Curriculum Commentary

The Wounds of Schooling

By Kirsten Olson — November 07, 2006 8 min read

Claire, an exceptionally talented and thoughtful sophomore in one of my classes at Wheaton College, speaks of her first experiences of wounding in school. “I remember the first time that grading rubric was attached to a piece of my writing. Maybe it was in 3rd grade. Suddenly all the joy was taken away. I was writing for a grade—I was no longer exploring for me. I want to get that back. Will I ever get that back?”

—Bob Dahm


Rasheed, now a successful wireless-communications entrepreneur, describes feeling perpetually underappreciated and rebellious in school. “My talents—getting along with others, enthusiasm, charm—didn’t count for much. Very few teachers seemed to see what I had to offer. In junior high school, I broke the law and tested the boundaries in almost every way. I made my parents crazy. My mother even refused to attend my high school graduation. As soon as I left school, the successful parts of my life began.”

Jacob, another charismatic college student with up-and-down grades, talks about fear in school. “It’s like land mines, the grading and test-taking and the paper-writing. Sometimes I’m just afraid of being shamed. That’s why I keep doing it, the fear and the shame. But it makes me angry to be afraid. Why should I be? Why do I keep doing this? Do I have a choice?”

Mostly, we don’t question the necessity of school in our lives. As Americans, we have profound, passionate beliefs in the power of education to transform lives. From the earliest days of emancipation after the Civil War to the newest immigrants to the United States, the hunger for education as a way of achieving full personhood has been a driving force in our nation’s development. While many would say our current focus on educational attainment—now more than ever measured by performance on standardized tests, high school graduation rates, and other “objective” means—is an essential new lifeway in a competitive global economic climate, there are also real personal costs for many in being a part of an education system for so long and so unrelentingly. From its increasingly rigid definitions of learning as testable product, to its assumptions about human ability and the moral value attached to grades, to an ambivalent, often negative, culture toward children—casually, almost informally, school sends toxic messages to many of its most ordinary, average pupils. Children and young adults are enormously vulnerable in this system.

Over the last decade, I have been listening to people’s learning histories: asking them to recall their earliest memories of school, to recount some of their most powerful learning experiences, and to describe the relationship between intense, pleasurable learning and schooling. For many, the connection between school and learning is a negative one—or there is simply no connection at all. When I recently mentioned I was writing a book on the wounds of schooling to an accomplished architect, he quietly said: “Wounds from grammar school. Yes, I have them. But that isn’t my public face to the world.” He mentions that his son is now struggling to learn to read, and how painful this is for him to witness. “It brings it all back,” he says.

Although it seems like a contradiction—who can say that more schooling could be a bad thing?—many students find themselves deeply wounded by schooling. The gifts of education, as rich and important as they may be, have also left painful psychological and spiritual lacerations that are raw and unhealed. Beverly Daniel Tatum, the president of Spelman College and an insightful developmental educator, says that school is like a mirror held before us. It reflects back powerful and profound messages about our value in the world and our ability to negotiate life. Because we go to school for so long, and for hours a day when we are youngest and most vulnerable, as an institution it has unusual power to shape us to our very core, sometimes for life. It can bring us great joy and accomplishment, and it can also leave us vulnerable, sad, diminished—and wounded.

Sometimes schooling’s effects are dramatic and unmistakable. Some kids who have been told they aren’t valuable, or that their skills don’t cut it, become dropouts and “losers” who must forge their own way to psychological and spiritual fulfillment, often by questioning the processes through which society assigns value to individuals. In school, we often learn racist and sexist ways of thinking about ourselves and others—wounds that, reinforced by a larger society, are life-limiting in ways that may be invisible to us. Finally, there are those who have done well in school, who found the structures of schooling comforting and its systems of assigning value enhancing. These individuals, too, sometimes experience disappointment in later years, when life does not reward as school seemed to.

The process of schooling, while providing market-pleasing attainments, has diffuse psychological effects for many: It can make us risk-averse, or cause us to underestimate ourselves. We may be overly obedient to authority, toxically rebellious, or simply deadened. We may have suppressed creativity and lost the habit of thinking novelly, from too many standardized assessments. We are wounded and we don’t know why.

What are the roots of the problem? Why do schools wound? We have three essential dilemmas.

Learning as “product.” The American educational system, with its roots in the 19th century, was organized to educate large groups of people for labor in factories and other rigidly hierarchical structures. Created in a period of information scarcity and constancy, school instruction is still largely designed to produce low-level literacy, computational, and information-retrieval skills—except for a privileged few. In very simple terms, learning in school was (and still is) conceived of as product, and students are to move down the assembly line of learning in readily testable stages. Yet experiences of intense learning often have nothing to do with this. In most people’s lives, powerful learning involves intuition, risk, and ambiguity.

Truncated ideas about ability. We are also hobbled by our underdeveloped, too-simple ideas about human ability. Formed in the early 20th century to sort students with efficiency, our ideas about intelligence tend to construct ability as something innate, fixed at birth—and easily measured. This notion is contradicted by an ever-growing body of cognitive research, and is discredited by other highly successful cultures that regard effort, rather than innate capacity, as the most crucial component of academic achievement. American schools however, have been very slow to alter the DNA of beliefs about ability. Our ideas about inborn, unchanging capacity in students tend to live on, making grades and test scores, even in very young children, globalizing, highly public evaluations of ability and worth. Students themselves often internalize these views in ways that affect them for life.

Teachers are in a confidence game. Teachers still work in systems that reward them for controlling students, rather than for providing intellectual stimulation and challenging learning tasks. It is a brand-new assignment for American schools to offer sophisticated learning to all students, and teachers are often woefully undertrained to do this. Our school systems’ knowledge of how children actually learn is in its infancy—a little like the study of phrenology in the 19th century, when head bumps were analyzed for intellectual and moral capacity. As a former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education says, our understanding of schools right now is a little like a doughnut. We are very able to say what is important on the periphery, but we do not yet fully understand what is at the center—what actually makes children learn. We’re working on that.

This lack of knowledge about what is at the center of education, however, makes the teaching profession very fragile, and often hostile to students. If students do poorly—making teachers and administrators feel unsuccessful—fault is frequently shifted to the pupil. Students who do not perform “lack ability,” are “unmotivated,” or unteachable. Students are utterly without political power or representation in this system, and must rely on parents or guardians to protect them. Yet most adults, even teachers themselves, lack the knowledge to protect students effectively.

Because our sector is only beginning to develop the kinds of skills and knowledge required to teach all children effectively, we must become much more frank with parents and the public about what we don’t yet know about educating children. We must allow ourselves to unmask some of the myths of schooling:

• That the education system always has a child’s best interests in mind, or can act on them;

• That teachers are always adequately trained to analyze and judge a child’s performance and level of development;

• That assessments actually test what they are intended to measure; and

• That there is sufficient knowledge in the system to reach the stated instructional goals of the educational entity.

Educational systems are often hostile to students, and schools still encourage compliance and narrowly focused understandings of learning, ability, and creativity. In my years of listening to individuals’ learning histories—stories of being moved to the back bench of science class because “people like you” don’t know how to do science, or of being told, early on, “you just aren’t college material”—I’ve discovered that, in spite of all that our education may have given us, school’s messages can also leave us trembling, numb, and vulnerable, even as our public face is full of accomplishment.

For many who have shared their stories with me, school fractured what they feel are their deepest strengths: their creativity, their humanity, and their capacity to imagine. They spend a lifetime trying to heal. Acknowledging our own wounds, and unmasking the myths of schooling, begin to help us navigate the shoals of schooling without becoming shipwrecked.

A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2006 edition of Education Week as The Wounds of Schooling


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