Facebook   Twitter   Instagram
Current Issue   Archive   Donate and Support    
Don’t Let School Ruin Your Education

Don’t Let School Ruin Your Education


“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain

Ah, sweet summer. Schooling is over – for most – and education can commence.

Our culture has a fixed notion of what constitutes education, as do most cultures worldwide. Teachers instruct, students passively absorb, tests are given, deficits are noted, grades are given and winners and losers identified.

The process is largely distant from neurobiological knowledge and generally in violation of the best emotional and psychological practices. And, if you ask most kids, boring and often unpleasant.

As I often note, I frequently asked prospective parents at Calhoun admission events to recall the most powerful and memorable learning experiences from their own “schooling.” Those experiences were never delivered by the process described above.

My 9 year-old grandson Jack is a delightful case in point. He was glad to be done with 3rd grade even though his school is slightly less unpleasant than many. But now his education can continue without schooling interference.

Jack is in a theater program – Rocky Mountain Theater for Kids (RMTK) – that meets from 9-4, Monday through Friday. They are doing Mary Poppins and he was lucky to be cast as Michael. To say he loves it would be an understatement. Last week my wife and I asked him if he would go on Saturday and Sunday too if he could. “YES!!!!” Suffice it to say that neither Jack nor any other kid I know would love Saturday and Sunday school.

Yes, theater is more fun than times tables, but it is also more educational than nearly everything in his traditional school day. It is also harder work, in the best way possible, which is when “hard work” is deeply enjoyable.

In the first two weeks, Jack and his cast mates have learned the better part of a 131 page script. He has absorbed all the songs, including the parlor trick of rapidly pronouncing “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” backwards. Give that a try. He sings the songs in the backseat on the way home and has quickly refined a charming British accent. He wears a little Brit-type boy cap all day, engaging in method acting without knowing what it is.

He is learning empathy, discipline, cooperation, coordination, intonation, articulation and imagination while feeling like he’s on vacation. He’s learning about another culture and another time. As opposed to school, this education is proximate neurobiological knowledge and generally in accord with the best emotional and psychological practices. Roles and expectations are calibrated to each actor and the importance of ensemble is elevated far above the individual roles. He is forming close bonds with kids of various ages and the adults, who have never lost the “kid” in themselves, characteristic of the very best teachers (and parents and grandparents!).

As opposed to the stultifying routines of a traditional school day, Jack and his friends are energized, buzzing and cheerfully exhausted at the end of each day. If one could do a brain scan during a Mary Poppins day and compare it to a brain scan during a typical school day, the contrast would be astonishing. These kids are cognitively and emotionally engaged at a very high level. Boredom is an alien concept.

Of course there are many fabulous experiences that commence when schooling stops: Summer camps of all kinds, family trips, hiking, biking, catching bugs, selling lemonade, pick-up games, skateboarding ’til dusk, sleepovers, backyard tenting, swimming all day . . . to name a few.

I am acutely aware that many, not all, of these experiences are an accompaniment to privilege, but the capacity of kids to craft summer fun out of anything is limitless, as long as no one had the abysmal judgment to enroll them in summer school.

But here’s the kicker. Education doesn’t have to be confined to the summer months. While not wishing to be sentimentally self-referential, my former school, the progressive Calhoun School, avoided “schooling” and actually did education all year. History was learned through costumed simulations, math was absorbed through real life epidemiological studies and baseball statistics, English was learned through story writing and performances, science was found on multi-day trips to Black Rock Forest or through botanical experiments on the school’s rooftop, where kids also grew herbs and veggies for their own lunches. I didn’t invent those things. Amazing faculty members did. I just supported them.

The result was that kids weren’t bored and school wasn’t unpleasant. I recall with delight how many kids came back to visit during August, weeks before school started, because they were so excited for the new year.

All schools could do education instead of “schooling” if we had the will and if educators and policy-makers had even a rudimentary understanding of what constitutes real learning. But we don’t have the will and most “school people” and policy-makers are stuck in the stubborn cultural model I described above. If things are not working, they double down instead of opening up.

At least there’s summer. Use it well.


Steve Nelson
Steve Nelson is a retired educator, author, and newspaper columnist. He and his wife Wendy moved to Erie from Manhattan in 2017 to be near family. He was a serious violinist and athlete until a catastrophic mountain bike accident in 2020. He now specializes in gratitude and kindness.

Leave a Reply