High school classrooms were NEVER for learning … but they could be.

[10 min read]

Important first question: where did the high school classroom come from?

It’s important to remember that the high school classroom essentially didn’t exist until the 20th century. It is in fact a ‘new’ idea / experiment. For example, In 1910, only 18% of US 15- to 18-year-olds were enrolled in a high school and just 9% of all American 18-year-olds graduated. In New Zealand, where I live, we only made high school compulsory for 15 year-olds in 1944! My dad was born in the 40s and so high school in NZ is only as old as my parents!

High school’s ‘Sliding doors’ moment ⬅️➡️

The film Sliding Doors presents the butterfly effect in regards to the significant impact small moments can have on the future. Whether one makes it through the doors or not, whether one turns right or left can have huge ramifications. The first two decades of 20th century education thinking resulted in one of these moments. In this case, the ‘junction’ presented two paths. Turning right towards Administrative progressivism (Edward Thorndike etc.) and turning left led to pedagogical progressivism (Dewey etc.). Society turned right, away from pedagogy and towards an educational purpose driven to categorise its people … but why?

➡️ We turned right and let Nazi-style thinking design your high school

Eugenics is the theory that twists the real science of genetics into ideas of superior and inferior gene pools. It’s important to recognise that eugenics drove political and industrial leadership’s thinking across the world during this foundation period of high school education. Between 1900 and 1932, every American President, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler(no need for a link), Edward Thorndike (the ‘father of modern schooling’) and many other influential leaders around the world were members of eugenic societies.

Where Hitler decided to rapidly exterminate those he viewed as “inferior gene pools”, America and its political allies decided it was more humane to do such things as sterilise inferior people (32 American states introduce eugenic sterilising laws) and also use education to sort the nation’s people into their eugenic status levels. School’s were designed to quickly shift the ‘genetically weaker majority’ into their rightful place of low subsistence living – surviving enough to work another day for ‘proven’ superior people. They did not see any moral issue with this as it was understood as science. The idea being, if families of superior genes lived longer and procreated more, society would improve over time.

This is why the core focus of high school has always been to test and stream people into their ‘appropriate track’. It presents an anti-learning idea that people are genetically determined to show a narrow set of ‘aptitudes’ and school’s purpose is to push them onto an appropriate matching track as they are unlikely to master other aptitudes. Even today, across the world, you will find thousands of teachers making such statements as ‘he just shouldn’t be doing History” and post-school adults saying “I just can’t do Maths”. In these foundation years of high school, the people with political power shaping schools were believers in this false science of eugenics and decided education should ‘turn right’ and start to categorise society’s people asap!

👖Society’s wrong pants

The reason 80% of western society has spent a century not really ‘wanting to go to school today’ is because it wasn’t designed for them. From 1900, high schools went from being only fee-paying private institutions, to being public but highly selective before then slowly letting in the rest of society. During the private/selective phase, most countries would test 12-year-olds for their eugenic worthiness for academic investment, normally amounting to about 10 to 20%.

They thus designed high school for these test-passers. The minority of society somehow encouraged to be satisfied by purely theoretical rote learning due to the illusion of greater worthiness. The key issue here is that the priorities and format of the high school day were set during the private/selective phase. In most cases, the structures of your high school day in the 2020s have their origins in only serving that 20% of society content to live in the abstract world of academics, encouraged by a feeling of superiority.

By the time they decided to let in the 80% of society shutout during high school’s design phase (those ‘normal’ people who prefer experiences to be more real and social) the high school day had been defined and fixed. We, the ‘normal’ people, have now spent a century having to “get though it” and make do with a system designed for other people. To this day, post-school, only a minority of the adults I know enjoy the regular engagement with theories and much rather spend energy on matters in life that are real and/or social that actually impact on them.

⬅️ What if we had turned left?

After years of working with teachers on shifting high school practice and priorities, I have understood that the difficulty teachers and administrators have in making real change is simply picturing what it would have looked like if we’d ‘turned left’ and decided to educate society naturally rather than administratively and divisively. Painting this picture isn’t hard. I only ask people to consider virtually every other example of how they themselves and society prefer to organise a learning programme. consider these two lists:

  1. Places of Learning in my life:
  • My mother’s folk music group (She sings, guitars, and violins)
  • My daughter’s Taekwondo class (8 main ability belt levels)
  • My wife’s yoga classes (4 to 8 ability levels – dependent on yoga type)
  • My colleague’s chess club (8 main Chess ability levels)
  • My skateboarding community at the skate park (and in our WhatsApp group)
  • My online Skateboarding community (instagram sharing progress, advice and lessons)
  • My professional education network
  • Mana Ōrite mō te mātauranga Māori (NZ’s new acceptance of the importance of Māori knowledge, perspectives, and approaches to learning) – aligning with most indigenous people’s approaches.

2. Features of all the above natural learning arrangements:

  • Multiple ability levels in one space
  • Wide age range (NZ Māori call this tuakana-teina“)
  • Clear and visible progress indicators
  • Everyone teaches everyone
  • Group designated ‘masters’
  • progress levels as a teaching & learning tool not a judgement system
  • intrinsic motivation to want to do more
  • time and space to join many of these groups as interests naturally grow.

Now consider that we, the people involved in groups such as those in list 1 above think it crazy to implement the standardised school approaches as they would clearly damage the learning that takes place and definitely reduce the incentive to learn more. When we organise and/or join learning arrangements outside school for children and adults, it seems insane to meet only with people of your exact age, only people at your ability level, learn most from just one master in the room, always wait for someone else to decide what one needs to work on and the level of difficulty, regardless of how one is feeling. When designing learning ourselves, we keep agency over what we’re doing as the only means of maintaining a desire to learn more.

3 key differences between schools and places of learning

Difference one: Schools have to ‘pay’ students to “learn”.

At the top of this piece, I mentioned Edward Thorndike. He thought schools should be modelled on ‘the modern (1930) corporation’ and it seems that this model included paying people to attend. Schools created a false economy of grades, something alien to and not required in natural learning environments. If teachers announce an assignment but state it will not be graded, they tell me that least 80% of students wouldn’t attempt it (properly). The reality is that students are not there to learn. They understand they are there to be assessed (paid) and in doing so be informed they are “better” than some (paid more than others) through a false currency of comparative grades.

We have had 100 years where temporary knowledge acquisition for a few to feel more valuable has not meant learning for anyone. Grades have not denoted genuine understanding or ability and have for most not generated genuine desire to use knowledge in new contexts or learn more. Any knowledge and skills presented at school seem disconnected with self and irrelevant (academic). This is not what learning is.

In contrast, society’s learning groups such as in list 1 above do not announce progress or compare members publicly and this encourages attendance rather than puts people off. Without grades and awards, people publish their own progress and keep choosing to turn up! Learning and connection are payment enough.

Difference two: Visible differences in ability is the primary learning tool and not something to cope with.

Imagine your high school community’s reaction if you announced that you would be requiring all students to wear coloured hats while at school with the colour determined by ability level! Imagine again if all students were expected to publish all their mistakes at school in video format on instagram! Bullying would skyrocket, your school would quickly become a target for protests, and parents would be removing their children faster than a student switches between TikTok and Google docs when the teacher’s looking. All 3 of these are signs your school is not a place of learning.

In places of learning, none of the three situations above are an issue. In my daughter’s Taekwondo dojang (classroom), a 17-year-old black belt (expert) teaches a 47-year-old white belt (beginner) without anyone questioning it for a second. The coloured belts assist the class and the teacher arrange learning situations and nobody feels compared as that’s not the purpose of the belts.

On instagram, skateboarders are frequently found talking about the importance of sharing their, often painful, mistakes. They talk about volunteering these as an important part of the community of learners. Again, everyone views it as a crucial part of the learning to skateboard. Many skateboarders of all ages naturally recognise their role as part of a learning community. They teach techniques, share successes and failures, and again are happy to continue for years without any form of grading system of formal recognition.

Difference three: Like all nature, the learning we want is organic.

Two core principals that drive right-wing thinking (including the foundation of high schools) are a sense of control and hierarchy. Many examples of this centre on the idea of humans being masters over nature and natural processes. In a sense their thinking is driven by the idea that “we can do better than nature”. Traditionally right-wing interests such as the market economy, technology, and social controls over such things as marriage and birth-control all point to a need to feel we know best and can ‘beat’ nature and natural instincts.

A quick example of this is the current debate over climate change. Most Left and Right-wing politicians are now agreeing on a need to deal with the problem but their respective mindsets define different priorities. The Right-wing policies centre on the use of technology to absorb and control the impacts of man-made climate change, while allowing humans to essentially continue as they are, whereas the left-wing policies start with a respect for nature and push for changing human behaviour such as cutting oil use and eating less meat.

High schools were a deliberate pushback against nature. There was a desire to think we can improve on nature and can systematically process the population through a man-made institution more productively than any traditional (natural) learning model. This proudly unnatural environment is exactly why school students don’t feel at home and mostly report that the social aspect of school (friends) is the primary benefit of going. During a 2020 lockdown zoom with academic students, many even went as far as saying they would happily continue to just meet friends online if it meant not having to return to school!

Make high schools match the learning places we ALL make elsewhere

Change 1: Switch from theory-centred academic (eugenics assessment driven) subjects to purposeful groups of learning-by-doing. Close down the divisive English, Maths, and science, etc, and reorganise into optional multi-disciplinary groups for writers, book clubs, builders, designers, curiosity-based explorers and experimenters, and performances etc.

Change 2: Allow the new learning groups to determine what takes place and how learning is arranged. Allow personal and group progress to drive further interest.

Change 3: Social and mixed age groupings based on current interests (interests that will evolve as learning happens). Allow movement between groups during the day based on one’s personal momentum. Deep learning only truely happens when genuine desire to progress exists. The interest-based, multi-age scenario will reduce the normal social difficulties that people often attribute to teenagers but I attribute more to high school structures.

Change 4: Make publishing progress a norm where sharing your progress both helps others and encourages feedback and advice for yourself.

Change 5: Make portfolio and interview the norm for determining post high school direction. There is increased discussion of this anyway due to ever-smarter exam cheating systems and AI systems like ChatGPT producing traditional graded output to acceptable standards.

Next steps

Both education’s past and current trends demand schools change to become less divisive and more relevant for the world today. We need young people to want to learn and become engaged partners in what’s happening around them. We can’t continue encouraging a feeling that ‘someone else’ is helping me find my place in life, after all, I am a type and have a set value when compared with others. A vast majority of high school students will walk into a classroom tomorrow that as a room itself will push eugenic ideals that it exists to sort and assess individuals to measure value. I hope schools and teachers consider what elements of their school day, classroom layout, and planned activity fit this false eugenic narrative and look to change them.


So normalised is eugenics in schooling, it took until 2020 for Columbia University (NY) Teachers College to remove Edward Thorndike’s name from their hall stating his “problematic social views” as the key issue in their board’s unanimous decision. I would have gone a little further to suggest his science was wrong and his legacy had proven dangerous to generations of school-goers. I wonder if their questioning of his ideals as an individual go as far as recognising the impact those ideals still have on the structures within the schools they continue to send graduates to. Do they recognise that US classrooms, teaching techniques, and assessment practices are all part of his eugenics agenda and continue to cause huge division and inequity across the country to this day?