To explore better possibilities for nurturing new minds, and to care about the problem in the first place, it helps to remember what's wrong with what we do to new minds. John Taylor Gatto speaks about this from experience and insight: Seven Lessons Taught in School, 1991

(If you're going to read the following, at least read the seven lessons (part I) of that essay.)

Here's another list of harms caused by schooling.

1. You aren't a mind, and don't bother trying to behave like one.

Children naturally attend to things until they're done with them:

From Maria Montessori, My System of Education, 1915: IPFS pdf link

A little girl, about three years of age, was deeply absorbed in the work of placing wooden blocks and cylinders in a frame for that purpose. The expression of her face was that of such intense attention, that it was almost a revelation to me. Never before had I seen a child look with such "fixedness" upon an object, and my conviction about the instability of attention which goes incessantly from one thing to another, a fact which is so characteristic in little children, made the phenomenon the more remarkable to me.

I watched the child without interrupting her, and counted how many times she would do her work over and over. It seemed that she was never going to stop. As I saw that it would take a very long time, I took the little armchair on which she was sitting and placed child and chair on the big table. Hastily she put the frame across the chair, gathered blocks and cylinders in her lap, and continued her work undisturbed. I invited the other children to sing, but the little girl went on with her work and continued even after the singing had ceased. I counted forty-four different exercises which she made, and when she finally stopped, and did so absolutely independently from an exterior cause that could disturb her, she looked around with an expression of great satisfaction, as if she were awakening from a deep and restful sleep.

The impression I received from the observation was that of a discovery. The same phenomenon became very common among those children, and it was noticed in every school in every country where my system was introduced; therefore it can be considered as a constant reaction which takes place in connection with certain exterior conditions that can be well established. Each time a similar "polarization" of the attention occurred, the child began to transmute itself completely; it became calmer, more expressive, more intelligent, and evidenced extraordinary interior qualities, which recalled the phenomena of the highest mentality. When the phenomenon of polarization of the attention had occurred, all that was confused and drifting in the conscience of the child seemed to assume a form, the marvelous characters of which were reproduced in each individual.

School usually steamrolls this process. The teacher has dominion over your attention; you have to either listen to what the teacher is saying, or work on the worksheets. Your location and (nominal) topic switches every hour. Even at home you do worksheets and projects. Your attention isn't you or yours; you're at war with your attention, it says no but your teacher--and implicitly your parents and college admissions and society, and "you"--insist.

Not only are you not the authority on what is worth it for you to spend minutes, days, or years on; if you are even consulted, it's superficial ("Which current event to do a report on? There are many options.") and maybe only for Potemkin village purposes ("We offer many electives."). You have to be a receptacle for what the teacher has brought to give you, because you don't have a perspective, you aren't an organized/organizing entity, and therefore can't be trusted to judge what is worthwhile. In the teacher-student relationship, someone has to defer to the other, and there's nothing in the student that the teacher could defer to. (I recall my elementary school art teacher looking at my painting, and then taking the brush out of my hand and painting new stuff on the canvas over what I'd already put there. In another class, I said "Wait, [...]" because I was confused about something, and the teacher interrupted my question to scold me for telling zer what to do.) Simply, the time in which you'd have created your mind is taken from you.

This creates learned helplessness about being absorbed in anything. It's like if you are trying to program, or write, but at arbitrary moments, someone Harrison Bergerons you until you forget what you were thinking. You learn not to get all worked up (absorbed in something, arranged ephemerally but suitably for the matter at hand, like a standing wave or a rough-and-ready scaffolding), because you'll just have to drop it in the middle anyway. You minimize the deepness and recursiveness of your questions, the length of your strides into the woods; the deeper the question, the more at risk you are of building towers of mental context and pumping neuroplasticity-juice into the relevant areas of your mind, and then having that plasticity act as random brain damage rather than successful reprogramming, when [the task that the plasticity was aimed at taking a compressive snapshot of how to perform/complete] is interrupted.

The self-organization of the child's mind is blocked at every turn, and the results are similar to trying to gestate a fetus in a small box.

Always smile. Refrain from looking out of the window.

2. The world isn't yours.

2.1. We own Space, and decide where you are.

Being forced to stay in a room with restricted range of motion (stay in your seat and stop fidgeting) is captivity, and captivity is harmful. Nuff said, one might have hoped.

A common episode: a student asks "Can I go to the bathroom?", and the teacher responds "You CAN, but you MAY not." or "You CAN, did you mean 'May I?'?". It's not just a stupid joke (what other stupid jokes stick out as vividly in memory as this one?), it's rubbing in your face that your range of motion is restricted by authority as if there were a concrete wall instead of a door, but you're not allowed to bring to the teacher's attention that they are restraining you so severely. Wow, what a doofus you are to think that Can and May are the same, how could you possibly have gotten those confused, I wonder?

From The Quiet Rooms, Richards, Cohen, Chavis, 2019:

TL;DR: Many thousands of times a year, kids in Illinois are locked up in a small room alone, sometimes for hours.

In Illinois, it's legal for school employees to seclude students in a separate space — to put them in "isolated timeout" — if the students pose a safety threat to themselves or others. Yet every school day, workers isolate children for reasons that violate the law[...] [snip]

For this investigation, ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune obtained and analyzed thousands of detailed records that state law requires schools to create whenever they use seclusion. The resulting database documents more than 20,000 incidents from the 2017-18 school year and through early December 2018. [snip]

"Please, please, please open the door. Please, I'll be good. Open the door and I'll be quiet."

"I'd rather die. You're torturing me."

Also, in Connecticut: 'Scream Rooms': Punishing Disabled Students in Isolation, Emily Richmond, 2012. Presumably in other states as well.

Autistic 11 year old locked in a small room alone for hours in the UK: "He had always loved school... but by the end of October in fifth class he hated it. I was dragging him into school every day."

No kidding.

It sounds not uncommon in the UK: Consequence Rooms. "Then he got 22 hours in an isolation booth in one week and he was just an absolute mess. He came out at the end of the day and he didn't look well. His legs were shaking and he could hardly string a sentence together. He looked completely done in."

Most schools aren't like that though, right? Well, the extremes, the ones that get reported, tell you about the hidden distribution and the attitudes that produced it. We own space, and decide where you ca... MAY go.

From Children's Games in Street and Playground, Opie and Opie, 1969: IPFS pdf link

TL;DR: Kids in confinement are more violent and cruel than kids not in confinement.

The places specially made for children's play are also the places where children can most easily be watched playing: the asphalt expanses of school playgrounds, the cage-like enclosures filled with junk by a local authority, the corners of recreation grounds stocked with swings and slides. In a playground children are, or are not, allowed to make chalk diagrams on the ground for hopscotch, to bounce balls against a wall, to bring marbles or skipping ropes, to play 'Conkers', 'Split the Kipper', 'Hi Jimmy Knacker'. Children of different ages may or may not be kept apart; boys may or may not be separated from girls. And according to the closeness of the supervision they organize gangs, carry out vendettas, place people in Coventry, gamble, bribe, blackmail, squabble, bully, and fight. The real nature of young boys has long been apparent to us, or so it has seemed. We have only to travel in a crowded school bus to be conscious of their belligerency, the extraordinary way they have of assailing each other, verbally and physically, each child feeling—perhaps with reason—that it is necessary to keep his end up against the rest. We know from accounts of previous generations with what good reason the great boarding schools, and other schools following, limited boys' free time, and made supervised games a compulsory part of the curriculum. As Sydney Smith wrote in 1810, it had become an 'immemorial custom' in the public schools that every boy should be alternately tyrant and slave. [snip for length; more descriptions of abuse by kids in school]

[snip] [...]leading us [educators] to believe that a Lord of the Flies mentality is inherent in the young[...] [snip]

Thus recent extensive studies of apes and monkeys have shown, perhaps not unexpectedly, that animal behaviour in captivity is not the same as in the wild. In the natural habitat the welfare of the troop as a whole is paramount, the authority of the experienced animal is accepted, the idiosyncrasies of members of the troop are respected. But when the same species is confined and overcrowded the toughest and least-sensitive animal comes to the top, a pecking order develops, bullying and debauchery become common, and each creature when abused takes his revenge on the creature next weakest to himself. In brief, it appears that when lower primates are in the wild, and fending for themselves, their behaviour is 'civilized', certainly in comparison with their behaviour when they are confined and cared for, which is when they most behave 'like animals'.

Our observations of children lead us to believe that much the same is true of our own species. We have noticed that when children are herded together in the playground, which is where the educationalists and the psychologists and the social scientists gather to observe them, their play is markedly more aggressive than when they are in the street or in the wild places. At school they play 'Ball He', 'Dodge Ball', 'Chain Swing', and 'Bull in the Ring'. They indulge in duels such as 'Slappies', 'Knuckles', and 'Stinging', in which the pleasure, if not the purpose, of the game is to dominate another player and inflict pain. In a playground it is impracticable to play the free-ranging games like 'Hide and Seek' and 'Relievo' and 'Kick the Can', that are, as Stevenson said, the 'well-spring of romance', and are natural to children in the wastelands. Often, when we have asked children what games they played in the playground we have been told 'We just go round aggravating people.' [snip; more descriptions of abusive games]

Such behaviour would not be tolerated amongst the players in the street or the wasteland; and for a long time we had difficulty reconciling these accounts with the thoughtfulness and respect for the juvenile code that we had noticed in the quiet places. Then we recollected how, in our own day, children who had seemed unpleasant at school (whose term-time behaviour at boarding school had indeed been barbarous), turned out to be surprisingly civilized when we met them in the holidays. We remembered hearing how certain inmates of institutions, and even people in concentration camps during the war, far from having a feeling of camaraderie, were liable to seek their pleasure in making life still more intolerable for those who were confined with them [...].

2.2. We own people, and decide who you're with.

You're segregated by age, and divided in classes. Maybe you'd've learned to learn from a kid a couple years older than you, or learned to teach a kid a couple years younger than you. But that's hypothetical, because we've decided you're not to be with those people.

2.3. We own Import.

In standard schooling, kids aren't around adults in adult environments doing adult activities for adult reasons. There's the real world, the adult world, where everything of Import is, and then there's the kid world, which has to make way for the adult world.

From Children's Games in Street and Playground, Opie and Opie, 1969: IPFS pdf link

What is curious about these embroilments is that children always do seem to have been in trouble about the places where they played. In the nineteenth century there were repeated complaints that the pavements of London were made impassable by children's shuttlecock and tipcat. In Stuart times, Richard Steele reported, the vicinity of the Royal Exchange was infested with uninvited sportsmen, and a beadle was employed to whip away the "unlucky Boys with Toys and Balls". Even in the Middle Ages, when it might be supposed a meadow was within reach of every Jack and Jill in Britain, the young had a way of gravitating to unsuitable places. In 1332 it was found necessary to prohibit boys and others from playing in the precincts of the Palace at Westminster while Parliament was sitting. In 1385 the Bishop of London was forced to declaim against the ball-play about St. Paul's; and in 1447, away in Devonshire, the Bishop of Exeter was complaining of 'yong Peple' playing in the cloister, even during divine service, such games as 'the toppe, queke, penny prykke, and most atte tenys, by the which the walles of the saide Cloistre have be defowled and the glas wyndowes all to brost'.

Should such persistent choice of busy and provocative play-places alert us that all is not as appears in the ghettos of childhood? Children's deepest pleasure, as we shall see, is to be away in the wastelands, yet they do not care to separate themselves altogether from the adult world. In some forms of their play (or in certain moods), they seem deliberately to attract attention to themselves, screaming, scribbling on the pavements, smashing milk bottles, banging on doors, and getting in people's way. A single group of children were able to name twenty games they played which involved running across the road. Are children, in some of their games, expressing something more than high spirits, something of which not even they, perhaps, are aware? No section of the community is more rooted to where it lives than the young. When children engage in 'Last Across' in front of a car is it just devilment that prompts the sport, or may it be some impulse of protest in the tribe? Perhaps those people will appreciate this question most who have asked themselves whether the convenience of motorists thrusting through a town or village is really as important as the well-being of the people whose settlement it is, and who are attempting to live their lives in it.

Let yong Peple go!

From John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down, 1992: IPFS pdf link

In Monongahela by that river everyone was my teacher. Daily, it seemed to a boy, one of the mile-long trains would stop in town to take on water and coal, or for some mysterious reason; the brakeman and engineer would step among snot-nosed kids and spin railroad yarns, let us run in and out of boxcars, over and under flatcars, tank cars, coal cars, and numbers of other specialty cars whose function we memorized as easily as we memorized enemy plane silhouettes. Once a year, maybe, we got taken into the caboose that reeked of stale beer to be offered a bologna-on-white-bread sandwich. The anonymous men lectured, advised, and inspired the boys of Monongahela — that was as much their job as driving the trains.

Sometimes a riverboat would stop in mid-channel and discharge a crew who would row to shore, tying their skiff to one of the willows. That was the excuse for every rickety skiff in the twelve-block-long town to fill up with kids, pulling like Vikings, sometimes with sticks instead of oars, to raid the "Belle of Pittsburgh" or "The Original River Queen." Some kind of natural etiquette was at work in Monongahela. The rules didn't need to be written down; if men had time they showed boys how to grow up. We didn't whine when our time was up: men had work to do — we understood that and scampered away, grateful for the flash of our own futures they had had time to reveal, however small it was.

The world isn't yours, it's the adults's. We're driving in our cars on our way to and from important things, and you better get out of the way. They're very important things, they aren't for you, go play (somewhere else).

Imagining that your activities, explorations, and questions in the classroom could be taken up with the solemn seriousness, open reality, and pivotal consequence of a factory floor, a judge's courtroom, or an artist's studio, is very cute and childlikeish. That I would believe you, is laughable, though I will of course humor you. If the work I give you is comically fake, well did you expect it to be real? You're only a child.

3. Preference falsification and double binds.

(See Wiki: Double bind, h/t Michael Vassar.)

Slavoj Žižek:

It's Sunday afternoon. My father wants me to visit our grandmother. Let's say my father is a traditional authority. What would he be doing? He would probably tell me something like, "I don't care how you feel; it's your duty to visit your grandmother. Be polite to her and so on." Nothing bad about this I claim because I can still rebel and so on. It's a clear order. But what would the so-called post-modern non-authoritarian father do?

I know because I experienced it. He would have said something like this, "You know how much your grandmother loves you, but nonetheless I'm not forcing you to visit her. You should only visit her if you freely decide to do it." Now every child knows that beneath the appearance of free choice there is a much stronger pressure in this second message. Because basically your father is not only telling you, you must visit your grandmother, but you must love to visit it. You know he tells you how you must feel about it. It's a much stronger order.

Your attention is yours (and you must give it to me). Follow your interests (and be interested in what we're "teaching"). You want to be good, right? So you want to follow the rules we make, right? And they're rightful rules, aren't they, or why else would you want to follow them? Develop your own unique specialness (make sure it's one of the things on this list though). God help you if you question our authority to deny you bodily autonomy, and you'd better pretend that CAN and MAY are meaningfully different here.

Always smile. Refrain from looking out of the window.


Many of these harms can be alleviated or avoided by just not being crazy. (Yes it's that easy.) It's fine if the kids aren't paying attention to what you're teaching, why are you trying to teach 20 kids at once anyway? If something is truly repulsive to a kid's attention, then you're just wrong about what's good for the kid right now, period. And so on.

What's left is for teachers (or "mentors" or "guides" or something) to bring the world to the children. Montessori wrote about this at length. In general, there's much work to be done with teaching; but this is mostly unknown territory, since teachers have mostly so far been obliged to do something other than facilitate learning, and teachers will have to learn how to let the students learn, which is a detailed activity with unknown challenges. Maximize blocks of uninterrupted time. Maximize the environment for opening up the world, deferring to children's interests. Allow the children to make their own environment, like the people that they are.

It would be trivially easy to make school a better product for parents. Have it run until 1720 or later, so parents with work have daycare (kids of course need daycare until they're 18; or at least, that is the revealed preference for whatever reason). Allow flexible sign-in and sign-out. Be completely open to parents visiting. Let kids play outside for many hours, so they aren't stressed, sick, and depressed. Never give homework, so kids can be with their families.

I spoke with someone who runs a pre-school in the spirit of Montessori. Ze told me that ze started a Montessori school, but regulations and money problems made it go under. Ze was sure there's a market, though. I suspect (not having carefully evaluated things) that Effective Altruism is severely underweighting the value of investing in education. I think that harming kids makes them grow up to be more likely to harm other people and be less creative. School almost certainly doesn't matter if AGI comes in the next decade or two, but if we have longer, then more rolls of the dice for brilliant natural philosophers seems like maybe a pretty good way to spend resources.

Contact me at my gmail address, username "tsvibtcontact", if you want to discuss with me possible interventions and funding (not that I'm well-suited to these tasks or have too much energy for them, but I'm interested).

Not sure Becky's kidding.

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This is a good post that I'm glad you wrote. The inferential distance of 'public school is baldly abusive' is one of the largest deltas I experience with consensus reality, along with AMA cartelization, and land use reform.

American medical association

A lot of these are seen as POSITIVE effects.  Acculturation and habituation to (some forms of) workplace environment is often given as a reason for enforced schooling. And don't forget the need for childcare - just keeping kids out of the hair of their parents.  

The thing that's so often missed in these discussions is the sheer SCALE of modern schooling.  Even just in the US, it's hundreds of billions of hours per year.  It's incredibly expensive to do badly, and probably infeasible to do well for all or even most students.  Combined with the variation of children (including ability, interest, peer groups, and outside-school opportunities and activities) and the social inability to acknowledge these differences, it's probably impossible to have an actually good system.

If you have the means (in time, ability, and/or money), you are strongly encouraged to supplement or replace public schooling for your kids.  If you don't, you're kind of stuck.

Having lived with teachers, in-laws are teachers, daughter and daughter-in-law are teachers, I find some of criticism of schools unrealistic. Faced with 30 kids, 10 of them from dysfunctional homes, 3 with specific learning difficulties and expectations from society/government that they will be ready pass this exam at end of the year, some tough choices get made. Getting better results from schools needs more funding than taxpayers are prepared to hand out. Pay out lots of dough to private schools and you get two big bonuses - much smaller classes and far fewer children from dysfunctional families. 

It sounds like you're defending teachers against the accusation of Being Bad, which is not what I took to be the thesis of this post. At its core, the post is highlighting damage done by the current school system. Some of that damage is done by teachers who mean well and have high skill but are up against an impossible situation, as you describe. Some is done by teachers who are unskilled or malicious and are enabled by the current system. A lot just kind of happens due to the structure regardless of what any individual wants. It's still useful to track the damage being done.

I would admit outright that there are bad teachers - I was fortunate in not having many, but certainly knew which ones in the school were. What I am uncomfortable with is that I perceive that the harms described are criticisms of the process, whereas I think that much of the process is created by the structures in which school exist. Schools structures and teaching practise has evolved to meet the expectations and constraints that the wider society has imposed. 

Eg - paying attention. Well if teacher is explaining say difficult part of german grammar that the textbook (if there is one) doesnt cover well, then yes, the teacher wants the student attention. If student prefers Twitter and teacher doesnt demand, then what are the consequences? Possibility 1. The student flunks exam. At uni level, this is what happens. No consequences for lecturer, and only for student. In my country, teachers AND schools are judged on pass rate. Ergo - teacher demands attention. Possibility 2. Student confronted with the grammar asks for teachers help. Teacher has to go over the point again unnecessarily, using time that could have been spent advancing the wider learning. Ergo - teacher demands attention. Possibility 3. Student got the point, doesnt need teacher, so why not spend time on Twitter? Indeed, and if teacher suspects that will probably ignore - except that social pressure applies. Why is x allowed on Twitter but I am not?

The alternative to school seems to be home schooling. Well and good but a massive investment (if thought of in terms of earnings lost by parent teacher). This is  reducing class size to one. If class size doesnt matter, then why is this a better option again?

I have recent dealings with extended family member who is dyslexic  - a common problem estimated at about 10% pop. Local dyslexia association fights hard for change in practise to cope, but hard cold reality is that the practises advocated for are just not practical with many real-world classrooms. A teacher does not have the time given current resourcing within my country. The answer is better resourcing, but that is a structural problem. Fix that and you can fix the teaching practise.

If student prefers Twitter and teacher doesnt demand, then what are the consequences? Possibility 1. The student flunks exam. At uni level, this is what happens. No consequences for lecturer, and only for student. In my country, teachers AND schools are judged on pass rate. Ergo - teacher demands attention.

To clarify - the judgement does occur in uni, in your country?

What I am uncomfortable with is that I perceive that the harms described are criticisms of the process, whereas I think that much of the process is created by the structures in which school exist. Schools structures and teaching practise has evolved to meet the expectations and constraints that the wider society has imposed. 

It's called 'Harms and possibilities of schooling' not 'Harms downstream of the bureaucracy which sets the rules and funds for schooling.' Making such a point could be done in two posts (perhaps more would be required). But step 1 is establishing there is a problem. (As you put it 'with the process'.) Step 2 might be figuring out how to fix the process (which you might separate into:

  • The better way
  • changing things to implement the better way
  • changing things so this even begins to be possible)

If there were no issues with the process, then what reason would there be to go mucking about with

the structures in which school exist. Schools structures and teaching practise has evolved to meet the expectations and constraints that the wider society has imposed. 

Actually that quote didn't make my point - it made it seem like criticizing the process is great if it changes 'the expectations and constraints wider society imposes.'

The answer is better resourcing, but that is a structural problem. Fix that and you can fix the teaching practise.

And what reason is there if nought is broken? The post starts at the beginning.

Pattern - to first question. In my country, schools and teacher in schools are judged formally or informally by pass rates. Universities, not much, and university lecturers would only be investigated if there was serious concerns about incompetence or unfair exams.

As I said, my discomfort is with tone that teachers are doing it wrong and all teachers are bad.  

Eg "It's fine if the kids aren't paying attention to what you're teaching, why are you trying to teach 20 kids at once anyway?"

Well, because as teacher, you dont have a choice. 

eg "Have it run until 1720". So how many hours a day do you think teachers should be working then? Every teacher I know is at school early, home late and working through the evening. No wonder they burn out. This does not strike me as remotely realistic.

I am concerned that teaching is ineffective, that classroom failure has serious downstream effects. The harms here: Well frankly, I am not convinced that teacher demanding your attention is a harm. Fact of life in a society that needs educated people. 

Well, because as teacher, you dont have a choice. 

Of course. It does seem like that problem should be fixed at a different level. I also think that if you keep increasing past the number 20 indefinitely, eventually the idea one teacher will do will become ridiculous, and things will have to change greatly to even begin to handle such a situation.

I had a few classes (well before uni***) that didn't (often) revolve around lectures or powerpoint presentations*, instead work was largely done out of a textbook. And the teacher answered questions/helped people who were struggling. (Sometimes several people had the same question, and so it switched to being covered for the class.) But that is a particular teaching style, and it seems like it's going to work better for some subjects**** and some people.

*They were seen as a tool for covering a lot of info quickly, but in a way that was suboptimal for students (attention) for long periods of time**, and were used when necessary but not otherwise.

**The longer a lecture, the more this is an issue.

***I remember it worked well for a coach teaching a topic, and was better than the some classes that weren't run that way.

****A class that involves reading books will, of course look at least a bit like this - in or out of class.

Living in the modern world means that a child really needs to learn to read and write/type. For many children, they would much rather be outside playing. Me and my children were motivated and reading before arriving at the school gate. We "suffered" the harms above to some extent unnecessarily but for many, many of classmates, some from homes with no books, learning those basics was tough. They certainly werent going to learn it at school without restricting their liberties. The harms suffered in that were well and truly compensated for by the critical life skill of reading. 

Helping  with a dyslexic, I see the school in no way able to cope with current staffing. They really want you to pay for outside school programmes with one on one teaching. Effective if you can afford it, but well beyond the means of many families. 

Children mostly caring about playing outside sounds like a perspective from another time.

Children care about being able to use their phones in various ways. They text with their friends. They play computer games where being able to read is useful.

Or maybe another place. Extremely unusual for kids here to have phones in first 4-5 years of schooling. And much as my dyslexic relative would like to read what a computer game is saying, it doesnt  inspire the hard work needed for learning to read. Not fun compared to other screaming around with a ball.

There's no reason why children have to learn those skills in the first 4-5 years of schooling. The important thing is that they learn them.

Ok, I am curious, if they dont read or write in first 4-5 years, what do you expect them to learn in those years? 

Children became grown-ups 200 years ago too. I don't think we need to teach them anything at all, much less anything in particular.

According to this SSC post, kids can easily catch up in math even if they aren't taught any math at all in the 5 first years of school.

In the Benezet experiment, a school district taught no math at all before 6th grade (around age 10-11). Then in sixth grade, they started teaching math, and by the end of the year, the students were just as good at math as traditionally-educated children with five years of preceding math education.

That would probably work for reading too, I guess. (Reading appears to require more purpose-built brain circuitry than math. At least I got that impression from reading Henrich's WEIRD. I don't have any references though.)

200 years ago was different world - reading wasnt required. Ask anyone who cant read as an adult how tough that is. The 10% with dyslexia need intervention fast.

[To respond to not the literal content of your comment, in case it's relevant: I think some teachers are intrinsically bad, some are intrinsically great, and many are unfortunately compelled or think they're compelled to try to solve an impossible problem and do the best they can. Blame just really shouldn't be the point, and if you're worried someone will blame someone based on a description, then you may have a dispute with the blamer, not the describer.]

criticism of schools unrealistic

Well, it's worth distinguishing (1) whether/what harms are being done, and (2) under what circumstances the harms can be avoided. I don't know precisely what you mean by "criticism of schools". I don't think you mean, it's unrealistic--fantastical, unbelievable--that schools do these harms. I take you to mean, it's unrealistic not to do these harms to kids. I don't want to blur between "there's no way to avoid this" and "this isn't happening" (largely because it's just not true that there's no way to avoid it), or between "this is happening" and "we must do certain things, and blame/punish certain people" (because the implication just doesn't hold, and the implication is sometimes used to couple the belief with the plan more than it has to be, and then push against the belief because the supposedly implied plan would be bad; as in "if school were harmful, I'd have to take my family and go live in the woods and be cut off from society; that would be bad for my family; therefore school is not harmful").

To allow teachers to not harm their kids, parents might have to be willing to firmly disclaim for their kids anything like "expectations from society/government that they will be ready pass this exam at end of the year". It may be unrealistic that parents would do that; I'd like to know why, but more acutely I'd like to see parents who are willing to do that organize.

Getting better results from schools needs more funding than taxpayers are prepared to hand out. 

I'm not aware of good evidence that it's easy to get better results for students simply by spending more money and that money is a key limiting factor. What makes you believe that?

"not easy to get better results simply by spending money" is not in conflict with "getting better results needs more funding than taxpayers are prepared to hand out".

It could be the results are nonlinear, and the real gains happen a long way past the current funding levels.  It could be there are many required improvements, and money is just one constraint, but visible enough that it makes the others un-testable.

As the Gates Foundation research suggests currently a bachelor of education doesn't teach anything that helps teachers to help their students get better education results. You could save a lot of money by simply not paying people with a bachelor of education more money.

ChristianKI. That I think is a USA problem, but many teachers here (NZ) have rated teaching college as pretty much waste of time, with all their real learning coming from ground-zero experience under good mentors. As I perceive it, the problem with teaching college is that they are closely aligned with the university system and lecturers want to teach their research interests, not necessarily "strategies for effective engagement of ADHD and ASD students in your classroom". My daughter-in-law went through experimental system where she was put into classroom of low-decile school as paid teacher after only a few weeks of intensive training, albeit with far reduced hours and a mentor. A few week-long intensive training camps during the year. Something of "crucible experience" with I gather a substantial dropout rate and a longer route to full teacher registration, but arguably a better training than college. Long term analysis of the programme will be interesting. 

Unfortunately, problems of US academia are not limited to the US. The problem isn't just that professors focus on their research interests. If there research would be about useful things like "strategies for effective engagement of ADHD and ASD students in your classroom" there wouldn't be a problem. It's rather that they focus on critical theory instead of focusing on actually effective studies.

Instead of asking how a teacher can effectively project his authority in a classroom so that the children follow his teachings, they rather want to deconstruct authority. This is in turn is different from changing the school system to something like what happens in Sudbury Valley, so it ends up as a quite useless activity.

Changing this is not a question of money but of political will to change structures.

I do expect that projects like the one you describe are an improvement.

Hmm, I had to look up what "critical theory" is, but I do remember complaints like in early 80s about one college in particular. A friend of sister went through it and called it the "Society for the Protection of the Unborn Thought" (Society for Protection for Unborn Child was a prominant anti-abortion organisation here). Needless to say, it didnt make an impression on her, and think that particular problem vanished in reforms of the 90s.

My daughter went through the conventional college route to teaching but the complaint were more lecturers hobby horses on continuous teaching practise evaluation, learning styles etc. - ie theoretically useful but not the most important things for beginner teachers. Lots of what an ideal learner and classroom should be like but not a lot on how to get there.

Indeed.  Perhaps focusing on MORE teachers (aka smaller class sizes) is more important than BETTER teachers (though I suspect both matter).  And certainly more important than MORE CREDENTIALED teachers.  

Note that it may well be that this should to be framed as "don't pay teachers less because they didn't get an Education degree" rather than "don't pay them more if they did".  And it does open the can of worms of productivity measurement.  Teaching is no different from many vocations in that it's nigh-impossible to be objective and mechanical about who's doing it well and who isn't.  It IS different from many vocations in that it's government-administered and has a very strong union which prevents less-legible but more-useful measurement.

What percent of the population should be teachers?

While I agree that small classes are generally better, there are simply too many students, so if we make small classrooms, too many teachers will be needed. Everything has a cost, and at some moment we have to say something like "no, we can't have 20% of adult population working as teachers; and we definitely can't have the smartest 20% of adult population working as teachers, because smart people are needed in other professions, too -- or would you perhaps prefer to have a stupid surgeon operate on you?".

Education does not scale well, at least the way we do it now. Small classes just make it worse. What are the possibilities?

  • better use of books, movies, computers. A teacher standing in front of the blackboard explaining stuff, could be replaced by a book or a movie telling the same thing. (But what if you have a question? Okay, so replace half lessons with books and movies, and the questions can be asked during the remaining half.)
  • some kind of pyramid education, where older kids would teach younger kids? Again, let older kids teach younger kids half of the lessons, the remaining half would be with the adult teacher.
  • maybe just... teach less? If kids don't pay attention, maybe just let them go (to a room where babysitting is provided without education).

And definitely decouple teaching from certification. You should not get diploma for "being there", but for having the knowledge (regardless of whether you obtained it at school, at home, or anywhere else).

In my vision, a school would be a huge babysitting center, where parents can leave their kids between 6:00 and 18:00, with voluntary classes -- some of them taught by teachers, other by students, or external people. Places for silent study, reading books. Computers with educational software and automated tests. Students can take an exam on any subject they want, at any moment. You get a diploma for completing a certain set of exams. You could spend N years at the school without getting the diploma. Or you could learn at home, and then just come to school to take the exams and get the diploma.

What percent of the population should be teachers?

In some sense, 100% - it takes a village and all that.  More reasonably, maybe 5% or so to have pre-college teaching as their primary occupation.  22% of the US population in 2020 was under age 18, so this would give a comfortable class size of 5-15 (varying by subject), with some slack for admin and supervision.

You're right, of course, that scale is the big problem - most people don't WANT to spend the resources (money and human productivity) that is implied by universal good schooling.  But they don't want to admit that either, so they just complain.  There are correlates here to cost disease in health care - the appearance of helping being more important than actually helping, and the political infeasibility of providing less service to the less-able-to-pay.

I have this vision in my head of teaching being primarily the responsibility of retired folks.

In that society, "retirement" (and perhaps more importantly retirement benefits like Social Security, Medicare, etc.) involves spending a few hours to a day (or more, if you want) at a local school, teaching.


  •  Keeps the older generation more involved, while giving them a platform to share their knowledge/experience with the young (which is arguably the a large fraction of the value of keeping them around to begin with)
  • Gives students (K-12 mostly, but no reason it couldn't include college) the chance to interact and learn from people who've had lives and careers already, exposing them to more options, opportunities, and cultures
  • Helps pay for retirement benefits by having retired folks work in the public sector (perhaps with a small additional stipend for doing so?)  And we're also only talking about ~1 class a week, unless they wanted to do more

I do quite like most parts of your vision, though it would likely need to be supplemented with a set of specialists for learning disabilities or counseling, and so on.

I like this. Mostly because my idea of perfect education is "everyone uses something like Khan Academy", where the usual response is: "but what about the small kids who can't read yet?" Your proposal addresses this part.

Do you have a link to the research about the effect of a bachelor of education?

I don't have data to back my claim up, but as a maths teacher it's clearly easier for me to reach three students than 30, just because I have so much more time to give to each student (epistemic status : I'm currently teaching one course where I have 30 students and one where I have 3...)

"What makes you believe that?"

Largely based on studies on class size. Some say effect is only modest but reducing class size from 35 to 25 is pretty meaningless. Reducing below 20 though is different story. A high-needs child in a large classroom is really going struggle - only so much time that a teacher can give them.  I have also looked at what experiments in "Charter schools" have done - with much higher $$ per child than state are able give. 

Anecdotally, (and from serving on school board), what is wanted is quality teachers but pay and conditions make retention difficult.

Have you looked for previous experiments along the lines of what you're proposing? If so, did you find any and what were their results?

I haven't looked really, seems worth someone doing. I think there's been a fair amount of experimentation, though maybe a lot of it is predictably worthless (e.g. by continuing to inflict central harms of normal schooling), I don't know. (This post is mainly aimed at adding detail to what some of the harms are, so that experiments can try to pull the rope sideways on supposed tradeoffs like permissiveness vs. strictness or autonomy vs. guidance.) I looked a little. Aside from Montessori (which would take work to distinguish things branded as Montessori vs. actually implementing her spirit), there's the Summerhill School: which seems to have ended up with creepy stuff going on, and Sudbury schools which I don't know about.

I think this post is a short yet concrete description of what I and others find controlling and mind-warping about the present-day schooling system. It's one of the best short-posts that I can link to on this subject. +4

This will tie in to the main subject, I promise. 

Recently, I've been thinking about the division between science and engineering. As an exercise, you may wish to come up with your own definition before seeing mine.

I think most people give a definition something like this:

Science seeks to improve our understanding of the world. Engineering applies that understanding to control the world and accomplish things in it.

However, this is not really true when you think about it.

It creates the strange implication that engineers depend on scientists for knowledge. In reality, it's probably fair to say that engineering is older than science, and that much of the organized knowledge which engineers rely on does not originate from an organized activity of science, but rather from engineering itself.

I recently learned that the romans had a concept of progress tied to technology, and debated issues related to this. Seneca

Nay, the sort of men who discover such things are the sort of men who are busied with them…. The hammer [and] the tongs… were both invented by some man whose mind was nimble and keen, but not great or exalted; and the same holds true of any other discovery which can only be made by means of a bent body and of a mind whose gaze is upon the ground….

Seneca acknowledges the idea that technological progress has improved Roman lives, but is nonetheless downright insulting in his description of those who engage in it. Here's more from later in the same passage:

We know that certain devices have come to light only within our own memory—such as the use of windows which admit the clear light through transparent tiles, and such as the vaulted baths, with pipes let into their walls for the purpose of diffusing the heat which maintains an even temperature in their lowest as well as in their highest spaces. Why need I mention the marble with which our temples and our private houses are resplendent? Or the rounded and polished masses of stone by means of which we erect colonnades and buildings roomy enough for nations? Or our signs for whole words, which enable us to take down a speech, however rapidly uttered, matching speed of tongue by speed of hand? All this sort of thing has been devised by the lowest grade of slaves. 

Wisdom’s seat is higher; she trains not the hands, but is mistress of our minds…

Seneca also argues that all this technology is ultimately bad for us; the "improvements" to life are seen as ultimately superficial. Seneca is basically your standard Luddite. But that's not my point. 

Seneca, like modern children, was part of an education system which favored book-learning over life experience. I'm guessing that Seneca thought poetry more important than plows, philosophy better than running water, and so on. 

The French aristocracy were crowded into the Palace of Versailles for much the same reason that children are crowded into schools: the King wanted to be able to keep an eye on them, control their preferences rather than only their behavior, keep them in line. I imagine Versailles was much like a modern high school in terms of the cliques and drama. 

I've noticed a tendency, in myself, to consider engineering low-class. I would rather click on a random math video on youtube, rather than a video detailing the operation of some useful industrial machine. "Making things" feels low class (unless it's done by hand, or with some new shiny innovation, or something else to spice it up). Am I making a mistake similar to Seneca?

I watch the math video (I tell myself) because I'm trying to do new things, not old things. The machine would be useful if I were going into business as a manufacturer, but that's not my priority. I'm trying to solve AI alignment. The math video has a higher chance of containing some generalizable trick which may help me. 

I feel kinship with a long line of philosophers who wanted to figure out the correct rules of reasoning. Plato thought this was so important that the philosophers should be put in charge; the ideal king is a philosopher-king, educated in proper thinking. 

I think maybe this project has succeeded more than it has failed, with all the good and bad consequences that come along with this.

My thesis is that there've been two semi-coherent (tho partially overlapping) groups: the academics (scientists, philosophers, etc), and the engineers (tradespeople, practitioners of crafts, builders, etc). These groups have developed different valuable kinds of knowledge. The engineers develop practical knowledge, based on more direct experience, and of more direct economic value (and usually, greater economic value). The academics develop intellectual knowledge, based more on extrapolation, and therefore more heavily dependent on priors.

I think maybe this is somehow about the principle-agent problem. In an engineering-heavy context, you know expertise because you see results. In academic culture, it is very difficult to discern goodness; it involves expert skill. Only scientists can judge scientists. Similarly, how can you judge a teacher? The sponsors of academics mostly have to rely on academic consensus about the quality of academics. And grades are, of course, the output of tests devised by academics for academics.

The academics have a higher tendency to be plugged into the social elite, influenced by social fashions, etc. Science is usually state-sponsored. Schools are usually heavily plugged into the state, and schooling has traditionally been a sign of high status. 'Working with your hands' is traditionally low-status. I take this as evidence that academia won some sort of status competition over an alternate life-path, that of learning a trade.

I value the academic way of life. I feel glad that our society is a highly-educated one. I prefer highly-educated experts in positions of power. 

But when I look at the "Seven Lessons Taught in School" essay which you began with, and at your post, I see the negative consequences of an academic approach to life being described. 

Anyway, obviously these are super crude clusters, and overall this is probably a pretty bad model of why anything happens. Just some things I've been thinking about. 

Geek attacks on education usually seem to include too much typical-minding. These things may be harmful to young minds of a certain type, but be absolutely necessary to much of the normies in school.

This doesn't seem true to me. Out of all the harms that Tsvi has listed, which of them are 'absolutely necessary'? And if 'absolutely necessary', how did humans survive before school?

Tsvi isn't trying to compare school to a specific alternative; he is focusing on the downsides of the current system. The points he listed do indeed seem like downsides to me. Reiterating my understanding of his section-header points:

1. Children are taught that their implicit instincts about what is interesting and worth engaging with are wrong, constitute only "play", and that "real work" involves forcing yourself to do things you are not interested in, and indeed which no one is really interested in, because authority says so. This often results in lifelong nightmares about forced activities (especially tests). In my case and I think many cases, it results in a semi-dysfunctional split motivation system, where I am often forcing myself to do things (even if I am intrinsically interested in those things) because that's what "working" looks like. This is a recipe for akrasia, or workaholism, or other problems. 

It might be true that some kids do just fine (adults certainly would have labelled me as mostly doing just fine tho). But this doesn't diminish the downside for those kids who do pick up lifelong damage.

2.1 Solitary confinement, restrictive bathroom privileges, almost total lack of privacy, and a regimented day where you rarely get to decide where you are. 

2.2 Enforcement of rigid age-based segregation, assigned classes, sometimes assigned seating, a general lack of agency about who you can associate with. 

2.3 Increasing infantalization of children. Tsvi quotes a passage where someone describes often getting educational tours of trains and other adult job situations. In modern times this is reduced to a few memorable field trips to local businesses, which means much less education about the work local adults are actually doing, much less community integration, and much less exposure to adult life in general (children are too busy "preparing for adult life" to go experience parts of it and learn). Over the past century+, social norms increasingly require helicopter parenting, meaning (for example) the age where children are trusted to cross the street on their own without parental supervision keeps going up, and the range that children are allowed to roam on their own keeps decreasing. The general picture is clear: children are increasingly not trusted the way adults are trusted, and so, have to wait longer and longer to engage in adult life. 

3. Preference falsification.

I might buy arguments that some of these concerns are overblown, or misrepresented, or false; but you seem to be suggesting something else: that some of the points raised are upsides rather than downsides (for neurotypicals). This seems harder to swallow.