What’s “really” wrong with our schools?

I have been teaching languages online for several years now and during this time, I have found myself in a privileged place of observation.

My subject of study was firstly the reaction of students to my teaching, which later developed into an informal study of their behaviour as it fit in with human nature and formal schooling. During these initial years I thought that if I “cracked” a certain code through force of experience, the results of my teaching would improve in quality.

I saw myself as a fitness coach might, constantly thinking up better workout programs. “The better the me, the better the you”, was my rationale. But slowly and gradually, I started to understand that my logic was simplistic and that there were other forces at play. It wasn’t just a 1:1 dynamic between student and teacher.

Whether what I am about to share is known to the educators that make up the teaching body worldwide is unclear. Some may know it and some may not but there doesn’t seem to be a generalized understanding of it. If it was known, perhaps we would have a sizeable upheaval in our education system because we would admit that many crucial skills are missing from the programs.

When a tutor or teacher passes a job interview, the school will ask them about their approach in terms of teaching their subject of knowledge. Another question is usually “can you tell me of a time you have dealt with a difficult student?”

Other than that, we can say that a certain pretense of normality continues as if we were in ideal learning conditions that required no fixing. If this were a boat, we would consider that the sea is quiet, that the crew is well trained, that the captain knows where he/she is going and that the weather conditions are optimal.

“Can you tell me of a time you had to deal with a big wave?” might be the interview question.

My first suspicions that formal education did not have it all figured out came during and after my 5 years of college/university. The first year of my Bachelors might have dazzled me enough that I still believed in the overwhelming powers of my professors’ knowledge. But by the second year, I was writing an angry letter to the dean of the faculty asking what on earth was going on.

I initially chose university because of the promise of independent work. I had always heard that teachers didn’t care whether we attended or not. Our job was to study the printed course notes and show up at the exam. It was a rejoicing prospect to consider and it also made sense: Why would a person who aims to gain a high level of academic knowledge go to a lecture anyway? That’s for babies and I’d had enough of that in high school. It made much more sense to sit at my desk, open the course notes and study independently.

Lo and behold, this idealistic view of university education never happened. Before I knew it, I was speed-writing an average of 12 sheets of paper for every two hours of lectures which I still had to type back into my computer once back home in view of my exams months later. Yes, more stenographic work.

In terms of what I had learned or remembered that day the amount was zero. I was too busy speed-writing. And even if I’d had the luxury of sitting back, nodding and agreeing with the professor in a “yes, that makes sense” kind of way, it would by no means have gotten me through the exam.

Indeed, an exam demands structured answers and examples. Not whether we agreed with everything that was said in the lecture.

In my letter to the dean, I mentioned that a student dedicates 95% of their time for an activity that matters for 0% of the result (lectures) and spends 5% of their allotted time for something that actually does matters for 100% of their success. (grades)

I compared it to a concertina: two intense periods of cramming at either end and nothing in between.

Instead of going straight to the act of studying we spend the large majority of our time not studying and instead sitting about in lectures, which incidentally we were not graded on. By definition, a student is supposed to “study” and put knowledge in their heads in view of exams. Why were we not doing that? Why just 2 weeks given to nonsensical “cramming” period, last-minute swotting and sleepless nights?

A large part of the answer is that we fall victim to the Gregorian calendar and the Summer holidays. The academic year starts in September, ends in June and during this time we must stretch out the academic learning within that bracket. If not, we might all finish our 5 years’ Masters degrees in 2 years. (And our high school in 2 or 3 also.)

What would all the professors do then? Write scientific papers to publish on Researchgate and get paid to read each others’ articles? Of course not. They have to be kept busy, even if it means at the students’ expense. And at the expense of the higher Good of academic learning.

My peers and I became prolific speed-writers during those 5 years, and the professors were like a little tap/faucet of knowledge. They opened and closed it at the start and end of each lecture, and the professors (and some students) walked away with the illusion that a job well done has been performed and that all was “normal” in the best of worlds.

Easy to criticize perhaps, but do you have a better system? In fact, I do. Give course notes to students and allow them to meet up alone and without a teacher in classrooms. Encourage them to work as a group, helping each other out and explaining the course to one another. Allow the group to meet up regularly with the teacher to ask specific questions and to elaborate on the knowledge. Come with outside sources that will challenge the teacher. Study regularly, not at the last minute. Allow students to take exams any time they wish.

My view on higher education is that it is an agreement between itself and society. “It’s not ideal, but it’s the best we have”, we might say. Just as medieval universities were a promise of being the best in the 1400s, so do we believe the same of ours today. The same applies to high schools. We needed a generalized system of education for all citizens and this is the system we found.

Shortly after graduating, I went into private teaching and launched my teaching company OuiCommunicate. I created my own learning material and embarked on the road to best serve my students’ learning experience.

I learned the trade of language teaching, and with it a lot of the effects of State-organized learning. I observed that these were often in conflict and made it hard for me to be at my peak performance. I met a multitude of students the world over and was struck by the same repetitive pattern that transcended the borders.

The vast majority of my language students (99% minus exceptions) considered that attending was the class. The act of showing up, placing themselves in a rather more passive role within the classroom, expecting the teacher to lead the class… a whole range of automatic behaviour of which we can either consider that these students had fortuitously invented it on the spot upon meeting me of had learned it somewhere else before.

It turns out that they actually did see this behaviour before. It started when they were in kindergarten and ended when they left college. They attended, sat down, raised their hand to speak, learned at the pace set by the teacher, accommodated the Gregorian calendar, passed exams when they were told to, developed an idea of their self-worth, developed ideas on what was mentally achievable, repeated, attended some more, and somehow left with a diploma that told the rest of society was they were capable of doing.

Years after that, they met me for a language course and noticed (usually did not) that they were incapable of learning despite 10 or more years of high school and sometimes even college degrees. When faced with the results, some of them adopted a flight mechanism and blamed different variables: one downloaded a new trendy language app, the other put their trust in a memory game made by a world champion memory expert, the third went on a language camp abroad…It was the fault of the variables, but never of themselves.

How mysterious. Highly trained students and incapable of learning a few fundamentals of English or French.

The secret I unveiled during my years of teaching was that the reasons for their shortcomings were to be found in their predispositions rather than in their dispositions. To put this simply, high school had taught them to walk, run and climb but had said nothing of the psychology required to reach the top of the mountain.

Specifically, I mean the absence of a sense of focus. To achieve a language in under a year, there will be a need for a strong sense of focus to meet this goal. But was there ever a class on the importance of focusing during your studies?

Two more qualities that were missing were self-belief and the ability to visualize a future result. Did you attend any class on believing in yourself and on the importance of visualizing? If you did, you were one of the few.

A third one was the understanding of self, of repetitive human behaviour, of the role of the subconscious, how the brain works in terms of pleasure/pain connections. In short, why do most people do what they do and why do they seem stuck on autopilot? Was there ever a class on this?

Most importantly, was there even a class on the skill of learning? Were you ever taught how learning works? Were you ever taught the tricks that your brain plays on you to discourage you from taking the road that leads to effort?

Since the answer to these questions is an overwhelming “no” we find ourselves in a well-justified position of asking why not. How are we supposed to know how to achieve anything if we don’t know the basics of our subconscious behaviour?

In the same way that an experienced entrepreneur will approach a new business with an understanding of the overall efforts required to take it off the ground, an employee will not. When we say that if all the money was taken away and distributed it equally, it would soon find itself back in the same hands, it simply means that some people understand what it takes. They are able to push through the mental resistance, think in innovative ways and place themselves in uncomfortable situations.

An employee is trained to think in a certain way and so are students from high school or college. Tragically, the learning material of the academic program is in no way related to the ability required to do well in those same subjects. We might know the historical role of Lenin in Russia or how two chemical products react when they are mixed, but know nothing of the actual human skills that truly make the world go round. Learning facts is one thing, learning about mastering one’s own mind is another. The former will be outdated within a generation, the latter will not.

The determination showed by the Wright brothers when they got their plane off the ground is not found in school books. It is a different psychological skill entirely and one of which we never speak. They mastered their willpower, shut off the naysayers and achieved a revolution in transportation through trial and error.

Instead of doing the same, we are trained to see mistakes and errors as something to avoid. We are taught that only the right answer matters. We are taught that creativity can occasionally be celebrated but not graded and therefore secondary. We are told to turn away from risks. We are taught never to push through and to rather “take it easy”. We are taught to learn one single skill in life and to match it with our social identity. We are taught not to be obsessive, to be moderate, to be average, to tone down our ambitions.

On this website, we offer all the tools to learn French at the highest level. We have videos, PDF, and even an email support system. Literally nothing stands in the way of ANY learner of any age wanting to learn French. A new skill is offered on a plate to everyone. What a beautiful prospect to consider!

But for it to work, the qualities required are not those derived from any State-regulated learning institution. It takes the curiosity to discover something new. It takes the frame of mind to learn independently. It takes the discipline to do a little each day. It takes the focus to see the job through. It takes the ability to visualize yourself already knowing French. It takes self-knowledge to understand that your brain has been conditioned to like easy things. It takes awareness that the behaviour of the majority is not the one that leads to worthwhile results. It takes the understanding that high school has planted the idea that learning is measured in years and not weeks.

“Are you doing French again??”, might ask some well-intentioned person in our environment. “Yes I am. And after that skill I will learn another one and another after that”, should be the answer.

Once a student realizes all of this, they can untrain themselves and they will see that learning French becomes very easy.

But as long as they don’t, it stays very hard indeed.

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