I’ve been having interesting discussions with my friends and family recently about the change in education since I went through high school. I was always confronted by my transition from being a student to being a teacher. I started teaching in a serious capacity when I was 19 years old, my oldest students were only a few years younger than me. A very confronting thing I came across was that I remembered what it was like to be a student, and I had to integrate into a system of education that didn’t share the same values I had towards personal growth and education. This is probably what a lot of young teachers find when they start teaching. There’s a dissonance between remembering what school was like and wanting to be a better influence than your teachers, and the reality of the education system. A strong belief I’ve built in my time teaching is that there is a triangle of shared responsibility between parents, teachers and students. Maybe this is a belief shared by many teachers still today, but I feel like the way it’s been implemented is different today than it was when I went through school. I feel like values have changed and the balance of power between students, parents and teachers has shifted.
The old days
When I was a student, I saw the esteem my teachers wielded. Teaching was seen as a noble profession and as a position of importance in the functioning of society. Going to school wasn’t taken for granted and students were expected to treat school seriously. And sure there were things we found hard, but there was a clear understanding that going to school was for the benefit of the person we would become. All the things we thought were pointless and unfair were preparations for a world we would eventually become a contributing part of. Our parents entrusted teachers with the responsibility of educating us and were involved in guiding that education from home. If a child was failing at school for unacceptable reasons then it was the child’s responsibility to get their grades up. Extra curricular activities were seen as a privilege that came on the condition of maintaining adequate academic results and discipline at school. The purpose of school in my household was to “contribute to the growth of a well-rounded person”. And I was a part of that shared responsibility for my growth.
There was an overwhelming feeling that students got the short end of the stick in the “school” arrangement. Parents and teachers were in kahootz. As students, we were forced to learn subjects that didn’t interest us or appear to have relevance to our futures. Who is using Pythagoras theorem right now? Anybody you know writing epistolary narratives in their daily lives? Our teachers cared how we wore our uniforms and if we were wearing the “correct” uniform. It didn’t seem like the marketing committee of the schools cared how heavy our bags were as long as we were wearing our sport uniform ONLY in the period we had sport. If we didn’t have the right socks we had to come with a note from our parents.
These were things that as teenagers, we looked at with a sense of dumbfounded rage. And yet still, we understood that going to school was for the benefit of the person we would become. All stupid decisions by adults aside, there was a belief that it was worth it for a better future for ourselves. (It’s also important to note that in my parents’ generation, going to school was a privilege that parents worked for. Not everybody went to school, parents valued education highly and collaborated with the schooling system to keep their children in it. Even if it meant putting pressure on their kids to get good marks and complying with dress codes.)
At some point thought there was a divergence. The unspoken agreement between parents and teachers broke down. And each party came to believe that the other wasn’t doing enough. As the cost of living went up, parents became less available to contribute to their child’s education. The priority of school shifted from “contributing to the growth of a well-rounded person” to “preparing my kid for a career”. Schools began planning subject selection based on prospective career paths in year 9 and 10. Some parents started holding teachers responsible for their child’s academic success, social development and career prospects. They categorised teachers as day supervisors. And in doing so, gave students a scapegoat.
“If my teacher is responsible for my academic success and career, then I can fail and it’s not going to be my fault.” For any kid going through a mildly difficult time and experiencing their morals waiver, giving up was ok and understood.
Because of this, I think some teachers started looking at parents as shirkers of moral responsibility over their child’s behaviour and academic results. Parents and teachers became familiar with “school as a business”. Where the customer is the parents, and the product is their child’s test scores or their child’s experience. In that environment, teachers no longer had shared responsibility for the education of the next generation. They had it ALL. And resentment began festering.
Beyond what teachers’ actual responsibilities are, when there is no appreciation for the impact they have on a young person’s life then resentment festers. In reality, teachers as a community (especially in primary and secondary) spend more time than most parents do with their kids. So teachers tried making things easier for themselves. They became focused on delivering information efficiently so their students all had good grades. But it didn’t make things easier. It bred apathetic students who didn’t take responsibility for their education unless they had parents who encouraged it. When school is a business, making the customer unhappy by failing their child kind of goes against the mission. Universities and music institutions are becoming focused more on getting students to participate in as many degrees for as long as possible but not in providing a subjective standard for students to strive for and achieve.
I look at it and see a battle. Teachers who refused to bow to simplifying learning were met with the children of parents who told their kids that if they were struggling they could always get help and assignment extensions. So those teachers refused to give those children extensions and failed them. So parents would look at the child and decide to treat their behaviour and get them tested for learning difficulties. So then students had another scapegoat.
“If I’m having a hard time I can blame it on my ADHD. My anxiety is an excuse for poor time management and rude behaviour, and it’s why I can’t submit my homework or attend school events.”
Teachers who saw students as victims of their parent’s expectations helped children do the best they could. But no matter what teachers have done in response to the pressures placed on them by their governing bodies and parents, the metric has become the ability for students to produce information on command. So teachers came to feel more undervalued and started having trouble hiding their distrust of parents and apparent lack of hope for future generations.
In the triangle of education, the student is undoubtedly one of the most influential factors of success, whatever that even means. When the focus of education becomes the accumulation of knowledge, then success can be found with a phone, a decent internet connection, library card and some discipline. It can also be found by changing the requirements of knowledge acquisition.
I don’t doubt for a second that there are students that think “In a time when I can borrow a library book to learn a subject or look up a video, why am I at school?”
And it’s a fair question. For students who have been indoctrinated into a system that pushes the importance of the accumulation of knowledge, somehow the society that puts them in this system can’t really give an adequate answer. The blanket answer usually is “So you get a good education that’ll set you up for a solid future.”
But what is a ‘Good’ education?
Who decides that?
How do the people who decide know that the education provided WILL BE good?
What is a “solid future”?
How can students comprehend that with the life experience they have?
This leaves the final stage of the divergence.
Gaming the system
As students have become more and more aware of their importance to the system they inhabit, they’ve found ways to game it and lost a crucial understanding of the importance of school for a multitude of purposes. And so, their motivation to be good at anything became tainted by ‘who wants them to get good at what and for what reasons?’
Teachers and parents who push for excellence have been met with apathy or excuses. Anxiety as an excuse for anything would have been unacceptable 15 years ago, especially dropped nonchalantly on a due date. And now that conditions like ‘anxiety’ and ‘being on the spectrum’ or ‘ADHD’ are widespread and known by children as valid excuses for mediocrity, resilience and discipline began their decline in the current generation. This isn’t to say that there aren’t kids genuinely on the autism spectrum or with ADHD, these conditions exist and are significant factors to consider with children. My point here is more that students who don’t genuinely have these conditions are leaning into showing the symptoms to game the system.
Historically, students have always found ways to skip out on school and work less than their peers. It’s just that now, there’s a clear game plan for every student to skip out on class, use an AI chatbot to write their assignment and a rewriting website to scramble the words to avoid plagiarism detectors. Because the work isn’t important as long as you’re passing the subject. Because the objective is to pass the subject and get to the end of school without getting kicked out.
Now, I say all of this as a general theory on the direction that the education system has gone. It’s not true 100% of the time but it’s for sure a sentiment expressed by many teachers, parents and students. To me, the discussion is interesting because it raises important questions about the nature of our education system. Most specifically, the philosophy behind how students are taught in the school system.
An educational philosophy focused on test scores will most likely optimise itself for the efficient regurgitation of information regardless of its relevance, retention or application.
An educational philosophy focused on producing compliant individuals will optimise itself for rule-following at the cost of critical thinking and creativity.
An educational philosophy focused on the external perception of the school will optimise for status, doing whatever it can to maintain or raise its status at the cost of equitable distribution of resources to marginalised and underperforming students who need the most help.
So what is the purpose of a school?
What is the purpose of educating young people 5 days a week for 8 hours a day, 9 months a year for 12-13 years?
What should children be learning in the school environment? Why should they be learning in the school environment?
People are different. Every student is different, every parent is different, and every teacher is different. How do we account for these differences?
Should we account for these differences?
I could ask endless questions. And I welcome any you have to what I’m sure will be an interesting discussion.
In my eyes, school is the training ground for future citizens. I acknowledge that as a young teacher with no children of my own, I hold a different perspective on this topic. And still, I know what kind of people I’d like to interact with in the world. I know what kind of people I’d like to work with. I know what kind of people I’d trust in an emergency or with great responsibility.
It is the potential home for the development of life skills, social skills, philosophy and morality in a society that is swiftly disregarding these crucial skills for the pursuit of fame and fortune online.
The things we prioritise in the school environment (similar to how we prioritise them at home) reflect to young people what is “important” in the real world.
What do you think about this?