You Can’t Reform An Education System Built on Oppression

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by Laurie A. Couture

Talk of “education reform” is viral all over the internet. Despite multiple failed attempts at “reform” over the past decades, society refuses to think outside the “box” of schooling and consider a radical return to how children learned for millennia- By playing, living and doing!

Teachers and others in the field of education continue to propose that the oppressive, prison-like institution where children are forced to stay seated in a building all day pumping out paperwork can and should be reformed! When democratic schooling, homeschooling and unschooling advocates attempt to join the conversation and offer models that are successful and truly radical, they are often met by educators and their supporters who dismiss these models as idealistic and not “realistic” for “everyone”.

Additionally, people seem not to be aware of the fact that despite talks of reform, the needs, voices and leadership of the people who are the most adversely affected by public schooling- youth- are left out of the conversation. Sadly, when the voices of public school youth do reach the movement, they often represent the most compliant and academically engaged students. Their requests tend to be benign, suggesting that minds and bodies trained by the system for so long are unable to fathom what they have lost of their childhoods and what they truly need in order to thrive. The cries of “end school!” from the voices of the artists, rebels, misfits and other children failed most severely by schooling rarely make it to the table. In this post I answer questions about how “education reform” can be truly child-centered, radical and real.

How can we save our public schools and reform them?

occupy educationHow can we reform a system that was historically founded (in 1852) for the purpose of oppressing children, preventing critical thinking and engineering a more obedient citizenry? How can we reform a system where, in 2011, children need a doctor’s note to go to the bathroom when needed, a federal “504 Plan” to eat when hungry, a diagnosis of being brain disordered with a subsequent federally mandated special education “IEP” in order to be taught in a hands-on manner and where a teenager has to be diagnosed as “severely disabled” or unteachable and sent to a “therapeutic school” in order to have physical activity between classes? Do we truly believe that a place that runs this contrary to the needs and humanity in children can be “reformed”?

“Adults would not get the severity of the human rights violations in the public school system even if they were put back in it (this is not referring to all you epic radicals out there- you know who you are). The reason? The boiling frog syndrome. The adults who don’t get it are already broken and they would be mentally blind to all of the wrongs that go on, including to themselves.” -My son, Brycen R. R. Couture

How can we teach so that children care about their education?

The belief that children need to be “taught” is based on the arrogant, adult-centered belief that children are unmotivated, blank slates who will not learn unless adults force it upon them, usually in unpleasant ways. Nature endows ALL children with the passion and ability to learn what they need and want to learn on their own. Adults should not “teach” anything unless it is requested by the child- Teaching interferes with the child’s natural process of learning, inventing and creating. Unsolicited teaching interferes with children following their own innate ideas, hunches, interests and modes of expressing their conclusions, brilliance and creativity. Youth care about learning when they are the driving force behind their learning process and when they are doing what they love. Adults can be the guides and facilitators if children desire their help. In public school, education is about force-feeding children, then expecting them to swallow what is irrelevant without gagging, regurgitate it for a grade- and act like they care!

Will allowing children to use technology such as iPads, iPods and smart phones in the classroom transform public education?

occupy education posterI don’t see how adding devices could “transform” anything; lap tops have already been added to some schools; adding hand-held devices simply adds technology to the building, like adding paper and pencils and other inventory. Adding technology doesn’t change the power structure. Teachers dictate the use of every single object in a school, so how could adding devices “transform” anything? We had a Commodore and an IBM PC computer in my elementary school, supposedly revolutionary. Nothing changed- School was still just as oppressive and abusive, we simply had a distraction from the tedium. I’m sure when toilets and ovens were added to schools, people thought that would revolutionize schooling too, but children soon found out that no one could use those appliances without permission.

Teachers use technology to control children, and hand-held devices would be no different- Teachers control the activity and purpose of the device and how and when it will be used. No doubt any use outside of the teacher’s prescription would be cause for punishment. Technology can also be used to abuse and violate children as well. For example, one high school issued bugged laptops to children. The web cams in the laptops were randomly activated by school authorities to spy on youth in their own homes, often in their bedrooms, with some allegations that youth were being photographed undressing or in other  situations intending to be private. The issue came to light only after a youth was punished at school for allegedly being caught “taking drugs”; the boy had actually been eating Mike and Ike candy!

Rather than a gesture of bringing technology into the classroom, technology should be used to eradicate the classroom and the prison model of “going to school”.

Will changing middle school and high school scheduling to allow for longer classes, labs and more time for research and inquiry lead to radical change in public education?

Proposing a mainstream solution like tooling with already oppressive systems such as scheduling, is not a radical solution. Block scheduling, six-day scheduling, 90 minute classes and any other type of scheduling at the middle and high school level creates an environment that fails to respect the basic physiological needs of older children. As children are shuffled further up in the 12 school “grades”, it becomes increasing difficult, if not nearly impossible in some schools, to meet their basic health and biological needs. Most teachers at the higher grade levels refuse to allow children to use the toilet in class, and the three to five minutes between classes makes it nearly impossible for children to use the toilet between classes. The youth that I have worked with over the years report that ninety minute classes only increase this distress. Likewise, scheduling at the higher grades leaves some youth with lunch times that are well past noon time. Some youth report eating as late as 1:30 with, of course, no snack time in the morning! Finally, “block scheduling” or 90 minute classes mean more time that children are sitting sedentary and immobile. Truly, “block scheduling” is a health risk to youth! A true radical solution is to abandon the current institution entirely.

If we tore down the current public educational system, what would replace it and how would it work?

John Taylor Gatto proposed a radical solution that would be in alignment with nature, humane treatment of children and a democratic society: Abolish forced public schooling as it is now and establish the entire community as a community learning experience for people of all ages. Children would lead their own learning in a non-compulsory manner. Everyone, from the youngest child to the seniors in nursing homes would be welcomed to facilitate classes, and children and adults can attend – or opt out- at their choosing. Public dollars would be used to fund the necessary supplies and assist mentors of any age or specialty.

If the entire city or town were set up as a learning community for children to explore, apprentice, find resources, collect mentors and to be free to teach, attend or not attend classes, this would be the “educational reform” that would truly heal children and our culture. In open learning communities, children would have all of their bodily, developmental, emotional, social, intellectual and creative needs met. Art galleries, libraries, historical centers, community centers and cafes would all be hubs. Hopefully, diverse businesses would open their doors to be part of the process as well. The now abandoned school buildings would be used as resources and spaces, not as prisons. Anyone would be free to facilitate or attend classes, play in the gym, use the equipment, cook meals, hold meetings, clubs, groups, shows, etc.

What about children who are abused and neglected at home or who are living in poverty?

In the case of children who are abused and neglected at home, or who are living in poverty, these learning communities would be able to embrace and care for these children and identify their families for help much more genuinely than the current public school system. The current system abuses and neglects children in so many ways, causing double the distress and trauma to children already suffering at home. In 19 states, it is actually legal for children to be beaten by school staff with a wooden board. Boys and African American children are the primary targets of all forms of school corporal punishment. Even in the case of a special teacher who provides comfort, the distressed child is still expected to focus on and keep up with irrelevant school work to maintain “grades”. When learning communities encompass use of all of the public spaces in towns and cities (including hopefully businesses as well), there are more places of refuge and resource for impoverished families and children suffering abuse and neglect.

How will learning disabled children get services?

Children are born to be natural learners. It is forced education that destroys this and creates the idea of “learning disabilities” and “under-achievement”. It is the public school system’s unnatural method of forcing all children to perform certain mental functions all at the same ages in the exact same developmentally inappropriate manner that produces the illusion of “learning disabilities”. There are no learning disabled people. Every human child is born with the capability to learn, regardless of their organic intellectual endowment. If allowed to learn through play and by following their interests, children of any ability will naturally learn in the ways that best suit their unique learning style and sensory modality. Loved ones and community members can support, mentor, scaffold and celebrate children’s developmentally appropriate learning processes in manners more diverse and helpful than the current system offers. Children will not be forced to endure rigorous testing that leads to labels (such as “ADHD”) and drugs, nor will their parents be forced to fight Goliath special education teams to win a few token “services”.

It is a democratic society’s duty to educate its children- How will children learn if they aren’t taught?

Point blank, children have a birth right to live their lives in freedom and with joy, through play. That is true democracy! Children should not be forced to go to any building, or be forced to “learn” anything any adult believes they should “learn”. The element of force immediately negates democracy and becomes the antithesis to freedom. That homogenized education for the masses is possible is a myth; forced “education” is inhumane and immoral on so many levels. It instantly indicts and imprisons all children for the implied “crime” of being under the age of 18 and dictates them under the control of adults who should have no natural power over their lives. There should be no “debate” about human rights issues. Forced education causes apathy, docility, obedience and lack of questioning and critical thinking. It destroys passion, natural learning ability and interferes with the individual “callings” of each human being. Children learn what they need to learn by being loved and cared for by their parents and loved ones. Children learn by living, playing, exploring, creating and being a part of their families, circles of friends and communities. This delicate process must be restored, because this is how true learning occurs.

That all sounds idealistic. In the meantime, don’t we need to start slow, educate people and reform what we have to work with now?

I will say it again and again, we have to stop talking about reforming the current system- You can’t reform a system that was BUILT with the INTENT to oppress children! “Reform” has been attempted over and over since forced schooling was instituted in 1852. The pendulum has swung in all directions, but most aggressively since the 1980?s towards increased drudgery and developmentally inappropriate practice for children. The only function of “reforms” is to lightly shuffle a few cards to quiet dissent, prime children to take their place in the “global marketplace” and to make matters easier for the adults. The end result is always the same: Children are oppressed, stuck in buildings, sitting in chairs, with teachers forcing upon them something irrelevant to their lives. School continues to steal their free time, commit human rights violations against their bodies and minds and confine them. School continues to prevent children from doing what nature intended- Playing, running, jumping, climbing, exploring, creating, socializing and inventing… We can’t reform a paradigm that runs as deep and as thick as this one. The “free school” movement of the late 60?s and early 70?s showed that public schools want no part of democratic learning environments; the federal government uses public education as a tool for their much larger agenda of globalization. As long as we look to the problem as a solution, we will never get out of the boxed idea that children must have something done TO them by “expert” adults. The belief that adults must educate, confine, deprive, “discipline” and force is the paradigm that needs to change.

How can children playing all day, doing whatever they are interested in doing, be realistic for society?

The question is, how have we allowed our society to get to a place where what is natural is not realistic for society? All mammal children learn by playing. Human children learned through play, exploration and interest-led pursuits since the dawn of humanity because this is nature’s intent for children. Should we be questioning why our society thinks it is unrealistic for children to learn the way they are wired to learn?

This idea of democratic learning sounds too radical and experimental- Can it be done in modern times?

Unschoolers, relaxed homeschoolers and children in democratic schools demonstrate everyday, year after year, as they have for decades that interest-led, play-based, democratic learning grows joyful, intelligent, creative, brilliant, confident, successful and passionate children! Summerhill, The Sudbury Valley School, The Albany Free School and many other democratic schools highlighted in books by A.S. Neill, Jerry Mintz, Ivan Illich, Matt Hern and others have been running democratically, with children learning freely for years. If these schools can pull it off with such success, why not public schools? Some of the most innovative minds in history and in the world today never attended school. In fact, many unschooled and homeschooled children run businesses, are public speakers, authors, performing musicians, artists, artisans or inventors and some even attend college early. Homeschoolers and unschoolers are diverse and come from every political orientation and walk of life, including single, low-income parents.

If we eradicated public education as we know it, would society collapse?

The institutionalized oppression of children will hopefully collapse and lead to a return to more natural ways of parenting, learning and living. Children raised in environments with strong parent-child attachments and joy based living and learning will thrive! They will give way to a compassionate, empowered, innovative generation who actually cultivate a more humanitarian and environmentally sensitive society!

“I used to think it was impossible to collapse the school system… not anymore. Now I can see just how possible it truly is! School is obsolete.” –Laurette Lynn The Unplugged Mom

How can I get involved in real educational change?

Listen to the children and what they are telling us about what they need! My son, who was in public school prior to him joining my life through adoption, endured day care, preschool and public school. As an unschooler who has “detoxed” the past seven years from schooling, here are his words:

Join the Occupy Education movement! Start by uploading a photo of how you occupy education. Here is my “How I Occupy Education” photo:

Here is my son, Brycen’s “How I Occupy Education” photo:

Write a blog post about how you are occupying education.

Organize an Occupy event at your state’s Department of Education and literally occupy by educating others that reform of the current system misses the point.

Of course, the best way to “Occupy Education” is to walk out of the school system hand in hand with your children and begin an unschooling journey!

“The choice is in our hands. We can continue the 19th century-style sausage factory method of schooling. Or we can tear down the institutionalized barriers that impede learning and create a 21st century-style learning society.” –Wendy Priesnitz, Author of Challenging Assumptions in Education and Editor of Life Learning magazine

This post was written by Laurie A. Couture as part of a series of articles examining education today. Throughout the week, we’ll highlight posts from many people with a variety of opinions about our schools. Other articles in the series are:

Why the School System isn’t Educating Your Child (And What To Do About It)

4 Steps to Improve Education in the USA

Educating Kids Through Teacher/Student Partnerships

Let’s quit arguing about what’s wrong with schools and man-up as parents

Imagine something better than school

Is our education system built on miracle teachers?

How to improve our schools from an unschooler’s perspective

Thinking out loud, outside the box

Learning is the new paradigm of Education

Schools & Jails: What’s the difference?

Education for Today’s Global Economy

Wisdom: Knowledge that has been tempered by experience

How to use parental mentoring as a solution for educational reform


laurie and brysonLaurie A. Couture is an Attachment Parenting and unschooling coach, public speaker and the author of Instead of Medicating and Punishing: Healing the Causes of Our Children’s Acting-Out Behavior by Parenting and Educating the Way Nature Intended. In March 2012, Laurie was a guest on the Anderson daytime show, hosted by Anderson Cooper. She was also featured as an expert in the documentary film, The War On Kids (2009).

In 2010, Laurie was a recipient of the NH Manchester Union Leader’s Forty Under 40 honors. In 2009, her book was selected as a finalist in the ForeWord Magazine Book-of-the-Year Awards. Laurie has spoken at conferences across the country, inlcuding at the Life Rocks! Radical Unschooling Conference in New Hampshire and the ReThinking Everything Conference in Texas. She writes a blog, hosts a YouTube channel and a podcast and has been a contributor to several magazines and other media, including The Attached Family,, Life Learning and Juno.

Laurie has a background as a child trauma specialist and mental health counselor. She has also mentored two disadvantaged teens and has previously worked in the social services and education fields. Laurie has earned international renown for her passionate, cutting-edge writing and advocacy on behalf of youth and families. Laurie is the proud unschooling Mom to her remarkable 18 year old son, Brycen, who is a performing musician and chainmaille artisan.


books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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12 Responses to You Can’t Reform An Education System Built on Oppression

  1. Mary April 10, 2012 at 8:50 am #

    This is amazing! Everything I think of education, I agree completely and totally.

    I love this, “In public school, education is about force-feeding children, then expecting them to swallow what is irrelevant without gagging, regurgitate it for a grade- and act like they care!” How very true!

  2. Carolyn April 11, 2012 at 11:01 am #

    I read this article today. I think there is a lot of truth in it, I think there is also a lot of wishful thinking. Maybe it’s just my indoctrination by the school system talking, but I think letting a kid play all the time and never making them “buckle down” and learn stuff they don’t want to learn is a recipe for disaster. Americans are ignornant enough as it is.

    • Rachel Denning April 11, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

      @Carolyn, I think what she is referring to is letting children learn what they WANT to learn instead of making them ‘buckle down’ and learn what they don’t want to learn…do we all have to learn the same stuff? Or can the path of learning be as varied as the individual?

      That’s what I got from it anyway…

  3. Carolyn April 11, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    Of course, it’s none of my business how other people raise their children. I’m just thinking out loud about how I want to raise my own.

    I am an artist, but I chose to get a college degree, a good corporate job, and do my art on the side. If I had been allowed to do whatever I wanted as a kid, I probably would be a much better artist, but I also suspect that I would’ve probably watched a hell of a lot more TV and gotten into more trouble. I wonder how well the kids who were raised in this “laissez faire” system support themselves. The term “starving artists” exists for a reason. I’m not saying that it is a bad choice to become a starving artist (sometimes I wonder if I should’ve), but if a child is not educated, they might not have a choice.

    I don’t believe kids are mature enough to make all the decisions about how to spend their time. Sometimes it’s a parent’s job to enforce discipline because adults know more about how the world operates and what kids need to succeed in the world (i.e. make a living). Discipline can be an act of love, too.

    • Nancy April 11, 2012 at 11:49 pm #

      @Carolyn, That’s my concern as well Carolyn. I’m not sure kids are capable of seeing long term and understanding the ramifications of decisions made when they are five years old. Or ten years old. Kids live for today only and can’t see the ripple effects. I think there needs to a balance of guidance from parents – who have been on our planet longer and are, presumably, wiser – and what the kids want.

      It’s an interesting idea in any case.

  4. Carolyn April 12, 2012 at 11:05 am #

    I do think parents sometimes need to stand up for their children against their teacher, though. My parents did that once for me and I am eternally grateful. It was a clear case of an abusive teacher on a power trip. He made my friend get down on her knees and beg to go to the bathroom.

    • Nancy April 12, 2012 at 11:24 am #

      @Carolyn, I would venture to guess that the vast majority of cases of “abuse” in the classroom are actually not abuse at all, but people misinterpreting something. There are some cases of abuse for sure, but I think there are very few.

  5. Laurie A. Couture May 12, 2012 at 8:49 pm #

    Nature intended children to learn by doing. Self-discipline is something that learned through modeling- How the child is treated by his or her parents; it cannot be enforced. A compassionate, securely attached parent-child connection at all ages makes “discipline” unnecessary.

    The view that children are not capable of leading their own lives is a very new view in human history, a mainstream view. Children act out when their needs are not being met. When their needs are met, cooperation comes naturally. I’d suggest some research on peaceful Hunter-Gatherer families, or read my book, Instead of Medicating and Punishing- I compiled the research for you!

    I also disagree strongly with the comment that abuse is rare in schools. Abuse of children is a common occurrence in schools! I worked as an independent consultant in more schools than I can count, at all grade levels, and I have worked with well over 1,000 youth of all ages. Violation of children’s basic human rights is the order of the day in most public schools. In 19 US states, children can legally be assaulted with wooden bats or “paddles”. It is uncomfortable for people sometimes to see the humanity in children and to realize how oppressed they truly are in society.

    Unschooled children prove wrong every day the notion that children are not capable to directing their own learning and lives. Attachment Parents prove daily that when children feel connected and their needs are met, when their choices and their passions are respected, parents and children can live in harmony and with cooperation.

    • Nancy May 12, 2012 at 9:55 pm #

      @Laurie A. Couture, I have to wonder how many children are abused at home versus at school. There are many parents out there who are not capable and/or willing to provide the loving guidance and support that unschooling parents provide for their kids.

      ==Unschooled children prove wrong every day the notion that children are not capable to directing their own learning and lives. == This is very true. It’s true because the only parents who are unschooling now are very actively involved in their children’s lives. They love them and support them and make sure that their children get out and explore a wide variety of interests. Unschooling parents take their kids to museums and have tons of books around the house and are actively vested in their children’s education. Many parents can’t or won’t do that.

      Although I know the word “teach” is a dirty word among unschooling circles, by my definition of the word teach, unschooling parents teach their kids a LOT. Every day.

      I also wonder about those Hunter-Gatherer families – did they really encourage their children to follow whatever path they wanted? Or did they teach them to hunt and gather and make fires and store food?

  6. Laura October 29, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    Although this article has many good ideas on how we can improve our education system, I agree with one of the commenters who said that there is a lot of wishful thinking as well. I don’t think I would go as far as saying that this is a “recipe for disaster” but I also do not think that children are mature enough to make a decision at such a young age that will affect them their whole life. As a student, of course I think it would be great to not have to learn anything that we know we will never use later in our lives, but honestly who knows exactly what we will actually end up doing? Truth is, children are just children and more than likely are not thinking about their future or know what it is they want to study and do in life. As a sophomore in college, I am still not completely sure what it is that I want to do for the rest of my life and I know for a fact if I had the decision to pick what I wanted to learn when I was a child I would not have the slightest clue and I think most people would agree. Also, how can children even know what interests them without trying it out first? By giving them the choice to not take certain classes that they think may not interest them, they are limiting themselves. It has happened to me plenty of times in high school and especially college, where I have taken a huge interest in a class that I never thought I would, but because it was a requirement, had to and am grateful for that.

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel October 29, 2012 at 11:29 pm #

      @Laura, I’m with you on that! Although I do believe in following kids’ lead, kids don’t know enough to say yay or nay until we expose them to things. I am exactly like you – there were many classes I thought I would hate, but ended up enjoying. In fact, I even changed my college major after taking a class I “had” to take and finding I loved it! I’ve seen it time and again in my own kids that they at first poo-poo the idea, but end up loving it. I think kids need direction and guidance in a lot of areas.

  7. Nancy Sathre-Vogel August 28, 2013 at 10:05 pm #

    @Abnaxus, Thanks for sharing! What I most appreciate about the USA is that we can pursue whichever path is best for our own children and families. For some, that means public school. For others, it means homeschooling. We are all so different and need to choose our own paths.

    I (Nancy, the owner of this blog) don’t agree with Laurie (the author of this post) in many regards. She views school as bad 100% of the time and feels that we should close them all. I know that school is a good thing for many kids.

    My own children are homeschooled, but they have chosen to take some classes through the public school system here in Idaho. They LOVE them! They love learning and love being pushed. It’s not a negative thing at all. That said, they are only taking classes they have chosen and are not following the traditional path.

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