How Schools Promote Bullying (Part 2)

Before schools came along, there was no age segregation. Children were a natural part of the community. They would easily and freely interact with whoever — older kids, younger kids, and even adults. There was no formal distinction made between what a kid ought to be doing vis-a-vis other kids. One kid could be happily playing by herself, another could be helping his dad harvest the potatoes.

In older hunter-gatherer tribes, kids could be tasked with adult responsibilities like climbing trees for fruits or setting traps or even hunting wild animals — as long as they could show that they were up to the task. Age was not so much a factor as was ability and interest. A teenager may not be strong enough to bend a bow but may show an aptitude for plants and can assist the tribe herbalist in creating potions and medicines.

With mass schooling came the idea to group children together in batches, according to their age, and then expecting them to learn the same things at the same time. This was a novel idea and proved to be very efficient — much like mass production in factories. Children were yanked from the playgrounds, from the fields, and from whatever nook and cranny they were hiding in, and placed in neat little rows of desks listening to an adult delivering lectures on history, mathematics, science, and whatever else adults thought was important for the kids to learn.

Now, because of grades and the ranking system (discussed in part 1), the survival instinct to excel and be number 1 becomes more pronounced with batching. Kids were now being forcibly compared with others of their same age. “Hey, the neighbor’s boy can read already at age 7. You’re almost 8. Why can’t you read yet?”

So here people are labeled as “bright”or “dumb” and no matter how much we lecture on political correctness or tell people that kids have multiple intelligences and may develop in different degrees and speeds, the system itself makes us still use those two labels, even if only in our heads — because we are too polite or ashamed to say them out loud.

Even in play and sports, age segregation has a negative effect. Studies have shown that mixed-age play triggers the nurturing instincts of older children. At Sudbury Valley School, for example, where there is unrestricted age-mixing — a game of basketball could be played by a mixed group of teenagers and 8 year olds. The interesting thing one would notice is that the kids will naturally form opposing teams that would more or less have the same number of teenagers and 8 year olds. The teenagers would not group themselves together and say, hey, let’s pound those 8 year olds.

Even during the game, the teenagers would bump and shove against other teenagers but they would not be rough towards or even guard the 8 year olds — leaving the other 8 year olds on their team to deal with them. This allows the younger kids to learn and enjoy the game.

The same principle could hold true for any other endeavor. Kids like learning from older kids because they are, in general, contextually more in tune with them than adults. And older kids enjoy a sense of accomplishment when they are able to help younger kids.

This dynamic is lost in age-segregated schools. No matter how much we lecture on bullying, how to prevent bullying, and so on, the problem persists and gets even worse because we haven’t changed the system.

Dr. Peter Gray, in his book Free to Learn, says, “The age-segregated, competitive atmosphere of school…provides the ideal conditions for the generation of competitive coalitions, or cliques, which provide a foundation for bullying. Children who are not accepted into any of the prevailing cliques may be picked on mercilessly, and they have no way to escape.”

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Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

How Schools Promote Bullying (Part 1)

What I am about to say will be quite controversial so I would like to declare up front what I am NOT saying. I am not saying that teachers, school officials or administrators, school owners or school boards themselves actively promote bullying or are secretly in favor of bullying. Though I am not discounting the fact that some of these people can themselves be the biggest bullies of all. But in general, I will readily assert that most of these people are good and kind-hearted and only want the best for our kids.

What I am asserting when I say that schools promote bullying is that the traditional SYSTEM of schooling itself provides the structure and breeding ground of bullying, REGARDLESS of the desires or intentions of those who run the system.

Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor at the Department of Psychology of Boston College, names at least 3 structural elements in school that promotes bullying (in the book Free to Learn):

  1. Grading/Ranking
  2. Age Segregation
  3. Lack of Free Play

Top Ten, Honor Roll, Honors’ Class, Valedictorian, Salutatorian, Gold Medal — from the time children start school all the way until they are of legal age, these terms ingrain upon their minds that school is ultimately a place for competition. Since the highest honor in most schools is to be the valedictorian, the implication is for each student to look out for himself or herself rather than to help others. Cooperation is not the highest goal, not if it means sacrificing one’s grade.

In the words of Dr. Gray, “By design, it teaches selfishness…Indeed, too much help given by one student to another is cheating. Helping others may even hurt the helper…Some of those students who most strongly buy into school understand this well; they become ruthless achievers, more interested in beating others than in helping them.”

Again, and I cannot stress this enough, it is the design, the system itself that teaches selfishness. I am certainly not saying that teachers teach selfishness, but that the structure itself rewards selfishness — and kids can see that very early on. They are more perceptive than we think.

Now of course, not everyone can be academic achievers and kids understand this very early on. So they try to find a niche where they can be at the top. They will try to excel in sports, in the arts, or in being the most fashionable, the coolest, the most notorious, the most daring, and so on. And while the latter may not earn them any medals from the school, they earn approval from their peer groups — which they will come to value more than any recognition they get from the school.

So although the school may have a system for ranking the best in academics and even the best in behavior, the students themselves have unconsciously devised a way of ranking themselves in other ways, inspired by the basic idea that life is about ranking and gaining approval even at the expense of others.

The stage is now set for bullying, and the atmosphere is exacerbated by the other two factors, which I will discuss in the following weeks.

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Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Diplomas are Meaningless (Part 3)

So are diplomas really meaningless?

There was an interesting discussion among my businessmen and executive-level friends about their hiring practices, whether or not they actually looked at the diplomas and transcripts of their applicants. Some said they shunned graduates of big name schools as they tend to have bloated egos and unrealistic expectations of high salaries even before having proven anything in terms of performance. Some said that they looked at the school as a measure of the applicants’ ability to do assigned work — whether desirable or not — meaning, the more difficult the school, then the more compliant and obedient the graduate was.

One remarked that the school could be an initial indicator of the applicant’s intelligence and ability, but that was only as a first impression — and only one part of the hiring decision and not a sure ticket to acceptance. Many have experienced being burned by high expectations of graduates from supposed top schools only to be underwhelmed by their performance (or lack of it). Quite a few also remarked that they had employees who were high school graduates but were top performers in their field.

What was interesting as I surveyed the group, was that those who were employees in high positions were the ones who valued diplomas and degrees more, while those who were the owners themselves couldn’t care any less. They just wanted people who could get the job done, diploma or none.

The owners were an interesting mix. Almost none of them were top achievers in school. A good number of them were troublemakers and underachievers in school. Many admitted to cheating or bribing their teachers just to get a passing grade. Yet, these were the ones with the highest incomes and biggest businesses in the group.

Is this just a fluke or a is it a microcosm of a pattern we see around the world?

Almost everyone today knows that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg never had a college degree before building their empires, but did you know that the following people also don’t have diplomas?

  1. Walt Disney – dropped out of high school at 16, founder of the Disney Corporation.
  2. Ray Croc – worked as a salesman, partnered with the McDonalds brothers and eventually bought them out to build the multi-billion global franchise.
  3. Oprah Winfrey – took a job at a local television station while in her sophomore year and never looked back.
  4. Michael Dell – sold computers from his dorm room while he was a premed student and eventually dropped out because he was already making $80,000 a month.
  5. Matt Mullenweg – discontinued his political science degree and started WordPress.
  6. Larry Ellison – dropped out of not one, but two colleges. Later created a database for the CIA and named it Oracle.
  7. Lady Gaga – left college to pursue a career in music. Think she made the right choice?
  8. Ralph Lauren – did two years of college, joined the army, then became a tie salesman, then eventually experimented with his own designs.
  9. Ellen Degeneres – left college after one semester, worked restaurant and customer service jobs, did a lot of stand-up comedy in small bars and coffee shops.
  10. Brad Pitt – ‘nuff said.

Of course, the takeaway here is not that dropping out of school is the way to success. These people still had to endure a lot of challenges and hardships along the way, but they were meeting these on their own terms. They were following their own paths in pursuit of their own measure of success, not another person’s or institution’s measure — which is essentially what a diploma is.

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Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Diplomas are Meaningless (Part 2)

“Fix it,” I told the job applicant, then started my timer.

I was interviewing applicants for a computer technician position. Before I asked them about their background and the usual interview questions, I put them in front of a computer unit that I had purposely sabotaged — nothing too difficult to fix — a loose memory chip here, a disconnected cable there. In order to get to the next stage of the interview, they first had to successfully power up the unit.

I expected the guy in front of me to be the fastest out of the entire batch of applicants I had for the day. After all, he had a very thick resume filled with certifications of attending this or that seminar, on top of his college transcript and diploma. I thought this guy must be good.

It turns out he was one of the worst.

He spent close to an hour inspecting the unit, fiddling with this and that, but he never got it to turn on. Finally I had to tell him to give up as I couldn’t spend all day just waiting for him. The guy who got the job didn’t have a thick resume, just a normal kid with a pimply face. He fixed the unit in less than 10 minutes and is now my senior technician. He continues to learn and grow and can now fix things that I don’t even know how to fix.

Many years back, I applied for a teaching job in a prominent college in Manila. I thought to teach some graphics editing with Adobe Photoshop, which I had been using for many years — as a hobby, but also professionally to produce fliers, logos and so on to personal clients. But the interviewer took one look at my degree and said, “Oh you’re a computer science graduate. You can teach web programming.”

And I said, “No, the web was very new when I was already a senior in school. I never got to study it. I don’t even know HTML.” (HTML stands for HyperText Markup Language — the basic building block of all web pages). The interviewer just smiled and then asked me to do a demo teaching session.

A few weeks later, I got the job and to my surprise, learned that they had assigned me a subject where I had to teach HTML. I literally had to grab a fellow new teacher and said, “Hey, you gotta teach me this stuff.” She graciously sat down with me and started typing and talking and showing me enough of the basics and pointed me to a couple of tutorial sites. I quickly scanned through what she shared and organized the key elements in my head.

A few minutes later, I walked into class and said, “Hey guys, let’s learn some HTML.” Little did they suspect that their teacher only learned the material a few minutes ahead of them.

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Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Diplomas are Meaningless (Part 1)

Many parents dream of having their children finish college. They endure hours of preparation and waiting for that brief few seconds when their child goes onstage and receives their diploma, and takes a bow.

That precious diploma — in many families it is a relic of pride, often laminated or framed and hung on a wall. It supposedly certifies a person’s competence and qualification for a job in their field.

When I came back to Davao almost 10 years ago to get involved in our family business, one of the first things I did was to go over our employee application process. My dad had long ago designed a test for applicants to take which involved basic arithmetic — adding long rows of numbers, subtraction, multiplying by 3 digits, division, etc. I remember he made me take that same test when I was just a kid dragged to the office and being bored to tears.

I thought that test was no longer applicable. Who adds rows of numbers by hand anyway? And why would there be a need for that when calculators and computers can do the job faster and with better accuracy?

So I wrote a new set of tests. In my mind, it was simple and would simply serve as a simple baseline check of the skills of the applicants. Any college graduate ought to be able to pass the test, I thought. Heck, even an elementary graduate ought to pass the test.

The first part consisted of having around 5 words per number and all the person had to do was arrange those words in alphabetical order.

This had a practical application. We run a retail drugstore and one of the tasks of the employee was to arrange some products in alphabetical order.

The second part consisted of basic arithmetic. John buys 3 tablets of brand X at 3.25 per tablet. How much does he have to pay? He gives you 20 pesos. How much is his change? Nothing harder than that — just real-life figures with real-life examples.

We used to require that our applicants be college graduates, so over the years, we’ve had hundreds of people with diplomas taking that test and the results are dismal — more than half of those failed.

What does it mean when hundreds of college graduates can’t pass a simple test consisting of items that I would have encountered when I was in sixth grade? What does that piece of paper mean then?

These days, we no longer require that our applicants be college graduates. They come, they get trained, and what makes them succeed will be their attitude, their willingness to learn, and their ability to assess situations and solve problems that come their way.

If they perform and if they are up to the task, I don’t even need to know what that piece of paper says and I don’t need to see their transcript nor their grades.

In the business world, only results matter.

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Originally published in Sunstar Davao.