What’s Wrong (or Right) With Our Educational System?

Shocking results of the recent survey conducted by our company say that education reforms have to be implemented as soon as possible. Thus, we have decided to sort out what kind of reforms we need.   

There seems to be a problem…

It seems that everyone has an opinion about schools these days.   Whether you are an educator, a parent, or just have less-than-rosy memories of your own school experience, each of us has our own ideas about education.  However, we all seem to agree on one thing:  something about our education system seems amiss.  Something is not working quite right.  Something needs to be fixed.

Is higher education becoming obsolete?

The problem seems to extend its reach all the way through to the post-secondary school level.  To a highly concerning, even shocking degree, we are finding that college graduates enter the workforce with an abundance of debt and a serious lack of marketable skills.

On the other hand, a glance at this very impressive list of college dropouts paints a disconcerting picture of success.  The stories of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropping out of Harvard and Stanford to build their now-legendary companies have become a deeply-ingrained part of our nation’s collective mythology.

We can all think of many other people, less famous than these heroic figures but in their own way just as successful, who gave college a miss and took the non-traditional path.  That neighbor, that cousin, that childhood friend…you know the one I’m talking about.  Unburdened with college loan payments and on fire with that idea for a great new business, and seemingly successful overnight.  Meanwhile you are still figuring out what you want to do with your life ten years later.

So what’s really going on here?  Are these crazy successful people just flukes?  Or are their stories telling us something about higher education, at least the traditional kind?  In a recent survey 73% of those who responded said that they do not think education guarantees a successful career.

Some feel tht over the years we have come to place too much importance on college degrees when they don’t represent the best training for every kind of career.  Others are even more extreme in their views, believing that the the digital information age has made college obsolete, that this institution exists now simply as a vehicle to lend false prestige and garner student debt.

Those of us who are parents encourage our children (strongly) to go to school every day, to do their best, to finish all their homework.  We do all we can to convey the message that working hard at school will give our kids the skills they need to succeed in all other areas of life.  But is that really true?  The same survey found that  86% of us believe that our schools are in need of immediate reform.  Do we no longer believe that the school experience prepares our children for future success?  If this is true, what can be done to fix it?

School reform: the theories of Ulo Vooglaid

As any teacher will tell you, one of the greatest challenges of education is meeting the needs of many diverse students, of different abilities and different interests, all at the same time.  In traditional classrooms, qualities such as leadership and creativity often have to be sacrificed in the interests of keeping a harmonious dynamic within large groups of students.

Many traits of highly intelligent and creative students can be perceived as impulsivity (“talking out of turn”) in the classroom and may be reprimanded or punished.  Over time, students may begin to feel that these traits are bad or wrong.

An Estonian professor at the University of Tartu is currently re-examining these issues and has proposed some innovative new approaches to the education system.

At a lecture in Kiev, Ulo Vooglaid described an experiment with mice as a way of helping his audience understand his theories about children.  When he repeatedly placed an electrified object in their enclosure with them, he found that over time almost all of the mice learned not to go near it.  They learned to avoid the punishment…except for 3-5 of them, who simply “did not learn.”

Then he changed up the experiment by creating unbearable living conditions inside their enclosure, but electrifying the hitch on the door to get out.  He found that almost all of the mice would die of hunger rather than risk receiving the same punishment again…except for those same few mice who “did not learn.”  These mice actually became leaders who enabled some of the others to get out.

How does this apply to children in our schools?

In traditional classrooms, a good student conforms and does what is expected.  Consequences and punishment result if the student does not stay in his seat, raise her hand to be called on, color inside the lines.

When the student does not do as we expect, we label the child as being incompetent in some way.  In fact, just like those few mice who saved the others, this child is probably a leader whose very potential is being punished out of existence.

While this environment is probably necessary (to some degree) in a classroom of 20 students and one teacher, it does a disservice to our children when they need to learn skills for real life success.

So what can we do?

According to Ulo Vooglaid, parents are the real teachers.   By the time a child is six years old, they have already learned the most important lessons they need about how to experience the world.

Children cannot value their selves or place any value on education unless their parents provide a sphere in which these values can develop.  The role of teachers is to support and advise parents, because no one will ever replace a child’s parents as their most influential teachers.

He emphasizes the critical importance of andragogy:  the practice of the education of adults.  He believes that parents need to be educated as to how to raise children who are free to express their natural creativity.

Traditionally, children are surrounded with orders and prohibitions, “as if they were in prison.”  The child constantly hears adults telling him or her what to do and what not to do.  At the same time, the child very rarely encounters language that excites his interest or curiosity.   As the child progresses through her stages of development, she reveals how this restrictive environment has affected her and stifled her creativity.


Vooglaid classifies five separate stages of a child’s development.  

The first stage is before birth and it’s very important.  The mother must be emotionally stable so that the child feels loved during his development in the womb.

The second stage comprises birth and the first three years of life.  In this stage, Vooglaid emphasizes the critical importance of experiential learning.  He uses the example of showing his grandchildren how to start a fire in the fireplace using a match.

By nature, children are afraid of matches; however, it’s important to teach them how to use them in the right way.   If you leave young children near stairs, some will fall and never try it again; however, some others will keep trying anyway, until they have learned how to come down the stairs safely.  Experience is better than any other teacher and cannot be replaced by anything.

The next stage, from the age of three to six, is the age of school readiness.  However, in Vooglaid’s opinion, a problem arises at this stage when children are suddenly expected to express themselves primarily in linguistic, written, or numerical form at an age when their primary mode of expression is still visual.

They have to stifle their natural leaning to express themselves through drawing and other creative means in order to learn to read, to write, to count, etc.  This sets them up for problems in the next two stages.

From the age of six to twelve, the child begins showing signs of negativity.  He no longer good-naturedly goes along with everything his parents and teachers tell him to do, but will often argue, question, and criticize.  Vooglaid says that humor is usually the best way to handle the negativity characteristic of this stage.


Starting at the age of twelve or thirteen, the child enters the puberty stage.  It will not surprise anyone that Vooglaid identifies this as the most difficult stage of all.  Physically, socially, and morally, the child is in conflict.   In the physical sense, many of them are adults by the time they are in high school.  Some even give birth to children.  Physically, they are old enough; but socially and emotionally, they are not.

Children of this age experience a deep need to be recognized as adults.  Girls want to dress and to look like young women.   Boys will often smoke or use swear words in order to appear like men. For this reason, it’s very important to relate to children of this age as if they were adults.

They should be given important and meaningful responsibilities with a clear message that they are now old enough to be trusted with such things.   Opportunities for leadership and interaction with positive role models are important for successful development during this stage.  If the child is treated like an adult (as much as possible), this reduces the feelings of conflict.  If this does not happen, the sense of conflict may just become worse.

Based on this view, it seems that we need to take a very different attitude towards education reform.  Perhaps it is not the schools that are in need of change.  Perhaps it’s us.  Perhaps we need to take charge of our children’s education and to learn more about what they need.

As Steve Jobs once famously said:  if you ask who are the customers of education, the customers of education are the society at large, the employers who hire people, things like that. But ultimately I think the customers are the parents. Not even the students but the parents. The problem that we have in this country is that the customers went away. The customers stopped paying attention to their schools, for the most part.”  

And in fact, in many cases this is what we have done.  We leave it to our schools and teachers to accomplish the job of educating our children without our involvement at all; however, as the “customers,” parents should be central to the process.  The role of teachers should be to support, counsel, and help.  It is parents, as their child’s most influential teachers, who should have the primary role in educating their children.


The government of Finland seems to really embrace this philosophy.

Can we learn something from Finland?

Finland grants parents three years of maternity leave, subsidized daycare and pre-school, and 150 euros per month per child until s/he turns 17.  While children may still enter school at different reading levels, schools in Finland do not have to worry that their students are coming to school hungry or going home when they don’t have one, as so often happens in other countries like the US.   This, among many other factors, seems to make a difference in the success of Finnish students.   Starting in about 2006,  Finland began to draw the world’s attention by consistently scoring higher than any others in the world on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), in almost every area.

So is this all that’s needed?  More support for parents, so that they can focus on the crucial job of educating their children?

It turns out that there are many things which Finland does very differently, especially in their schools.

For one thing, Finland administers only one standardized test to its’ students throughout their elementary and secondary school careers.  By contrast, in the wake of No Child Left Behind and Common Core requirements, students in the US are tested several times per year. There has been lots of criticism of this emphasis on standardized testing and the negative impact it seems to have on student learning.   Some of these criticisms include limiting the scope of learning, as so much instructional time now must be taken to prepare students for tests.

In addition, Finland emphasizes the importance of play.  Kids are required to take a break for fifteen minutes for every 45 minutes of instruction.  This represents a direct contrast to the US where students typically have about 20 minutes of recess per day, even though research shows that the loss of recess has led to an increase in classroom misbehavior and health problems.

Teachers are also very highly respected in Finland.  Teacher education programs are very selective and rigorous, and teachers are regarded on a similar level as college professors.  They spend, on average, less time in the classroom and more time in planning and collaboration than their American counterparts do.  There is very clear research showing that regular time for teachers to collaborate has a strong positive impact on student learning and well-being.  However, the average teacher in most parts of the world has such a full teaching schedule that time to collaborate with fellow-educators is almost impossible.

While it may be difficult to restructure our economy to better support parents, the above changes seem feasible in our schools.  Less testing, more play, and more respect for the profession of teaching seem like the kind of reform that might really make a difference.

In the meantime, though, there are alternatives.


Could online education be the answer?

Among the many changes brought about by the digital age is the exploding business of online education.

As many parents and students become increasingly frustrated with an education system that seems unable to meet their needs, this begins to look like an attractive option.  But is it?  Can a student really learn everything she needs to prepare her for future success in online courses?

It seems that there is some ambivalence in popular opinion about online education.  57% of those who responded to the survey said that they believe online education can become an alternative.  However, 67% believed that children should come to school even if they have the ability to study from home.  

Online education has many benefits, including flexibility, low cost, and high-quality discussion.  However, students must be very self-directed and driven to succeed in online coursework.  They also need to have access to adequate technology and possess the skill to use it easily.  Not every student’s learning style can adapt to the pace and demands of online coursework.  Most students need face-to-face interaction to keep them engaged.

To quote Steve Jobs once again: “The most important thing is a person. A person who incites your curiosity and feeds your curiosity; and machines cannot do that in the same way that people can.”

In short, we still need the connections, the role modelling, the excitement, and the wisdom of parents, teachers, and professors.  And a college degree still means something.  Even Bill Gates says so:  “Although I dropped out of college and got lucky pursuing a career in software, getting a degree is a much surer path to success.”

So how can we prepare our children?

Flawed as they are, we still need our schools.  They are still our best hope of preparing our children to meet tomorrow, even though we have no idea what that tomorrow will be like.  So let’s not give up on them.  Let’s accomplish whatever reforms we can on our own by getting involved, especially those of us with children in school.  Remember…if you are a parent, school reform must start with you.