. The whole school experience is an endless supply of "knowledge" being forced upon the students, with rewards being dished out for those that unquestioningly accept it and can spit it back out again with accuracy, and the label of "stupid" being reserved for those that won't, don't or can't play the game. The first question I usually ask a student who's having difficulty with maths is a very simple one. "What is maths?" 90% of them can't even answer it, and the rest usually sit and think for a minute and make a reasonable guess at it. Now how can it be that students have been "learning" maths for over a decade, AND CAN'T EVEN TELL ME WHAT IT IS THEY ARE STUDYING? Another question I sometimes ask is, "what's the best way to study?" The response is not much different. So we have a "school" system, that churns out students which do not actually know how to study, don't know what they are studying, and don't really understand what they are "studying". Is it any wonder they are not enjoying it? How would you like to be forced onto a game show every week, where you are not told the rules, not told how to play, and then ridiculed every time you failed to score enough points? Those who are naturally gifted muddle through but the rest I think don't have a wonderful time of it.

The Subjects

There is a problem with the way the subjects are taught, and I think maths is a good way to illustrate it. Let's take for example Pythagoras theorem. It's quite a famous one. Most of my students don't know who Pythagoras is. Most don't understand the significance of his work, or why his theorem is of such monumental importance in the field of maths that it has been taught in schools everywhere for THE LAST 2000+ YEARS! They are not given the background to the problem, the reasons why it was important, who solved it and how, or why, or basically anything that would be of interest or bring any sort of understanding as to why this thing was worth taking a look at. Let's imagine that I stormed into your living room right now (or wherever you are reading this) and forced you to listen to a 30 minute explanation of the air ventilation system of the 3rd floor of a building in Ottawa, Canada. Your first question would be probably, why are you telling me this? Who cares? What difference does it make? All the sort of usual objections I get to maths and algebra and those sorts of things. So if we're going to teach students something, we had better first explain to them WHY they are learning it, WHAT difference it makes, WHY it is important. Some of the background to it that makes it clear what the point of it is.

The Parents

The majority of parents I come across are well-meaning and good natured people. I know being a parent is a tough job, and without any training people just do the best that they can and hope it all turns out all right! The best thing you can do as a parent, I think, is to provide a stable and emotionally supportive environment for your children, give them the best opportunities you can afford, and to teach them to have a positive attitude towards life and to be self-reliant and moral. That's easier said than done, a lot easier said than done! But I have definitely observed students who I doubt had anything even close to that. If a parent doesn't have their own life in order it will affect their children, and a child who is distracted by problems at home is probably not enjoying school, or much else for that matter. You then find they can get into drugs or alcohol and things like that and you've got a whole other set of problems on your hands over and above their education!

Society

We've got other forces working on our children that are outside the education system. Increased TV and internet usage, increase use of psychiatric medication on children under 16 years of age, pornography, advertising, role models in the media. Lots of different factors and things going on in society that negatively impact children. Young girls being bombarded with photo-shopped super models I think can lead to insecurity or excessive attention on their appearance. Looking at things like anorexia show that these messages do have a damaging effect on the younger generation. It's a time when they should be growing and developing, not worrying about lipo-suction and botox. As a business strategy it is very smart to get into the younger generation as they are impressionable and you can make them loyal customers for life relatively easily. I think it's wrong though to prey on children just to make a good buck, let them be kids - there's plenty of time for the rest of it when they grow up. I think it's hard for children to focus at school when they are worried about how they look, if they are "cool" or not, their social standing, if they have a girlfriend or boyfriend, bullies and all that sort of thing. If their role models in the media are all footballers or jumping from burning buildings in motorcycles, they might start to question the value of what they are doing in science class.

The Students

Maybe you weren't expecting this one, but in all honestly I think this is a very important factor. I hear students all the time complaining about this and that, things they find boring, or stuff which is "too hard". When I was at school I had some people jealous of my abilities or the results I got in my exams. Interesting though that they were not at the library with me at lunchtime studying when I was, or doing extra reading when they got home just because they were interested in the subject. I'm not saying I was a total recluse, but I did studying I didn't have to do because I wanted to, and I mostly did all the homework I was set, paid attention in class, and took an interest in my education. Is it any surprise that I did better than people who did not do that? It's a bit like being jealous that they guy who goes to the gym and works out has ripped muscles. Now let's take a step back for a moment and take a look at what's really going on here with the state schools: The government have decided that it's sufficiently important to spend literally billions of pounds every year for the past probably 100 years or so to provide FREE education to any child in this country. When you get to the adult world you find out that NOTHING is for free anymore. If you want some help with something, you PAY for it! There are also tens of thousands of teachers who have made it their life's work to provide an environment to help students absorb as much knowledge as they can. The knowledge available to study, is the end result of some 3000 years of human research and study, of the natural world, of history and other people. It's all been lovingly compiled into a syllabus with the aim of making it as easy as possibly for students to understand. This is all funded by adults who pay taxes from their hard-earned wages to keep it all going. And usually when I tell adults I teach maths I get the same reaction:

  1. I was never any good at maths when I was at school!
  2. Looking back, I wish I'd tried harder when I was at school
They nearly always say that, and there's a good reason they do. You see school is a marvelous opportunity for self-development, a chance to work and study and learn about the world, to enrich knowledge and broaden horizons. To develop skills that will become useful in later life. To build a network of contacts you can rely on for years to come. So for student to trudge there every day, and whine about it because basically they are not putting enough effort in, really they do not understand what they are missing. I'm not saying school is perfect (I think I've made that quite clear), and I'm not saying that all students are lazy, but if you can't find something of interest in a subject then I think you've got some kind of mental problem because there's always something to be interested in. And if you HAVE to be there, why not at least try? FIND a way to make it interesting, make it interesting yourself. If you're going to sit on your backside and wait for everyone else in the world to interest you in things you're going to have a very boring life. You create your own reality, you create interest yourself, you are in control of your own attitudes towards things. Make the most of it while you still have it!

(Published on 1 Jan 2015)