Are We Failing Our Kids?

I’ve worked in schools for over a decade. But in many ways they’ve all been broken. They’re expensive. Some students thrived in a structured environment, while others scrunched themselves in their seats and hoped I wouldn’t notice them. The skills I taught often reflected the demands of my own specialized discipline rather than preparing students for the tasks they would do after finishing school. And I taught my classes in a vacuum — sealed from the other classes in the school and often even from the same department I was teaching in. Which isn’t to say that I and other teachers didn’t work hard within these constraints to teach meaningful lessons.

But something essential was still missing from the education process.

While I don’t have the — or even an — answer about how to solve this problem, here are a few articles that are informing how I think about the possibilities for hacking our educational system.


Sir Ken Robinson, a creativity expert, argues that we need a radically different perspective on education and educational systems. In a TED talk, he outlines the problem: our model of education is based on out-moded philosophical, economic, and intellectual ideas that are better suited to preparing students for factory jobs than for the challenging knowledge-based economy that’s developing. Furthermore, he points out that these educational systems do not reflect how students learn or why they are become motivated to do so. When this system doesn’t work for a child, the question becomes not how to improve the system, but how to change the child. Sir Robinson connects the rise of ADHD drugs to the industrial education complex, arguing that neither serve the interests of the child or society.


While Sir Robinson’s association between the school system and the rise of ADHD diagnoses might seem extreme, Alan Schwartz writes in the New York Times that scientists and drug makers have identified a new pyschological disturbance that affects student’s academic performance. The diagnosis classifies those students who routinely daydream and/or are inattentive in class as suffering from SCT, or sluggish cognitive tempo. And listening to the words of one researcher is chilling: children who suffer from SCT “[are] the daydreamy ones, the ones with work that’s not turned in, [who] leav[e] names off of papers or skip questions, things like that, that impinge on grades or performance. So anything we can do to understand what’s going on with these kids is a good thing.” The diagnosis of SCT appears to be based on a child’s inability to harmonize with an ordered classroom — the same industrial classroom that Sir Robinson discusses. But daydreaming is also a symptom of creativity and inattentivness can signal boredom in school, lack of attention, or a very different concern altogether. Surpisingly, there’s been very little research done to evaluate the differences between being creative, not having a school structure that works for you, and having SCT. There is a very real danger –as we’ve seen in the over-use of ADHD drugs/diagnoses — that we’ll over-medicate creative and dreamy students merely because they don’t correspond to the rubric of what a ‘student’ should look and behave like.


When students are inattentive in class, why is this happening? A recent Gallup poll suggests one reason: teenagers are more likely to be “bored” than challenged in school (50% to 31%). A bored student slumps in his chair or inconsistently engages with material she doesn’t see the relevance of.

A bored student needs a different learning environment, not a different mental one.

And educators are discussing how to radically reconstitute and reshape the school environment. Katrina Schwartz, in “What Would be a Radically Different Vision of School?”, explores what such a vision could entail: schools would support “inquiry-based, student-centered learning, where students are encouraged to find entry points into the mandated curriculum in ways that are meaningful to them.” School would be less focused on specific content and measurable goals and more focused on the skills of learning: research, analysis, synthesis, innovation, creativity. When the building blocks of learning are emphasized, students are better prepared to adapt to an ever-changing world.


Isolated schools and systems have started to experiment with various aspects of a new vision for the school system, but how do we actually change the conversation and ask how to re-imagine the educational system rather than simply revise its current structure?

Photocredit: flickr/tslac 

Chelsea Avirett

About Chelsea Avirett

Chelsea is the founder of Spyglass Tutoring, a Humanities enrichment tutoring service located in Rockland, ME. She has taught English literature to middle school and college students and is also certified (in the state of Georgia) to teach gifted education. She also holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She and her husband moved to Midcoast Maine in 2013 and love the excitement and vibrancy of the area’s creative economy.