Children are not railroad trains

"Timetables! We act as if children were railroad trains running on a schedule. The railroad man figures that if his train is going to get to Chicago at a certain time, then it must arrive on time at every stop along the route. If it is ten minutes late getting into a station, he begins to worry. In the same way, we say that if children are going to know so much when they go to college, then they have to know this much at the end of this grade, and that at the end of that grade. If a child doesn’t arrive at one of these intermediate stations when we think he should, we instantly assume that he is going to be late at the finish. But children are not railroad trains. They don’t learn at an even rate. They learn in spurts, and the more interested they are in what they are learning, the faster these spurts are likely to be." ~ John Holt, How Children Learn (1984), p155

John has certainly identified the problem, the question is, how would we build our system differently?

A lot of people have identified this problem, but I have seen less solutions to it than people expressing their outrage at it. It is certainly true, we do treat children like railroad trains, and expect far too much regularity in how they learn.

Further, our education system has become more like an accelerating railroad train in which each year children are expected to be able to do more sooner. Algebra in 8th grade. Reading in kindergarten. Essays in 5th grade. Why do we feel the need to keep up with the Joneses?

Designing a new system will be tremendously difficult. We have an enormous amount of cultural inertia in our current system. It is a difficult problem! How can we take a system wherein we fund students to attend school at a ratio of one teacher for every 20 children (on average) and find ways for each of these children to learn everything we feel is important in order for them to become adults?

Here are some suggestions, which are by no means exhaustive.

  1. Trim the list to that which is really important.
  2. Cultivate a desire to learn more, and the ability to learn for oneself.




  • An excellent topic, David.

    One of the things we’re trying to express through the BC’s Education Plan is the notion that not all kids learn the same way and at the same rate, and that perhaps our system as a whole can do a better job of accommodating that. Of course there are pockets where this is being done now, but how do we make it more broad scale? And what can we at the Ministry of Education do to help facilitate this?

    We’ll be following the conversation here with great interest.

    BC Ed Plan team

  • Cindy Miller wrote:

    I’m glad you don’t have more than two suggestions – the ones you put forward are HUGE tasks, especially the second. We need the help of the broader community for that one. Right now, I see too many students who are not only disengaged from school, but are disconnected from society and life. So what can we do at school? How can the Ministry of Education help? First, we need to put actually put in place a system that actually values what what we say we value. As a citizen and teacher, I want students who are part of their community, who are thoughtful, creative, critical and confident. Some ideas of mine:

    A greater emphasis on the humanities – we need to think about what makes us human, how we treat each other, what kind of world we want. We can have all the technology, science, etc we want but if it doesn’t lead to better lives for all, what’s the point. I believe reading fiction, imagining other worlds, considering the impact of actions (ethics) and learning to see the complexity of situations rather than as black/white lead to a more thoughtful and kind society.

    Build and maintain a sense of community – in the pursuit of individualization, we risk losing compassion and connection to others. While I don’t now what this might look like in BC ED Plan it might be that cohorts are created which have a variety of ages that spend some time together every day working on a project, reading and writing in the humanities, engaging in ‘big ideas’, presenting their learning in areas of individual interest to others… The importance of this was driven home in a recent Grade12 project. Students were to create a visual product that reflected the ideas in a poem from the Aboriginal poetry unit. Some were amazing, some were so-so, but all were engaged and proud of their work and shared it with the class.

    Get rid of grades/marks – move to a pass/not there yet system. The criteria for passing needs to be at a level that is similar to what we consider ‘fully meeting’ in the BC Performance Standards, not merely “minimally meeting”. This would allow for both high standards and time for those who need more time to reach the bar.

    Finally, we need to recognize that changing education is a huge task and requires lots of support for all – students, teachers, parents, the public. If the support isn’t there, I fear that the current changes will meet the same fate as the Year 2000 project.

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