Young education rebel: Does school really have to be this horrible and boring?

The Summerhill school in England is run as a democratic community and is a model for progressive, democratic education. One of its tenets: Adults are not there to create things for the children to do. They need to create things for themselves. (Photo: Summerhill)

During a panel of education heavyweights in Atlanta three years ago, the fiercest criticism of America’s classrooms came from an 18-year-old who likened his affluent and acclaimed New York high school to a prison.

“The only difference,” decreed Nikhil Goyal, “is that in schools students are paroled at the same time every day. Does school really have to be this horrible, this boring and monotonous thing that you have to wake up every day at 7 a.m. and go to?”

At 21, Goyal is still asking why schools have to be so stultifying, most recently in his new book, “Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice.” Schools, he says, should bend to accommodate students rather than forcing children to learn in lockstep and labeling them failures if they fall out of step.

Recalling his own high school years, Goyal describes a high-pressure environment where kids measured their self-worth by the number of AP classes they aced and academic honors they won. Some classmates relied on Adderall and Ritalin to survive, and most were sleep-deprived and stressed out, he said.

His belief there has to be a better way led him to become an education journalist. Goyal has appeared on MSNBC and FOX and written columns and features for The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. In 2013, he was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list.

His book celebrates alternative school models that encourage creative play, self-directed learning, exploration and flexibility. After traveling the country, Goyal touts the Brightworks school in San Francisco, the Philly Free School and England’s Summerhill school. These independent schools contend children’s own innate curiosity and creativity will lead them to what they should learn, and, once there, children will learn with enthusiasm and joy.

In a recent telephone interview, the 21-year-old Goyal displays the same passion evident in his Atlanta appearance, although his rhetoric is more tempered. He still believes tweaks are insufficient to the task; he wants the assembly line model of education blown to bits so we can start fresh. But he understands some states, including Georgia, may not be ready for radical solutions so he advises pilot programs.

“The way you start is the district creating experimental innovation schools within schools or a pilot program with 50 kids,” he says.

Nikhil Goyal, author of "Schools on Trial."

Nikhil Goyal, author of “Schools on Trial.”

A recent graduate of Goddard College, Goyal plans to move to England to pursue a master’s degree in education and a doctorate. He wants to research dropouts and disengaged youth and hopes to conduct some of his field work in New York and Philadelphia.

Goyal maintains the growing opt-out movement — where parents decline to have their kids take standardized exams — shows America is beginning to question the drill, kill and bubble fill approach.

The opt-out movement remains largely middle and upper middle-class, which Goyal says has to change for the movement to succeed. “In black and brown communities, parents see very few routes for their child to rise out of poverty besides education. They believe you have to follow the rules; you’ve got to take the test. There needs to be more of an effort in the opt-out movement to reach out to these parents.”

Goyal says all parents need to understand their kids don’t have to be chained to a desk all day to acquire the skills to succeed in college and life. Students can flourish in schools where they’re not coerced to sit still, be quiet and pay attention but instead are encouraged to manage their own time and follow their own interests. And their learning can be measured by portfolios of work rather than scores on a test.

One of his memories of his own schooling is how unhappy the kids were, says Goyal. Why can’t we design schools, he asks, “where kids are happy and excited to be there?”

Reader Comments 0

38 comments
AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

Maybe the current mania for STEM has created a school program that is not a good fit many students and leads to this "no fun" in learning.


Challenge - you folks with good jobs that require high skill levels might want to take these high school final exams, see if you can pass them, and report back whether mastery in these subjects is required to do your job well. The classes are: 3rd year math (possibly the equivalent of algebra II), French II, and Chemistry. Not that these classes are not good training for learning higher level material in these fields, but are they helpful and relevant to most students?

redweather
redweather

@AvgGeorgian Helpful and relevant? I view these courses and others as designed to provide subject knowledge as well as enhance students' learning capabilities.

teachermom4
teachermom4

I graduated from high school in 1989. There were plenty of times throughout my school career when I felt "bored", but I always considered it a personal problem. We aren't all interested in or good at the same things. It never occurred to me to expect my teachers to entertain me. I did get to research things that interested me, but I still had to present my learning in certain formats. If I wanted to learn about or experience something my teachers weren't exposing me to, I did it on my own. School is a means to an end. What if what entertains one student bores or frightens another? Just as "boring" is subjective, so is "fun". You will never please everyone. Group work is a great example that has been discussed here before.

palepadre
palepadre

Once again, I say. Look at the parents. What jobs do they do? Except in rare instances, if the parents have college degrees, the child will soar. If it is not locked in with students that are from parents who  dropped out of High School. There is an interesting commercial, encouraging parents to buy a piano. Paraphrasing, Children who play piano, have higher SAT scores. But, to play piano and also to have high SAT scores, requires in both cases Discipline, in both endeavors. I have been "Blue Collar," all my life. Not one of my aunts, uncles, parents, ever went to College. Only one finished high school. All my cousins are blue collar. I was so naïve, that I thought College was exactly like High School. Several classes, in a sequence. I would be doing something more academic, if I could have been excused from studying, Geometry, Algebra and Trigonometry. They were my worst subjects and even today, in trying to learn just algebra, I still don't get it. But, left alone to study only History, Literature, English. Which I relished, I might have become a famous writer. or Head of a History Museum. Or even teaching those subjects. I agree, let the child free range and observe by its accomplishments the path it should follow.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@palepadre 

I don't know your age, but Georgia has a law that Georgians who are 62 and older can attend public universities without paying tuition.  Check your nearest USG school if you're old enough and interested.

grumpster
grumpster

One thing is sure - what we're doing now to educate our kids isn't working.  At least it's not working all that well.

I don't pretend to know the answer.  In fact, I'm pretty sure there isn't a single answer that will fix the educational system for all the kids.  So I'd like to see something different.  Some possibilities are:

Pilot programs and charter schools. 

Charter clusters. 

Schools catering to gifted kids. 

Schools catering to struggling kids.

 Free pre-school in the poorest areas.

Mentoring.

Tutoring.

Variable curriculum based on the needs of the students.

Geez, once I get started, I could keep going for a long time.  The problem is, as always, how much do these programs cost, what are the benefits, and who pays.  So I say again, I don't know how to fix things.  But I wish we would at least try.


OriginalProf
OriginalProf

After his graduate school career, Goyal intends "to research dropouts  and disengaged youth and hopes to conduct some of his field work in New York and Philadelphia."  I do hope that he writes a second book about this experience with lesser privileged, inner city students, for I think he has some real eye-opening practical education about class/racial differences ahead of him.

dcdcdc
dcdcdc

Reminds me of the comments so many "old timers" say about how youth of today can't concentrate.  What a crock.  Have you seen young men playing video games?  A bomb could go off, and they are so engaged in what they are doing that they'd never notice. 


It's unfortunate that America's best and brightest minds (silicon valley, etc) haven't taken on the challenge of developing an engaging learning environment - utilizing the incredibly technology available to us all.  Instead, we still have teachers standing up droning on and on, basically the same we we've had for decades.


Hopefully this will change.  I sadly doubt it will be the current eduacracy that drives this change.

redweather
redweather

@dcdcdc You could probably make the same claim about young men and masturbation, but I'm not so sure that is a viable solution.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

I started teaching in 1973 in a very non-electronic area.  There was no cable TV (if you were lucky you could go out and turn the antenna and get 2 Atlanta or Chattanooga stations to watch soap operas), VCRs had not been invented to watch movies, there were no video games, no internet or computers, and few non-party phone lines.  Kids had to entertain themselves, generally outdoors, or help with chores.  In the summer, the bookmobile from the public library came to certain houses in the county one day a month, for 15-20 minutes.  If you could get into town, there was no theater, but there was a skating rink with badly warped floors.  Bikes did not work well on dirt roads or in the pasture.  There were no motorized toys, such as 4 wheelers.  If you were lucky you lived close enough to a creek to go swimming.  You looked forward to going to church, and the revivals held all over the county in the summer.  The county fair in August and the horse and buggy trek across Fort Mountain were the big deals, along with high school graduation.


YET, there was no "boredom" expressed, which might get you more chores assigned.


I think there certainly ARE highly motivated, intellectually-curious children whose parents have nurtured them to follow their interests.   These children might find a school like those mentioned a wonderful place to grow.


For most students, however, what they need is more structure (as they have had little until they went to school), more responsibility and accountability, more adult leadership.  Does this feel stifling?  I would say, to those who have not experienced this type of discipline, it would seem boring and horrible.  I believe the majority of today's students need this in their lives, no matter how loudly they complain, if they are to become educated, productive citizens.


I will note, as time went by, the kids with the most "toys," particularly electronic, were the ones who, among with their parents,  most often whined of boredom, yet did not complete the assigned work.  I don't think pencil and paper and the book was quickly interactive enough, and there was too much effort involved.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

To all, I think there is something to be said for these progressive schools and their focus on bringing student interests to the forefront and using them to teach. Clearly, these independent schools -- which cost $20,000 a year or more -- are not a template for every school, but I think there are lessons. Penn education expert Richard Ingersoll says teachers want to be in schools where they have impact, where their voices matter. It would be logical that students would feel the same way. 

gactzn2
gactzn2

@MaureenDowney I agree to an extent.  This is an option for a segment of the school population- but not all students.  I do not see changing the entire school system to accommodate your more motivated or gifted population.  Just create several schools with a lotto in the school district that allow for this approach and let those who like this method of learning apply to attend- within district.  It is not an approach that will work with students who require more intensive remediation, or those who prefer more traditional methods of learning (believe it or not- a lot of them do).  


In education we are so busy "doing something", anything, because it is the next thing an outsider says will change learning.  It often times does not.  If the approach is not sustainable on a large scale, then apply it in  moderation and seek better models that meet the needs of all learners.  Goyal does not speak for all students.

atlmom
atlmom

@gactzn2 @MaureenDowney many kids are not motivated because school creates a place that squashes creatively and makes kids not want to learn.  If kids aren't motivated they won't learn.  Same with adults. If you create a totally new system (why do we put kids of the same age together?  what is the point?) from top to bottom, and do it properly, kids will be motivated.

you can't do it overnight.  you can't do everything all at once (seriously, what were they thinking with common core?) -- yes, do a few schools, and once the 'lotteries' get so large, create more and more until no one who wants to go there gets turned away.  we also cannot have the same system everywhere.  within one school system there are so many differences, thinking we can do anything at the federal level is silly.

atlmom
atlmom

@redweather @MaureenDowney but they would be more motivated and be able to sustain attention if it wasn't so boring.  make it fun and they will learn and want to go.  we're sending my kiddos to school in the fall.  they have both been homeschooled for a while.  they both chose the schools and want to go and can't wait til school starts.  one is private one is charter.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@redweather @MaureenDowney 

I so agree here, esp. your comment about "digital natives." I noticed a real sea-change in my college students in the early 2000s.  By the time I retired 10+ years later, it had become challenging (shall we say) to assure that students had completed their reading assignments, and to keep classrooms free of those blasted smartphones and iPads. Google-plagiarism was a real problem though one learned ways of checking for it.


redweather
redweather

@MaureenDowney There is often something to be said for doing things differently, for changing things up. But students too often assume that if they are not engaged there is something wrong with the instruction, and that ain't necessarily so. Not everything can be as fun as they might like it to be, and oftentimes fun is just fun and nothing more.

In my view, and this is based on the considerable amount of time I have spent in the college classroom, the main reason young people today are not engaged in the classroom is directly related to their inability to sustain attention and concentrate. So-called digital natives have a real problem with this. There's no pedagogical method I've heard of that stands any chance of success if students can't tune in.

trifecta_
trifecta_

As far as testing, there is no growing opt-out movement. 

There is only a handful of teachers' union types hoping to undermine accountability and education reform with such claims. This blog is where they hang out.

As for the boring part of learning, Mr Goyal's is a siren song. His earlier inability to come to grips with what is necessary to progress in life probably had everything to do with his own immaturity.

And little or nothing to do with his teachers.

atlmom
atlmom

@trifecta_ so let's make it boring because ...why exactly?  when it can be fun?  my kid wanted bees -- so we went to the library and got books about bees.  and he read about bees.  and we went on beehive tours.  and talked with beekeepers.  and talked with others about bees.  he is learning about science and math and all sorts of things.  he can't wait to sell the honey he spends time thinking how much he can charge, what his profit margin would be, how much he will make, how do I keep the bees happy, what should we plant?  how does this all work?  where do we get bees?  how do we get them?  He is learning SO MUCH in the process...and it's fun.  why does it have to be boring?

atlmom
atlmom

@Astropig @trifecta_ you haven't been in a school have you?  do you know how much time is wasted preparing for the tests?  how idiotic it is?  how horrible the tests are?  how they aren't even right much of the time?  they are vague?  they were THROWN OUT in GA this year and you still have this attitude?

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@atlmom @trifecta_ He will soon be in a place where less than 10% of his classmates will be interested in the lives of bees.  Better teach him how to play Grand Theft Auto.  He won't be in a class of one.

Astropig
Astropig

@trifecta_


The opt out movement is just more helicopter parenting gone radical. I guess that these parents will intervene  in their kids careers down the road to "protect" them from deadlines,demands and bosses that they don't agree with.

redweather
redweather

First observation:  Boredom is an attitude. Get over it.

Second Observation: People like Mr. Goyal seem to be under the impression that the world must accommodate them. Only narcissists, which I'm afraid most members of his generation are to one degree or another, think this way.  

atlmom
atlmom

@redweather wow.  they couldn't do more to make kids bored, and you think it's an attitude?  there are so many kids super duper bored, gifted kids completely not getting what they should be getting.  it's not an attitude.  it's not easy to make learning fun.


but why do we put kids together just by ages?  why not by what they want to learn?

atlmom
atlmom

@Astropig @redweather totally and completely wrong.  read about unschoolers and how they are in college and doing great things in the world.

Astropig
Astropig

@atlmom @Astropig @redweather


I can see that you have the world's most special snowflake.


I'm going to send you a coupon for helicopter oil.You're going to need a lot of it.

Astropig
Astropig

@redweather


Could.Not.Agree.More. 


Allowing the students to essentially design and engage  with only the "interesting" and "exciting","fun" parts of the educational process is a recipe for disaster.Kids need structure and direction.Students will push the easy button way too frequently when it is there to push. His proposals would, in large part, water down the already watered down learning experience to what would be semi-organized play time and socialization exercises that would leave students dangerously unprepared for a working career or the ability to solve life's thornier problems of home and family later in life.


Sometimes learning things is just not fun.It can be work. It can be repetitive and boring.I wish that this was not the case,but it is what it is. It really stuck in my craw that he complains that some kids are sleep deprived. Dammit! Learn some self discipline! Turn the phone off,turn the TV off,stop texting and get some sleep!  





taylor48
taylor48

You can't have it both ways. You can't say, "schools need to let kids develop their own innate creativity," while at the same time say, "all students must take a standardized fill in the bubble test to show whether their teachers are effective." If we're going to use standardized tests to determine whether students are learning, then our curriculum is forced to be somewhat standardized. I teach at a school that's just been recognized for its high test scores, but, honestly, I wouldn't want to teach a testing grade. Their scores are analyzed constantly, and if a grade level doesn't measure up, then admin comes down on them expecting even more test prep. My own kids go to a school where the scores aren't as high, but their education is far more well rounded. So, the question remains, what, ultimately, do people want? High test scores and a more standardized curriculum? Or lower test scores, but more chances for students to develop their interests?

ETA: The Philly Free School only has 61 students in grades K-12, so it appears that people aren't racing to it's "kids can learn whatever they want" policy.

atlmom
atlmom

@taylor48 why do you think that?  the school my kid will go to in the fall will have 90 kids in the high school.  they don't want too many kids.  there is a waiting list.