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.
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?”