What I Learned in School

I’m preparing a series on “how to” unschool (which should be funny if you are familiar with unschooling at all!) but it got me thinking about what from my public school education I really learned.  Not learned in the sense that I memorized it and then got an A on the test (which I was good at) but learned as in had an impact on my whole life and my formation of self identity.

I had a “successful” public school experience.  I was in the top 10% of my class and I went on to get several college degrees.  However, the things I have “learned” that have become part of who I am today are not the academics it took a decade and a half for the school institution to teach me.  They are the incidental lessons I learned in the primary grades and those things I learned myself, because I was interested in them, in my high school years.  I also had involved parents who were lifelong learners themselves as evidenced by nights in the backyard with the telescope.

So here goes.  What I learned at elementary school (pre-K through 6):


I distinctly remember a water station with a basin of soapy water we could blow bubbles in with a straw.  Fun!  I remember learning that there was a “right” way to use glue and that my teacher got very mad when I used “too much”.


I remember lots of stuff from kindergarden but the only thing I can think of that really had an impact is that kids used to vie to stand by me in line because I had long, blonde hair that the other girls like to play with.  We spent soooo much time standing in lines and walking in lines.  I guess this was my first understanding of the concept of popularity and that I had a “rank” on the social scale.

First Grade

I’ve been racking my brain and I’m pretty sure I learned NOTING in 1st grade.  I remember first grade I just don’t find it memorable.

Second Grade

My first “academic” activity that stuck with me!  Our teacher gave us an assignment to learn how to spell supercalifragilisticexpealidocious but she didn’t tell us how to spell it like she did with other spelling words.  She gave us a task to go find out how to spell it on our own and then learn it.  (Remember this is before internet so we had to have our parents trek us to the library and such).

Unfortunately I learned some other horrible things in second grade.  I was ridiculed by my teacher when she asked me to throw something in the “waste basket” and I couldn’t find it.  I had simply never heard the term waste basket to refer to a trash or garbage can.  This was hilarious to her and the class.  This is the first time I remember being really embarrassed.

But wait!  It gets much, much worse.  There was a girl in my class named Mickie.  She had what would now (and maybe then) was defined as severe ADHD.  I don’t know if my teacher was following current best practices for ADHD at the time or if she was a sadistic psychopath but they way she treated Mickie is like something out of a horror story.  She was tied to her chair with toilet paper and her feet were in a box (to remind her not to get out of her seat?) and the teacher had the janitor sweep all the dust and dirt from the classroom into her cube (which was set apart from the class) to teach her about having a messy desk.  I guess that might not sound too bad but the effect it had on the way the other kids treated Mickie is astounding.  I actually witnessed nearly the whole class surround Mickie, who had been depants’d, throwing rocks at her while she laid on the ground in the fetal position crying.  She quickly learned to hide in the cement tunnel on the play ground and two boys would trap her in there the whole time.  It was like being inside Lord of the Flies.  Needless to say this is one of the most memorable things I learned in 14 years of public schooling.

Third Grade

Not much here.  This was the first time that my being friends with a boy became “weird” and we had to be friends outside of school and ignore each other at school.

Fourth Grade

My teacher read Island of the Blue Dolphins to us.  I couldn’t wait to get to school to hear the next part of the book and this is one of my favorite books till this day (a strong female character, check it out).  I like to read but after this I LOVED to read.

Unfortunately I also remember this teacher yelling at me for “not trying” because when I colored a picture I didn’t color hard/dark enough.  Like light coloring is cheating or something.

Fifth Grade

I learned that I hate math [1. edited to add – I wanted to point out that I actually love math now and I majored in Physics in college so I took insane amounts of calculus and non-linear algebra and I really enjoyed it because I understood its purpose!  Arithmetic – memorizing times table and long division make me want to cry.  But, MATHEMATICS is a beautiful science that I love.].  Learning times tables was PURE, UNADULTERATED HELL.  Doing math homework at night for HOURS was horrible.  This was also the year that they took the boys and girls into separate rooms and told us about puberty.  I learned from this that my parents were MUCH better at answering my questions than my peers’ parents.  They literally told me nothing I didn’t already know and left out much I knew.  My friends though?  They were baffled – this was truly NEW to them.

Sixth Grade

I had a wonderful teacher in sixth grade.  She was the first person to tell me I was good at science.  Talk about a self-fulfilling prophesy – I ended up excelling in science through high school and majoring in Physics at University.  I also remember writing in her class.  Sometimes it was using our spelling words but we were encouraged to be creative!  This is when I first loved to write.  Another very meaningful experience is that our class had a problem with bullying this one girl (Mickie no long went to our school) and my teacher had a “talk circle”.  We put our desks in a circle and she led us in a talk about how teasing feels and what it says about us as people.  She treated us like adults and brought empathy into the class.  Overall, she had very HIGH EXPECTATIONS for us.  To create, to learn, and to be good people.

In addition I, and everyone who goes to public school, learns Seven Important Lessons:

  1. Learning is something you have to be forced/coerced/bribed to do.  It has to be compulsory.
  2. Learning is something that requires an “expert in teaching” to dispense.
  3. Some learning, especially math and especially for girls, is really hard.
  4. Intelligence is innate.  some got it and some don’t.
  5. Your success requires you to constantly be judged and labelled by others.
  6. How others should be treated is also based on the “experts” judgement.
  7. Your social standing is as important if not more important than your academic success at school.

Success at school – “learning” what the teacher wants and taking tests well – is not neccessarily a skill that will help you at anything in real life.  And vice versa.  Being “bad” at “schooling”, like my sister is because she has a “learning disability” and test anxiety, does NOT mean you won’t be a successful adult.  Unfortunately though, it IS often the case after years of indoctrination that success means being good at school, being labelled by others as “smart”, and external achievement.

What if we assume that every one of those seven lessons were WRONG?  What if the exact opposite is actually true?  What if,

  1. Learning is a natural process from our innate curiosity.
  2. Learning is something we are all experts at.
  3. Things that are “hard” to learn are just being taught to a mind that isn’t ready for them.
  4. Intelligence is fluid and depends on things like motivation, experience, culture, etc.
  5. Since we always tell kids not to judge maybe we shouldn’t.  Maybe success can only be defined by the person in question.
  6. The success of others in no one’s business.
  7. False hierarchy’s based on age segregation, perceived intelligence, and physical appearance is not what’s important in life.

Wouldn’t that change the game a little?  That would mean the problems with the schools are not funding, teacher unions, curriculum, or testing but the whole premise of the institution.  Money and new standards can never correct a system that is based on things that just aren’t true!  In the coming weeks I’m going to look at those seven lessons and see what we know through research about the truth on these topics.

In the meantime, think about what you really learned in school.  What are your life-changers that took place in your first 10-12 years?  Were they curriculum?  Were they lessons you want your kids to learn too?


2 thoughts on “What I Learned in School

  1. Wow. Reading about Mickie makes me so sad, and so angry at what was allowed to happen! That's horrifying! Now that you mention, most of my memories from the elementary school grades have very little with academic learning, or even social/emotional learning that had a positive impact. I'm really enjoying your look at schooling and looked forward to learning "how" to unschool


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