The Problem with Conventional Schools

What is a Conventional School?

What comes to your mind when you hear the word "school"? You will most probably think of several of the attributes below, because they are standard practices in the vast majority of schools, and are probably what you, and your peers, experienced in school. Because these are standard practices, these schools do not even need to identify themselves as "conventional schools" - they just say "school". However, when promoting unconventional educational approaches it is helpful to define what the baseline is.

  1. Students are segregated by age into grades (this is so embedded in our culture that, when children start going to school, their get-to-know-other-children question changes from "how old are you?" to "what grade are you in?")
  2. There is a curriculum that defines what all students should learn (defined in terms of discrete subjects), when (i.e. in which grade should they learn it), the standard to which it should be learned (the learning outcomes), and how that learning will be assessed.
  3. The curriculum is delivered by teachers, who are (or should be) Subject Matter Experts. Learning happens under the control of the Teacher - primarily by direct instruction by the Teacher and use of text books, although the Teacher may also provide or permit other sources.
  4. Teachers work with students in classrooms, organized with the teacher at the front, and children seated in rows
  5. There are also Extra Curricular activities (e.g. Sports, Societies, etc.), sometimes they are elevated as "Co-Curricular" activities
  6. There is a system of Extrinsic Motivation - Achievements (in both the Academic curriculum and Extra Curriculars) are Recognized and/or Rewarded, and there are Punishments for breaking rules. Rewards and Punishments are determined by adults (Teachers and Administrators).

In some countries, including Sri Lanka, the following attributes also apply

  1. The main, and often the only, form of assessment is a Standardized Exam. 
  2. Punishments are often corporal (officially, the Ministry of Education has prohibited the use of corporal punishments in schools under their purview, but the practice is nevertheless commonplace). 
  3. Children must wear uniforms and have restrictions on their fashion choices (usually Teachers also have a dress code)
  4. Teachers command a high level of authority and respect - for example, students are expected to stand up when the teacher arrives in the classroom, speak deferentially, and not talk back. Behaving disrespectfully towards a teacher is not acceptable and can be punished.

Note: Sometimes, conventional education is also referred to as "traditional education"; we prefer to reserve that term to educational practices that predate modern mass education, such as the Master-Apprenticeship system.

What is the problem with Conventional Schools?

It seems just about everybody is dissatisfied with education. But their reasons vary.

The most common reasoning? You just need to get your child in a "Good" school

Inequality is definitely a concern: There are a minority of schools (elite public schools that receive supplementary funding by means of contributions from past pupils and/or large "donations" at the time of admissions, and private schools that levy high fees) that have an adequate cadre of qualified teachers, facilities for extra curricular activities, good infrastructure, etc. while the majority of schools do not.

The solution? Try to get your child into the the best school you can, preferably one of the elite schools, failing which at least get a mid-tier school.

Of course, the intense competition for admission has undesirable consequences: a host of unethical practices (falsified addresses, bribes, political influence, etc.) and an emphasis on "academic" work in pre-schools (e.g. reading and writing) for children to perform better in admission interviews (which takes a toll on their mental health).

Even more tragically, this pursuit of the "best" schools results in schools being ranked in a hierarchy, with the ones at the top being seen, naturally, as the epitome of education... and this means most parents end up ignoring the structural failings of the system.