By Teachers, For Teachers
In Wounded by School, Kristin Olson describes what she learned after interviewing 100 students on the margins. She realized that the conventional classroom fails to serve 70-80% of modern learners who are “incredibly wired, connected and collaborating and used to doing a lot more self-learning.”
Kristin shares her experience and her theories on how to heal these wounds and prevent them in the future.
Your resume indicates that you’ve excelled in school, continuing to earn a PhD in Education from Harvard. Have you been wounded by school?
I think all work fundamentally starts with your own biography. Although I was a conventionally successful student in many ways, there were many parts of my intellectual and spiritual life that could not be expressed in school and that I felt were actively rejected and not seen when I was in school.
I didn’t realize that in a very vivid way until I began to do some of these interviews that became the basis for this book.
I was talking to people who were really powerful learners who had been very successful in their lives. What they said was that the most powerful learning they experienced was never in school. Their creative selves and their experiences of joy and passion in learning were something they never had the opportunity to express in conventional schooling environments. They had to go outside of those conventional classroom situations to find themselves as learning, and then often times, entrepreneurs and thinkers.
During that time, did you speak with anyone who had a positive school experience?
Oh yes, absolutely.
No one that I talked to said that they regarded their education as valueless or unimportant. Almost everyone was absolutely clear on the economic and social value of education. It is something that you have to do because it’s really difficult to be viable in this economy without some educational credentials. It’s unquestionable that more schooling means that you are more employable and more likely to have better employment outcomes and lifetime earnings.
That’s clear. Education is critically important.
It is by no means a universally negative experience, which is one of the reasons why it’s hard to tease out. What are the good parts, what are the bad parts and how do I understand them? That’s something that the people I was interviewing were really wrestling with.
People understood that many of the skills and ways of thinking they were getting in school were critically important to them. At the same time, they also sometimes felt diminished as learners, afraid of making mistakes, too attached to right answers and there was insufficient choice in terms of what they wanted to study.
Those pressures are only becoming more acute every year under some of the accountability frames that we all exist in. Teachers have less choice, superintendents have less choice and students have less choice. That makes the institution more alienating for everybody.
How has your research impacted wounded students?
A lot of the people I interviewed said they just didn’t understand what had happened to them in schools. They felt like they’d been hit by a train, but they really didn’t understand why because questioning the effects of school on you is pretty countercultural. We didn’t have a good way of talking about that.
The people I interviewed didn’t want to leave the institution after they understood some of the problems with it. Almost everyone who was in this process of healing was back in school either wanting to become a teacher, an activist, a professional developer, or a superintendent who did things differently. It fueled people up to go back and work toward positive change and to make lives better for students and teachers.
In your opinion, what mistakes are teachers making without realizing it?
No teacher that I know of ever goes into a school thinking they’re going to harm a child consciously. None of us who do this work would ever think that about themselves. They’re motivated, in general, by a tremendous compassion and concern about children and engagement with them.
Many teachers are in their day-to-day work unaware of the impact of their words and the ways in which they express ideas about kids’ ability on the kids they are talking to. We tend, as adults, to get out of touch with that.
My interviewees said, again and again, what incredible impact teachers’ words had on them, even little throw-away comments.
Kids were often much more vulnerable than teachers perceived and that their words really mattered. If teachers speak to kids with a deficit-based language like “you are only so smart, and this is all they’ll be able to achieve,” then kids start to believe that and will not achieve to their highest potential. Unfortunately, this ability paradigm is how a lot of kids are treated in schools.
In the case of my interviewed students, teachers didn’t understand the ways in which ability grouping and the kinds of responses they were really giving to students were deeply affecting what kids thought they were able to do.
Have you made some of these mistakes as a teacher?
Absolutely. I would say my first couple years of teachers were some of the most intense learning experiences of my life. I deeply believed and knew that what I was doing in the classroom and the kinds of responses I was giving to my students really mattered. How much I was able to engage each one of them and provide them choice was critically important.
I had to unlearn a lot of the habits of my own schooling. That can be a very difficult and confusing process. As I tell teachers, it’s a hard thing to do on your own. You need the help of colleagues who are more experienced than you are.
What can parents and teachers realistically change to prevent these wounds?
The first thing is to recognize the power of your words on your child or your student in virtually every interaction. You are giving a child, who has less power and is more vulnerable than you may perceive them to be, feedback on themselves and their sense of what they are capable of.
Parents and teachers need to have a “growth and possibility” model at all times. More is possible than the person themselves think and your job as a parent or teacher is to try to grown that.
Also, hold your child or your student to very high standards because you believe it is possible for them to grow into it. My interviewers said that it was that teacher who believed they could do so much more than they thought possible of themselves who really began to change the way they saw the world and their own place in it. Having someone in your life who holds you to high standards and believes you can achieve is so critical. Teachers need to do that too.
Holding a kid to high standards is actually saying to them “I believe you can do more than you think you can,” so you shouldn’t be worried that they’ll be frustrated by not being able to meet the goal.
Are there education systems elsewhere that are doing it better?
Internationally, I’ve traveled to Sweden and Finland where they have much higher achievement data in international comparisons on a whole variety of fronts than we demonstrate in the United States.
I think that is because:
§ There is very little tracking in high-performing countries.
§ There is a belief system that all children can and will achieve at very high level.
§ Teachers are trained as professionals.
§ There are very intense inductions and training models for teachers and ongoing training expectations.
§ There are expectations about collaboration among teacher.
§ They draw teachers from the highest ranking schools.
§ Teaching is a very high status and well paid profession.
By the theme, this book could easily been about blame and accusation, but instead you are able to maintain a spirit of hope. Can you describe your outlook for the future of education?
This is a time of huge transition for education.
What I find hopeful is that when I go out and work with teachers around the country, I see increasing commitment among teachers to break down the walls between classrooms; to understand their work better; to understand the impact of their work on the students in their classroom; and to ask themselves “How can we get better at what we do, so that we enjoy it more and are better adapted to the new learner who is coming into our classroom, who is an increasingly diverse, increasingly wired, increasingly less interested in control and authority?.”
I see teachers who want to engage in that process and it makes me really hopeful. I think teachers want to experience greater meaning and pleasure in their work. The way to do that is by looking at the meaning of their work and how they can learn better from each other.
Do you agree that schools are wounded students? Share your opinions in the comments section!