Last fall, when I was brainstorming a new project with one of my classes, a student of mine summed up all the ideas that we had and articulated what the project would look like. I said that it sounded right and the rest of the group agreed and I told him he did a really good job in his paraphrasing. He stretched his hands wide and said, “Yes! I am not stupid in one of my classes!” It was an amazing moment and I am glad that he was able to feel this way in my class, but it also made me cringe. How can a young person flourish in an environment where they are made to feel stupid throughout most of the day?

This student is extremely bright, a little bit of an instigator and a gossip, but I know that he has much knowledge that I don’t. Yes, he still has much to learn and yes, he needs to be challenged to think critically about his thoughts and ideas, but being made to feel stupid is not going to encourage his growth.

I see this often in my work. Incredibly able students who are unhappy in a school environment that encourages conformity rather than creativity. I think of Tolstoy’s quote, “education is culture in chains” and feel that this accurately describes the environment of many of the institutions of learning I have visited.

I have things to teach my students that they don’t know, but they also have things to teach me that I don’t know. As an educator if this dynamic is ignored and one tries to force the knowledge that one has onto one’s students without allowing them an opportunity to share what they know an awfully unbalanced power dynamic is established. Students forced to learn something become resentful and/or feel that what they do know is not valued. This is what our current education system is based on. I know why my student feels stupid in his other classes. He is made to feel that way. The education system as it stands now wants young people to feel unprepared, to feel that they are lacking, to feel stupid so that they feel like they need school, that they need to be “educated”. 

To live is to learn. Education happens whether we are in school or not. Every experience provides us with something and if the education system were really about learning, growth and achieving one’s potential this would be acknowledged and the knowledge our students already have valued. School should be a structure where students are challenged to find the things they don’t know, think critically about their experiences and have the opportunity to teach and learn. All knowledge is valuable and no one should be made to feel stupid.