How our current education system is limiting instead of empowering

One thing I've noticed over the years when we talk about education is the depth and breadth of institutionalized thinking.  

When homeschooling became a thing, way back in the 1980’s, everyone labeled these families as overprotective religious fanatics, or did-a-little-too-much-LDS-at-Berkeley hippies. It didn’t matter how often parents talked about providing a superior education to their children, the naysayers and the press honed in on “religious reasons” or anything that made these parents sound like they were going to cocoon their kids in bubble wrap or forsake electric lighting and flush toilets.

But now that a few celebrities have jumped on the homeschool bandwagon, and respected experts like Ken Robinson and Seth Godin have spoken out against traditional education methods, the arguments in support of alternate approaches are being seriously considered.

I admit—I haven’t been resisting the urge to say “We told you so!” very well. Homeschoolers have been talking about creative play, student-led learning, coaching instead of lecturing. . . for decades. I’m happy that those efforts were not in vain. But a century of institutionalized thinking doesn’t go away just because some very smart people with a platform have been talking about a needed paradigm shift in education. Even veteran homeschoolers find themselves falling back onto old habits of thinking without realizing it. 

  • age-graded curriculum 

  • focus on testing 

  • comparing kids with their peers

  • rigid classroom structure

  • lectures

It sounds rather alarmist and paranoid to say that schools have institutionalized us to the point where we have trouble thinking for ourselves.

"Here come the black helicopters!"

But the world accepts the traditional government controlled education system, and most of us were in traditional classrooms for at least 12 years. We generally feel like it wasn’t all that bad, and for the most part we are satisfied with the experience. We also don’t know anything else, which makes it difficult for us to see how any other methods could garner the results we want.

And what do we want? We want our kids to become good people who care about others and will contribute to society. We want them to learn the skills they need to be happy and successful. We want to introduce them to the wonderful things in the world around them, and at the same time warn them of the dangers that exist.

Is a national government controlled education system the best way to do that?

Has the public education system caused us to become mind-numbed robots?

Let's take a look at what it means to be 'institutionalized'.  

The purpose of institutionalization is to control a large group of people with the resources available, such as a room full of kids, a small staff and a confined space. Organizations need rules in order to function, and the larger and more complex the organization, the more rules become necessary for its orderly operation. This is not a bad thing in and of itself.

But when it comes to educating children, there are side effects we must consider. 

We spent almost 15 years being brainwashed on how to be students. And we’re still paying the price. Seth Godin, School is Still Ruining Your Chances to Learn on Medium, October 5, 2017

Here are four aspects of institutionalization and what they often look like in our schools: 


When a child enters a school, they are subject to that school district’s security measures. By necessity, these methods must sacrifice the civil rights of individual children in favor of the safety of the entire group. While many procedures serve to keep students and staff safe, the trade-off is the child is now under their complete control with little to no agency of their own.

Parents must fill out forms giving schools permission to actin loco parentis. Children are photographed, given physicals, labeled, and indexed. That sounds crass and careless, but that’s the reality.

There are strict rules about appearance and the kinds of items children are allowed to keep in their possession. In a society that values freedom of expression, it’s important to take into consideration why we believe children can’t wear shirts or hats displaying their favorite band or funny quote.

Adults enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy granted by their 4th Amendments rights against unlawful search and seizure. The standard is much lower in schools, so a child’s locker, belongings, and even their person can be searched without a warrant.    

The criminal standard requires law enforcement officials to demonstrate that they have “probable cause” that a crime has been committed. . .On school grounds or when students are within school district care—like a field trip—the standard is “reasonable suspicion” and no warrant is necessary. While privacy is still a factor, that relaxed approach allows school officials to conduct a search when one might be prohibited by the police. Center for Public Education 

Another way children are depersonalized is that their individual needs may be ignored. Adults take for granted that they can respond to basic human needs such as being comfortable, satisfying their thirst or hunger, and going to the bathroom when necessary. Even in the strictest work setting, most adults can shift their position or get out of their chair to stretch, get a drink of water or a snack, and go to the bathroom. But to keep order in the classroom and accomplish a certain amount of work each day, children are confined to a desk or chair, are not allowed water or snack when they are thirsty or hungry, and they have to raise their hand and ask for permission to go to the bathroom. There isn’t time for them to get much needed exercise, and homework demands often result in less time spent with family and friends, as well as a lack of sleep.


One of the ironies of homeschooling is answering questions about socialization and preparing our kids for ‘the real world’. And yet children in schools are the ones kept isolated from the real world. Public school students live in the same district, which means they live in the same neighborhoods. To put a finer point on it—kids in schools are with others from similar socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. This is not ‘the real world’ and doesn’t do much for giving children a multicultural experience.

Children in schools are further segregated by age. Their interactions are limited by time and space to the same group of their peers every day. When cliques form, as they often do, children who are excluded become even more detached and depressed. 

Visitors, including parents, are generally not allowed, and those who are given permission to come into the school do so under supervision, submitting to the school's security protocols. 

Forgive the analogy, but unless you work in a prison, how is any of this like ‘the real world’?

Unquestioning obedience 

Children in schools are expected to practice unquestioning obedience. What used to be considered normal misbehavior by immature children acting like immature children can now be treated as a law enforcement problem. Punishment for noncompliance ranges from humiliation to physical isolation to being placed in handcuffs.

Zero tolerance increases the likelihood of repeat offenders. These children are often labeled as ‘troublemakers’ and treated with disdain by the staff and other students for the remainder of their time in school. The harsh disciplinary environment may serve to break the child's will and force them to be passive and compliant—but is that what we really want?

From  Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations by the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force (click image to read entire report)

From Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations by the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force (click image to read entire report)

However—and this is a BIG however—when staff members crosses the line into abuse, they may not face the same punishment as would a student for a similar act. Many incidents are swept under the rug, with offenders getting jobs in other schools where they can continue to abuse children in their care. This reinforces the idea that the institution has unlimited control and places the interests of the organization over those of the children under their authority.     

And that cycle — abuse, dismissal, rehire and abuse again — is one that experts and researchers say is far too common across the nation. It has long been known as "passing the trash," and despite years of efforts to make policies to keep it from happening, no one really knows how often it does. nprED


Saved by the Bell was a hilariously cheesy high school comedy, but the fact is, a student’s time is scheduled with little, if any, self-determination. As has been mentioned, everything is governed by strict rules and guidelines, and children must ask permission to get a drink, relieve themselves, ask a question, put something in the trash can. They learn to respond to the ringing of bells which signal them that it is time to change classes, eat lunch, or leave the premises—all of which are supervised, and when stated so baldly, is not the least bit amusing.

Created by by  bmeise

Created by by bmeise

The school schedule is purposely repetitive, and over time conditions the child to ask permission before doing even the most mundane task. Even lunch is regulated:

Below are just some of the cases making national news headlines:

  • In Chicago, a local school banned brownbag lunches from being served at all

  • A North Carolina student had her turkey sandwich taken away by a state inspector and was served cafeteria chicken nuggets in its place

  • National effort to ban ‘pink slime’ beef filler from USDA lunches

  • National Physicians Group petitioning to ban milk from school lunches

  • School districts across the country banning sugary drinks, like sodas and juices from menus

  • California and Massachusetts have considered banning chocolate and flavored milk because of its high sugar content FindLaw Education

Even after children are home, students must still focus on fulfilling the requirements of their classes, regardless of how much time this takes from family activities or from an adequate night's sleep. Students who do not accomplish their work on time are penalized and sometimes stigmatized. There is an enormous amount of pressure to conform to the school's ideas of academic progress, regardless of the child's physical and mental development, talents, interests, or other achievements.   

Why we need to break free from ‘institutionalized’ education

Is it any wonder that when we start to talk about treating children as self-determining individuals, people have a tendency to disconnect? We can’t imagine a world where kids can make choices about their education.

When our family decided to homeschool, we realized the effect our years in school still had on our thinking and habits. In spite of  evidence to the contrary, we deeply felt the impact of being conditioned to view public schools as the paradigm by which we measure educational methods and academic success. 

We have been effectively institutionalized. 

When we step back and start looking at our children as individuals instead of a national program to be regulated by federal standards, we will then be able to realize the harm done to children. Kids develop and progress at different rates in different ways, even when they are only months apart from the other children in their class.

Labels are increasingly applied to children, in spite of the long term damage it can cause. A child labeled at a young age seldom lives it down—and why, may I ask, is it appropriate to label young children in the first place? Aren't they in their formative years, with so much learning and growing and changing in their futures? Labels deny a child their individuality and completely ignore their potential.

In the recent Education Week article interviewing author Jacqueline Woodson, which you can read here, Woodson says, 

Any kind of qualifier can be harmful because who we are is not static. Our abilities are constantly changing. What does it mean to be a struggling reader? I know if I was raised in this day and age, I would have been labeled a struggling reader. But what I know now is I was actually reading like a writer. I was reading slowly and deliberately and deconstructing language, not in the sense of looking up words in the dictionary, but understanding from context. I was constantly being compared to my sister who excelled, and it made me feel insecure. What gets translated is 'you are not as good,' and that gets translated into our whole bodies. That's where the danger lies. EducationWeek “Are Labels Preventing Students from Succeeding?”

Children can be gifted in one area while struggling in another, but with everything in graded classrooms averaged out, the twice exceptional student ends up neglected, misunderstood, and  feeling like a failure.

The constant emphasis on national standards and ubiquitous standardized testing has conditioned us to believe that if we give every child in America the exact same books and then the exact same test, we will learn something about our children.  In spite of our common sense screaming at us that this is a patently false idea, the push to do more testing continues.

We need a paradigm shift in education.

Many homeschoolers have experienced this shift because they were willing to think outside the institution. However, with so much conditioning to overcome, homeschool parents can struggle, sometimes for years, to find their homeschool stride and feel confident about their choices.

 We have to let go of methods used to maintain order with large groups of children but do little to actually educate them. We must reexamine what it means to learn, explore, discover, create—and then find ways to meet the individual needs of our children.

“We have cultivated a very narrow conception of intelligence, and while academic work is important in itself and rewarding for the people who enjoy it, it should not be seen as the sole measure of intelligence,” Ken Robinson, Why Dropping Out of School Could Actually Help Your Kid, According to One Education Expert TIME Magazine March 16, 2018

We can encourage our children to be creative thinkers, compassionate human beings, and responsible citizens. We can nurture their souls while broadening their minds. This is how we prepare our children for a future where their potential is unlimited. This is how we break from the institution and into the real world.

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