Thursday, February 24, 2011

All A-bored - Why School is Like Taking A Train to Nowhere

Vickie Bergman blogs about education and parenting at Demand Euphoria.

It's like someone hands you a train schedule when you are five years old, and it shows the plan for every day of the next thirteen to seventeen years of your life. The stops are laid out, the timetable is set.

There is only one set of tracks for your school train. The same for everyone. They tell you this is the only way to get between stops, where you are tested to make sure the train is on schedule. Sometimes you might see a shortcut to the next stop, or a nice sidewalk or winding wooded path running along the tracks. You say "Look, that path goes to the same place we are going anyway. Can I use it instead for a bit?" They say that's not the right way. You have to get there the same way as everyone else, at the same time.

You have to ride the train with all other kids who are the same age as you, whether you like them or not. Sometimes, if your train is small enough, you end up spending years and years with this same group of kids. Even if you hate them, because they treat you like garbage, and make you feel like you don't matter. You might really want to go sit with your sister, who loves you, whose train is a year ahead of you on the tracks, but that is not allowed.

It will be decided for you very early on if you get to sit in the front of the school train or the middle or the back. Once the decision has been made, it will be very difficult to switch cars. You end up feeling like you must be where you belong. All the cars take the same time to move between stops, but the kids in the front always get there first, and the kids in the back always last. It is made quite clear that it's better to get there first.

Sure, there will be some (planned) "destinations" along the way, where you get to get off the train for a set amount of time. Maybe you are one of the lucky kids, for whom weekends and summers are actually destinations, places to stop moving, or at least to move in the vehicle of your own choosing, at your own pace. But maybe you are a kid whose weekends and summers involve more trains, maybe with a choice about which trains to ride, which sport train or which art-or-music-themed train. But still with little or no choice about the direction or the pace.

While riding any train, you have to do what the conductor says. Stop when he wants to stop, go when he wants to go. You might get new conductors every year, and sometimes multiple conductors will rotate through each day. Some of them will be amazing people, who will inspire you. Others will be mean, make you feel stupid. They all have different expectations of how the ride is supposed to go. You are expected to know this, and adapt to each one. To know what each one requires of you and be able to give it, even on your worst days. If you don't follow the rules on the train, they might kick you off. You might be relieved that you are getting off, until you realize they are only taking you to another train.

You watch the real world fly by you out the windows, and it looks like a blur. You might catch a glimpse of something that looks interesting and say, "Excuse me, can we stop for a minute? I saw something cool out there." But they say they can't make unplanned stops. That would make the whole train late. When you finally realize how futile it is to ask, you might find ways to sneak off and get to a destination on your own. Or you might just stop looking out the window.

The worst part of these train rides is where they drop you off at the end: your parents' house! This whole time, they were telling you how important it was to stay on schedule. Now you are back where you started. With a lot of knowledge about riding trains, and maybe not much else. They say go now, find your passion. You say "Now? But that's what I wanted to do all along and you... Never mind."

At this point, you might find that you are one of the really lucky ones who has managed to figure out at least one thing you are passionate about in school or in spite of school. Good for you.

Or you might get off at this point and have no idea how to live off of a train. You might have forgotten that it's even possible to live without a train, a timetable, a conductor. You will keep hopping from job train to job train, hoping to find one that makes you happy, or at least one that doesn't make you miserable. Or maybe you will stay on one that makes you miserable, because you realize that they are all inherently the same. It's just easier to stay on the one you're already on.

Or you might get off a train at 18 or 22 or 25 or 35, and say "Wow. That sucked." You might spend the rest of your life trying to avoid trains. You might be able to make up for the time you lost, and find some passion after all. Good luck to you.

Editor's note: Vicki Bergman eloquently summarizes the issue many of us had with traditional schooling.  Vicki is an unschooling mom who will be sharing her insights here on The Innovative Educator blog. Check out Vicki's blog, Demanding Euphoria where she explains why for her family, happiness isn't enough.  She "Demands Euphoria" and provides insights into how unschooling is a key ingredient to achieving her demands.


  1. OK so I love the railroad analogy making the case for making school individualized and relevant....but what do we do instead?

  2. Walter, I'd start with taking some lessons from unschooling. I just bought Sandra Dodd's Big Book of Unschooling and am loving it. You can also read my posts on the topic here

    There are schools designed in part around these principals. Stay-tuned for tomorrow's post about Montessori. Gary Stager also has done some great sharing about Regio Emelia schools. Additionally there are free or democracy schools. You can read all about them here

    Finally, a lot of this can be addressed if we look at what Angela Maiers addressed in her new book, "The Passion Driven Classroom." I share where you can find these schools at

    One problem is that the government funding doesn't value passion driven learning. Seth Godin sums it up like this. Our system only values compliance not initiative, because, of course, that’s what’s easiest to measure.

    So, to bring this full circle, what we need instead is government funding schools that values and funds learning where it is passion (not just data) that drives instruction.

  3. Walter,another good idea for a start might be one of my first posts on unschooling, "
    Learning Innovatively without School"

  4. Walter, Matt Hern edited an interesting anthology on unschooling called "Deschooling our Lives" which I recommend reading. More resources here:

  5. This is a great article. Thank you for posting.

    I have this nagging voice that keeps on raising the issue, where does the parent's resonsibility end, and where does society's and school's begin?

    I was lucky; I had great parents who gave me direction and encouragement to find my passions and competencies, and I've tried to pass that on to my kids as well. When parents don't (can't, don't want to, etc.) is it the school's or society's responsibility? Do we have the resources and will to take on that responsibility well?

  6. @Mitch, First of all, thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

    I understand where your concerns come from, because usually ideas on how to fix education come with hefty price tags. But my idea of fixing the school system would involve it "doing" LESS, not more. I think kids would thrive if the system could get out of the way, a little or a lot.

    I wrote some of my ideas here:

    But my plan for the schools (and even parents) could be summed up as "Stop trying so hard." More freedom for kids. Less control by grown-ups.

    Does that make sense?

  7. To me, school felt more like a prison than a train. (I wish I had had the sensation of movement!) but I felt, especially by the time I got to high school, like I wasn't going anywhere, which was bleak and depressing. I knew the real world was out there "beyond the bars", and I couldn't wait to do my time and get out, but that was scary too, because I knew I wasn't prepared. Formal schooling all too often serves only to quench the spirit.

  8. Vickie, thanks for this post. A timely one at that because I'm working with a team of innovative teachers at my school, designing our PD for a "21st Century Classroom-1:1 Netbook rollout" for next year. The framework one of the teachers is suggesting is trains (building the track, then the cars, then the stations). Although it works to suggest we establish tracks and have a general sense of movement...AND that we can travel with an "essential Web 2.0 tools suitcase", your post makes me think about how important it is for all our teachers to "set themselves and their students free" to explore their own journey and not be too controlling.

  9. Laura, I'm glad you were able to take that out of my post! Sounds like a very cool program you get to be a part of. Where is your school? How old are the students?

  10. OK, so that's the problem; maybe this helps show the solution

  11. @Mitch In the UK it it the parents responsibility to ensure their children get an education 'at school or otherwise'. Some delegate that responsibility to schools but, legally, they are still responsible if the school they choose fails their child. It does not fit well with the current way local authorities are chasing home educated families.

  12. What a very well written article and so incredibly true. I taught in the public system for many moons before I finally got disgusted and left after 14 years and it was depressing in that I wanted to steer off the main line many times and allow my kids to explore topics they would bring up...instead of being allowed to, I would get angry comments from the next year's teachers because now what would they teach since I did a unit on something that was supposed to be taught on their grade level. So when my kids would ask questions, I am supposed to answer..."sorry, I can't teach you that this have to wait until next year..." Totally absurd. Education is no longer developmentally appropriate and is instead "one size fits all". Teachers are actually told NOT to steer off from the SCRIPTED lesson plans in the teacher's manuals. Do you really know many things that are one size fits all? No, of course why in the world is education in the US based on that theory?
    The ONLY way to fix it IMO is to lower the class sizes, treat our teachers with respect and good pay (so that they will actually STAY and want to teach), differentiate the curriculum in order to meet the needs of all levels of children, teach out of the box/creative problem solving, steer away from workbooks and non-stop worksheets, allow children to ask questions and figure out ways to find the answer...teachers need to become facilitators not dictators.

    1. This is half the reason why there is disrespect between peers and teachers.

      It's all part of the New World Order but vote Republican and you will get these a-holes out of office.

  13. If I in any way contributed to the *system* of brainwashing I am sorry.