How School Disempowers Children

How School Disempowers Children

How School Disempowers Children

I drove past a school recently and noticed the sign out the front that read something about ‘inspiring young minds’.

A comforting thought. That is absolutely what parents sending their children off to school each day want to hear. That their children will be inspired, empowered, motivated, successful. But while it’s comforting, I can’t agree that it’s altogether accurate.

In reality, school is a place where children are disempowered, and that is definitely not inspiring.

“We must understand the way schools by their very nature disempower children, place conditions on their ability to have their needs met, and perpetuate the paradigm of control and power.” – Teresa Graham Brett

6 Ways Schools Disempower Children

1. Teaching the need to be taught

The first lesson of school is that you need to be taught. You are no longer free to learn on your own, at your own pace, in your own time. That is not good enough. School is here to get you up to standard. To actively teach you things that people in authority deem important for you to know, despite the fact they have never met you.

It is assumed that you would never adequately learn enough on your own. You are no longer seen as capable, but in need of constant direction. Eventually, you will come to believe these things about yourself too. Thirteen years of indoctrination will do that to a person.

How School Disempowers Children

2. Lack of autonomy

In school your right to autonomy is removed. There are rules about how you must dress, when you can eat or use the toilet, what you must learn, when you may speak, how you must sit, when you can stand, if you are permitted to even run around as kids should be able to, what games you can play, and much more. Every minute of your life is micromanaged so that you are making very few decisions for yourself.

We are told this teaches children ‘personal responsibility’ and how to cope in the ‘real world‘. Yet, there are close to zero chances for personal responsibility when everything you do is dictated by someone else. It is likely that when you are finally set free into the ‘real world’ no one will dare try to micromanage you to such an extent because you have earned the status of ‘adult’. Now, having had little practice in making decisions for yourself, you are somehow supposed to be able to manage that. Good luck!

How School Disempowers Children

3. School in not consensual

In school, consent is not a consideration. It does not matter whether you want to be there or not. You have no choice. It does not matter what you would like to learn, or what interests you. You must learn the same things as every other child your age or you will be punished.

Consent is an extremely important concept for every person to understand, but it cannot be taught in an environment where people are forced to be there. That is just not believable at all.

4. Grading and comparison

Children in school are pitted against each other. They are tested, graded, and compared. Whether you are the top or the bottom of your class, this is not an empowering situation. Either way, your worth is determined in relation to others and that is a very shaky foundation.

5. Overriding natural learning

How School Disempowers Children

“Children are biologically predisposed to take charge of their own education. When they are provided with the freedom and means to pursue their own interests, in safe settings, they bloom and develop along diverse and unpredictable paths, and they acquire the skills and confidence required to meet life’s challenges. In such an environment, children ask for any help they may need from adults. There is no need for forced lessons, lectures, assignments, tests, grades, segregation by age into classrooms, or any of the other trappings of our standard, compulsory system of schooling. All of these, in fact, interfere with children’s natural ways of learning.” – Peter Gray

Children are not designed to sit at desks and listen to teachers all day. This is not how learning happens. In school they are taught that their own natural instincts are wrong. That they cannot trust their innate ability to learn. That they must override what their brains are telling them to do, for their own good.

6. Hierarchy of power

“All educational institutions are based, to greater or lesser degrees, on relationships of control. Teachers, in our dominant culture, are set up to exert power and control in the classroom. The position of teacher is believed to carry with it a particular kind of authority that includes having special knowledge that should be passed on to children as well as the power of the institution to enforce behavioral norms.” – Teresa Graham Brett

In school there is a very clear power hierarchy. Adults are in charge, students do what they’re told. It is abundantly clear to any child in school that they have very little power over their own lives. If they try to break free from the control, they will be punished. If they meet expectations, they will be rewarded for their compliance. People do not feel empowered within a system based on control and oppression, that much is obvious.

How School Disempowers Children

It’s a nice idea that there could be a place that’s perfect for children, provides free education, empowers and inspires. But, that place is life. School in it’s current form is a very poor comparison.

If we want different for our children, then let’s stop pretending and actually see school for what it is. The first step in any change is identifying the problems, not glossing over them. School, by it’s very nature, is not an empowering place for children.

Choose life instead.



May 17, 2018 at 11:43 pm

I agree and disagree. But I am still processing unschooling as I’m new to the concept. Yes. You are right that schools should improve. Ideally, schools would create a more free environment, and I am sure there is a way. Free periods where children can pursue whatever they want with a facilitator’s help if required. Yes. We do not need so many tests! Recently I have come to two issues with the unschooling mindset. First, what kind of society would we have if children stayed home with one parent not working? Aside from financial difficulties, most people I know (myself included) want to work, and not for themselves. Perhaps due to school or perhaps by nature, I crave a structured environment where I can participate and be my best. That is the corporate world. That is not working from home. Not working part time. That is working full time away from my child for an organization that requires many. So that’s something trying to create alternative image for.. but really .. our schools churn out little workers instead of entrepreneurs and to say that’s not necessary may be blanking out certain societal needs. or even forgoing the discussion altogether. Two: I marvel and also cringe at the doomsday thinking about schools from unschooling movement. And maybe that’s just part of writing and marketing, sending a mixed message is no good in that one way medium. But I want to say.. though needing improvement.. schools are not that bad…. I slacked off at school and enjoyed it. I doodled, passed notes, slept on my desk, and so on. I found ways to make it work. And I saw others too and we figured out ways. And often I really enjoyed it too. Really REALLY enjoyed school. I want to learn from unschooling – I think it can improve society immensely.. but I am still standing on middle ground. I believe in the middle ground.

May 17, 2018 at 11:43 pm

So true and SO TRAGIC! Articles like this make me realize things I never really thought of, or tried not to think of it that way. And what’s worse it that these poor teachers who really love children and want to be a positive influence in their lives are doing the exact opposite for most children. I do think some children’s lives are influenced by really great teachers, if they are not receiving the care from home. However, the control put upon them may negate the good that is done.

May 18, 2018 at 2:54 am

I am homeschooling my kids and they go to 3 days of co-op schools. One is nature day on Friday with a group of kids and one main teacher and a parent helper. They spend all day in the forest. They have autonomy and choices of doing certain things or not. My children enjoy that program immensely. I also feel comfortable with the teachers and how the class flow.

The other program is parent participation homeschool programs. My kids go to school on Tuedays and Thursdays. They too like the school. They are things that they don’t like also. I am still trying to decide to participate or not. On one hand, it is true that the school is not always centered with children in mind. School is school. There is set schedule and activities that the kids will follow and participate. Teacher is in control of classroom. On the other hand, my kids enjoy the social part and some projects that they get to work on. It is a Reggio Emilia focus school, so not quite the conventional school. And yes, even that it is a school setting.

For myself, the days provide breaks and downtown. I do feel depleted from time to time and the down time help. I am still learning and not always the best at solving problems or being the best role model. With that in mind, I think school can provide a good place if the teacher is a good role model and kids can be around a good role model other than their parents.

What is the balance here? I am still trying to figure out and learn as I go. Right now, this is working for my family. It might change later.

I wonder what you can share about not feeling being the perfect role model and doing homeschooling with kids or sending kids to school?

May 24, 2018 at 10:07 pm

Thanks Sara. Great article yet again. Reading your blog helps me to assure we haben chosen the right, although extremely uncommon way, for us as a family.

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